Robin of Sherwood: TV’s Best Interpretation of the Robin Hood Legend

Over 30 years since it ended, we remember classic historical fantasy series Robin Of Sherwood...

The Robin Hood legend has been retold in countless ways, but one of the most memorable of modern times is Richard Carpenter’s hugely influential 1980s imagining, telling the story of Sherwood’s band of outlaws with a combination of realism and luminous fantasy with its roots in British folklore.

Made by HTV in association with production company Goldcrest Films (which was also behind Chariots Of Fire and Gandhi), its 26 episodes ran on ITV from 1984 to 1986, garnering a positive critical reception and inspiring a fan following that’s still enthusiastically active today.

Much of the success of the show was down to the spot-on casting and the chemistry between the performers. Michael Praed’s charismatic-yet-otherworldly presence as Robin was the perfect match for the show’s aesthetic, and the more down-to-earth Little John, played by Clive Mantle, was his ideal right-hand man. Ray Winstone had already appeared in Scum, Quadrophenia, and the gangland drama Fox, establishing his gritty credentials and bringing a tougher, darker energy to the band of outlaws (no longer in green tights and not called the Merry Men, at least not on screen) as a tormented and vengeful Will Scarlet. Judi Trott was an intelligent, determined Marion who held her own fighting with the rest of the outlaws, with a pre-Raphaelite look that complemented Praed’s fey athleticism.

Peter Llewellyn Williams, who played Robin’s foster brother Much, was only nineteen when filming began, and had no formal training – but in fact most of the outlaw side of the cast were not much older than he was, with Phil Rose, who played the kind and knowledgeable Tuck, being the oldest of the band, in his early thirties when filming began. Carpenter was clear from the beginning that he wanted the outlaws to feel like young, idealistic revolutionaries, plucky underdog Saxons in a class struggle against the colonising Normans, represented onscreen by Nickolas Grace’s perpetually bad-tempered Sheriff of Nottingham and Robert Addie’s hapless Guy of Gisbourne.

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Robin Of Sherwood brought new elements to the centuries-old Robin Hood story, and incorporated them so fully that they have become part of the legend itself – until Robin of Sherwood, the outlaws never had a Muslim companion. The introduction of the Saracen ex-assassin Nasir (played by Mark Ryan) came about more or less by accident, but the character’s presence was significant enough that the writers of Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves included their own Muslim character, under the impression that this was a standard element of the Robin Hood legend.

Later retellings have followed suit. The pagan flavor of the series has also made its way into the popular imagination – Carpenter decided that Robin would not just be a man who decided to fight an oppressive regime, but would be specially chosen for his destiny by Herne the Hunter, an antlered forest god who spoke to Robin via the (consensual) possession of an unnamed shaman, played by John Abineri.

The idea that Herne would choose a spiritual son to represent him came in handy when, at the end of the second series, Michael Praed decided to leave the show to pursue a career on Broadway. His departure came in the iconic episode The Greatest Enemy, in which Robin sacrifices himself to save his friends. It could have spelled the end for Robin Of Sherwood, but Carpenter’s solution was ingenious – the Robin Hood legend had always been hazy on whether Robin was a commoner or a nobleman – so what if there were two Robins?

After Paul McGann, Jason Carter, and Neil Morrissey tried out for the role, Jason Connery was cast as Robert of Huntingdon, son of the Earl of Huntingdon, a young noble called to be Herne’s new son and take on the mantle of the Hooded Man, and the leadership of Robin’s former band of outlaws.

In spite of the new elements the show brought to the legend, it stuck to tradition in placing the outlaws in the 12th century, where the backdrop of Richard the Lionheart and the Crusades gave Carpenter the opportunity to explore interesting political themes. Robin and his followers were revolutionary heroes to the downtrodden Saxon peasantry, and the series made much of the idea of a true English people striking a blow against the colonising Normans. The outlaws didn’t just rob from the rich and give to the poor – they fought oppression and stood for a better, fairer England.

Where earlier versions of the story often included King Richard as a positive, noble figure, and his brother Prince John as the villain taking advantage of the opportunity for power while Richard is away on a crusade, Robin of Sherwood’s King Richard only cares about war and power and manipulates Robin for his own ends, proving that even a seemingly benevolent colonizer still doesn’t have the colonized’s best interests at heart.

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These kinds of down-to-earth political stories, with Robin and the gang usually saving peasants from greedy nobles or churchmen – and slaughtering a few of the sheriff’s guards along the way – made up a good chunk of the show’s material, but there was plenty of room too for supernatural stories – witches, demons, sorcerers and curses all featured – and more personal ones, like Marian’s fight to be considered an equal by the other outlaws, Little John’s ongoing romance with Meg, and the revelation of Robert and Gisbourne’s unexpected personal connection.

