This article comes from Den of Geek UK.
In the mid-eighties, my teenage sister amused herself by teaching me to say “a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle”. Not being a six-year-old well-versed in the rhetorical techniques of social emancipation, I didn’t get it. (I’d seen a flea circus; why mightn’t fish find a use for bikes?) My feminist awakening was obviously going to have to wait.
But not long, it turned out. One copy of Babette Cole’s Princess Smartypants picked from the Year Three reading table later and I was feeling pretty woke. So much so that when Maid Marian And Her Merry Men arrived on the BBC in 1989, I recognised its game and was delighted.
What if, imagined the series, Robin Hood was a cowardly dolt and Marian was the one with all the smart ideas about fighting injustice, robbing from the rich and giving to the poor? What if history, due to an intrinsic male bias and a silly misunderstanding, had reduced her to the part of the damsel while mistakenly valorising his heroism?
Maid Marian And Her Merry Men’s revisionist project was a tantalising prospect to a child whose eyes had recently been opened to the restrictive nature of normative gender roles in dominant cultural myth. And even more tantalising to a child who watched a medically unwise amount of TV in the eighties, it starred Elmo from Brush Strokes.
More properly known as Howard Lew Lewis, who played one of Marian’s titular men, Rabies. By far the least sharp tool in a box of extremely blunt instruments, Rabies was a sweet, loyal idiot. He was joined by Danny John Jules as Rasta spiv Berrington, Mike Edmonds as hardened warrior Little Ron and Wayne Morris as Robin, a foppish coward forced to give up his job in the Worksop rag trade when he became embroiled in a caper that left him on the wrong side of the Sheriff of Nottingham.
Enter, co-creator Tony Robinson in an itchy wig and fake goatee. Keen to play a baddie “after all those years of playing sweet, loveable Baldrick” on Blackadder, as Robinson explains on a rather self-critical episode one DVD commentary, he wrote himself a peach of a part in the Sheriff. Unlike Baldrick’s laconic delivery, Nottingham was a big talker. Instead of being on the receiving end of Edmund Blackadder’s lengthy, creative insults, he was dishing them out with a sneer.
Usually a sneer aimed in the direction of Norman castle guards Gary and Graeme (Mark Billingham, now a best-selling crime novelist, and David Lloyd, now a screenwriter). This pair’s friendly, innocent demeanour was entirely at odds with their role as violent enforcers of King John’s tyrannical court. More often than not, they and the Merry Men were far too dim to realise they stood on opposite sides in a class war and palled around together like a bunch of big kids.
The biggest kid of them all was King John, played by Forbes Collins as a cruel despot who lived for the non-existent adulation of his oppressed subjects. They extended to a gaggle of filthy peasants scratching out a meagre, mud-based existence in the town of Worksop. (A young Kellie Bright of T-Bag, The Upper Hand and now EastEnders fame, was a series one regular among them.)
The peasants of Worksop found their hero in Kate Lonergan’s luminous Marian, a scrappy, idealistic leader of (merry) men. Cut from the same cloth as Jo from Little Women or George from the Famous Five, Marian was what we used to call a tomboy and now just call a girl who does stuff while not worrying about what her hair’s up to.
(Marian’s hair, by the way, was amazing. Long, blonde, messy, fey and plaited with green wool, it was action-hair before Merida from Brave was even a pixel in her animation studio’s eye. And in series four, Marian took the pixie crop plunge years before Kate Moss made it a thing.)
Smart, resourceful and in charge, Marian was also a dreamer. When she wasn’t herding the cats she called Merry Men or holding the Sheriff at knife-point, she was usually giving a bright-eyed, impassioned speech about the outlaw lifestyle and her goal of “doing incredibly brave things like getting your ears pierced” and combatting “tyranny, injustice, cruelty to animals and stuff”.
It was a feminist show of its time, in hindsight a bit Smurfette in gender ratios (the only other female character of note was Marian’s longtime rival Rose) and unarguably part of the ‘clever eye-rolling girl tutting at the stupid boys’ trend that came to a head in Hermione Granger. Marian wasn’t however, a humourless babysitter. She was up for a scrap and a laugh, and as becomes clear on an adult re-watch, also had a lusty eye. (I don’t know if anyone wrote any Marian/Berrington fanfic back in the day, but man, that would have been hot.) Robinson explains on the DVD commentary, “There was a kind of innocence about most children’s television at that time, which didn’t seem to be anything like the children who were watching it. I just loved the idea of nakedness and Marian actually fancying rather rough boys.”
Inspired by the confidence and leadership of his then nine-year-old daughter, Robinson’s plan was to “write something where the girl was the hero and the boy who appeared to be the hero was actually a complete dickhead.” It was intended to be a historical comedy flecked with shades of Blackadder, but not a clone of the Richard Curtis and Ben Elton-written show.
In that, Robinson succeeded. With the addition of songs, from Berrington’s narrator-raps to parodies of contemporary hits, satirical asides to camera and deliberate anachronisms, Maid Marian wasn’t simply Blackadder for kids. The template it set was later filled by Horrible Histories and Yonderland, even the subversive pantomime anarchy of Cartoon Network’s current output.
It was also unabashedly political. Marian was a right-on social activist, down to her Swampy hair and Citizen Smith lapel badges. If there was a gag to make about contemporary government policy, the British justice system or Youth Training Schemes, Maid Marian And Her Merry Men made it. The adult-aimed jokes and references so recurrent in series four were there from the very beginning. The first series may have stuck more closely to revisionist takes on existing Robin Hood myths than in later years, but as early as episode two there’s a lengthy parody of TV darts coverage, while references to long-running BBC Radio 4 soap The Archers feature throughout.
All that, and we’ve yet to mention the theme song, composed by Nick Russell-Pavier and David Chilton and animated end-credits, etched firmly on the cranial lobes of anyone born between the years of 1977 and 1985. Here’s a reminder for anyone who requires it.
And finally, here’s a particularly fun moment in a show packed with particularly fun moments. See Robin O’Hood lead contestants Gary and Graeme around Sherwood Forest’s very own Crystal Maze…
Maid Marian And Her Merry Men series 1-4 is out now in a limited edition box-set, available to buy here.