Shot on film and almost entirely on location, Robin Of Sherwood made use of real forests and castles, giving the show an authentic look that couldn’t have been achieved with tailor-made sets – even if the filming of the first series was constantly halted by rain. In a stroke of genius, some scenes filmed at castles in disrepair were stocked with background actors playing construction workers, to give the illusion that the castle was half built instead of half falling down.

(The team on Robin of Sherwood were masters of low-tech but effective solutions – the Sheriff of Nottingham’s gold regalia was allegedly made of spray-painted biscuits.)

The lack of a fixed set was occasionally an issue behind the scenes – when Robin and Gisbourne had to wrestle in mud in the episode Alan A Dale, Michael Praed and Robert Addie had to race each other to the single shower between takes to use the meagre supply of hot water. In fact, the mud wrestling scene was a catalogue of disasters – Robert Addie’s fake chain mail (made of spray-painted string) shrank in the water and almost choked him, Michael Praed nearly drowned, and the whole scene had to be reshot after the original tape was somehow destroyed.

(Perhaps they were just having an unlucky week – the script for the episode also called for a swarm of angry bees, played by some horseflies, but the horsefly performers were so involved in the meat provided to keep them happy until they were needed that they refused to swarm, and dubiously successful special effects had to be employed instead.)

As well as the locations, part of the show’s strong visual identity was down to Ian Sharp’s adventurous directing work – originally supposed to only direct three episodes in the first season, Sharp was asked to direct them all to give the series a cohesive look, and given free rein to experiment. The result was a misty, mythic feel which directors for the later episodes were able to emulate. Richard Carpenter also wrote almost all of the scripts himself, giving the show consistent storytelling that sometimes allowed for arching storylines, like the outlaws’ gradual acceptance of Robert in the third season. Anthony Horowitz, still early in his career at that point, also wrote several episodes in the final season.

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The historical accuracy of the series extended to the fight choreography – before filming began, stunt co-ordinator Terry Walsh held a boot camp for the actors, teaching them to ride, fight and use bows and arrows as authentically as possible. The actors all did a certain amount of their own stunts, and doubles were only brought in for things they found too challenging. While working on the series, Terry Walsh came up with three sword-fighting moves – known as Robin Hood 1, 2, and 3 – which have become standard for choreographing background performers in fight scenes.

The ethereal soundtrack, provided by Irish folk-rock-new-age band Clannad, was another essential part of the show’s atmosphere. The story goes that Mark Ryan and Clive Mantle heard their music while driving together to a filming location for the first season, and were so convinced that this was the ideal music for the show that they insisted producer Paul Knight listen to it. Legend, the album of Clannad’s music for the show, won a BAFTA in 1985 for Best Original Television Music.

Airing in the mid-1980s, when media fandom as we know it was gathering speed, Robin Of Sherwood inspired a large fannish following, with zines full of fanfiction and lively discussion. Richard Carpenter was one of the first show creators to become actively and benevolently involved with fandom, often reading zines and sometimes even contributing his own thoughts. He requested that fans not write slash (male/male romantic or erotic stories) featuring the main cast of outlaws, but interestingly he gave his blessing to stories in which the sheriff was portrayed as gay, as well as one-episode camp-evil villain Philip Mark, and background outlaws Tom and Dickon (their romantic relationship was suggested and intended but never explicitly mentioned onscreen, and they died during the opening two-parter).

Fans were shocked by the show’s sadly abrupt ending – even the cast thought there would be a fourth season until days before filming was due to begin, but financial problems prevented it – and there were numerous attempts to revive it as both a film and another television series, as well as tie-in media including novelizations, an annual, game books and various different videos and DVDs, even a recent Blu-ray release. The will to continue telling the story was still there, as was the audience, but none of these attempts was successful until recently, when, almost exactly thirty years since the series ended, most of the main cast reunited to record an audio drama adaptation of an unfilmed script by Richard Carpenter, who sadly died in 2012. (Robert Addie also passed away, in 2003 – Gisbourne’s role in the audio play is taken over by Freddie Fox.)

The drama – The Knights Of The Apocalypse – was crowdfunded on Indiegogo, where it stirred up so much excitement that it tripled its original target and went on to sell even more copies once the campaign was closed. Set after the final episode of the original series, the drama follows the outlaws battling “their most dangerous enemy yet”, in a story that might at last provide a real ending for the long-unfinished story.

Robin Of Sherwood may be over, but the legend lives on. Nothing is forgotten. Nothing is ever forgotten.

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This article first appeared on Den of Geek UK.

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