Friday, May 7, 2010

The Adventures of Robin Hood Revisited

With Ridley Scott's new movie Robin Hood coming out later this month, I thought it would be a good idea to revisit what was only the second television series about Robin Hood and the first to be seen in the United States. That series was The Adventures of Robin Hood, starring Richard Greene as the famous outlaw, Alan Wheatley as the Sheriff of Nottingham, Archie Duncan as Little John, and Friar Tuck played by Alexander George. The series ran for five years, from 1955 to 1960.

The origins of The Adventures of Robin Hood are tied to the history of television broadcasting in the United Kingdom. While in the United States, a model of radio and later television broadcasting developed in which broadcasting was privately owned and financed by the sale of advertisements or commercials. In the United Kingdom  a very different model of broadcasting developed, that of public television, whereby a broadcaster (the BBC, in the case of the United Kingdom) receives their funding from the public (in the case of the BBC, the annual television licence fee). When regularly scheduled television broadcasts began in Britain in 1947, like radio, they were public, with BBC the sole television broadcaster. It was as early as 1949 that  there were those in the British government who suggested that perhaps British television broadcasting would be better served if the BBC did not have a monopoly and private broadcasting should be allowed to exist. It was in 1951, when the BBC's licence was renewed, that modifications were made that would leave the back door open for commercial broadcasting. This would soon lead to what became nearly an outcry for the existence of private broadcasting in the United Kingdom.

It was then on 30 July, 1954 that the Television Act 1954 came into law. It was under this act that the Independent Television Authority was established, the agency which would oversee commercial television, from awarding franchises to insuring that the commercial networks operated in good taste. It was in 1955 that the United Kingdom's oldest commercial network, ITV was established. It began broadcasting on 22 September, 1955. Of course, the existence of commercial broadcasters meant that there would have to be companies to provide content for those broadcasters. It was in 1954 that entertainment mogul Lord Lew Grade founded the Incorporated Television Programme Company, soon renamed the Independent Television Company, but better known throughout its history by its initials ITC. Initially ITC made a bit for a franchise to the Independent Television Authority, but that bid was rejected as it was felt that the Grade family's considerable power within the entertainment industry (they owned everything from theatre interests to talent agencies) could create a monopoly. While ITC failed to win a franchise, it would play what may have been a much more important role in the history of British--producing television series.

Even after the passage of the Television Act 1954, there were many who expressed the concern that commercial broadcasting would lead to television franchises catering to the lowest common denominator, much in the way it was perceived the American networks did at the time. For many it was of utmost importance that all broadcasters maintain the high standards established by the BBC. While Lord Grade agreed with this, he also thought that they would have to create content that would not only be high in quality, but appeal to a broad cross section of the audience so as to better sell advertising. It was then that, while many in Parliament thought television should be filled with high quality dramas, Lord Lew Grade thought it should be filled with adventure series that could even be sold abroad.

Curiously, it would be an American who would deliver to Lord Lew Grade a show that would not only have high standards, but would also have enough action, adventure, and humour to not only sell adverts in Britain, but to succeed abroad. That American was Hannah Weinstein. A journalist and former reporter for the New York Herald Tribune who had been active in the campaigns of Franklin Roosevelt and Henry Wallace, her politics leaned decidedly to the left. It was because McCarthyism had made it unsafe for prominent liberals in the United States that she left her native United States in the early 1950's for England. It was there that she set up a television production company named Sapphire Films to produce series for British commercial television. Miss Weinstein had noted that British history had become very popular in both literature and film in the United States. She then thought that Sapphire Films should produce these sorts of shows. She had an idea to do a show about either King Arthur or Robin Hood.

Here it should be pointed out that  Miss Weinstein's idea for a Robin Hood series was hardly new. In fact, a show about the famous archer had already aired on British television. Patrick Troughton, who would one day play The Doctor on Doctor Who, starred as the outlaw in Robin Hood, a series which ran for six episodes on the BBC in 1953. Sadly, no episodes of the series are known to have survived. It would be up to Hannah Weinstein to create a series about the archer that would be remembered for ages.

At the time Hannah Weinstein had only a few contacts in England, but among them was entertainment mogul Lew Grade. Hannah Weinstein's idea for a new Robin Hood series fit in perfectly with Lord Grade's vision for British commercial television. It was an idea rooted in English history that could be done within high standards and yet at the same time have enough action, adventure, and humour to appeal to a mass audience. Lord Grade committed to buying 39 episodes of the series. The Adventures of Robin Hood would be an expensive show to produce, at about $14,000 in American currency at the time. Indeed, the series would cost nearly three fourths of ITC's budget for programmes. The sheer cost of the show made The Adventures of Robin Hood a very costly gamble. At the time commercial television was a total unknown in the United Kingdom and no one could know if any commercial show would make a profit, let alone even break even.

In need of a studio where the show could be shot, Hannah Weinstein found Nettlefold Studios in Walton-on-Thames. The studio had a long history in film, having been established in 1899. Among the films shot there had been were Michael Powell's Hotel Splendide (1932), early Hammer production The Mystery of Maria Celeste (1935), the classic 1951 version of A Christmas Carol starring Alastair Sim, and the 1952 version of The Pickwick Papers. The production sought to present a fairly accurate view of English life in the 1200's, with sets based on parchments from the British Museum and also on Harlech Castle, Farleigh Hungerford Castle, and Framlingham Castle. While much of the show was shot on a soundstage, it also involved some shooting on location. Scenes were shot at Alnwick Castle in Northumberland, Bodiam Castle in Sussex, Allington Castle in Kent, and various other castles. For outdoor scenes, the production often used the English countryside, including sites in Kent and Surrey (it should not be surprising that first time viewers might recognise some of these locations, as they would late be used in shows ranging from The Avengers to Perfect Scoundrels).

Art director Peter Proud had served in the British Army in World War II as second in command of camouflage in the Middle East. He was even credited with the invention of a new system of concealed entrenchment. He put his skills to good work on The Adventures of Robin Hood.  While on the show he developed a new system for designing sets based on interchangeable modules. As even the most remote areas of England were not entirely free of the signs of modern civilisation, he also insured that while on location no modern highways, power lines, or other signs of the 20th century would accidentally appear on the show.

As might be expected of someone who had fled the United States because of the rise of McCarhtyism, Hannah Weinstein hired writers blacklisted for alleged Communist ties in the United States. Ring Lardner Jr., who had written both Laura (1944) and Forever Amber (1947), was one of the Hollywood Ten, ten screenwriters who was called before the  House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1947 to answer questions about Communist influence in the film industry and refused to answer any of the committee's questions. Not only was he found in contempt of Congress, fined $1000, and sentence to a year in prison, he also found himself blacklisted. Unable to find work in the United States, he moved to England. While working in the United States English screenwriter Ian McLellan Hunter had fronted for another one of the Hollywood Ten, Dalton Trumbo on Roman Holiday (1953). He soon found himself blacklisted and returned to England. In 1951 Waldo Salt, who had written The Philadelphia Story (1940),  refused to testify before HUAC and was blacklisted as a result. The blacklisted writers wrote using a variety of pseudonyms so that no one would know who was actually writing the show, lest, according to Mr. Lardner in his biography, "the network people in New York might ask to meet one of us for the prospect of other work."

From the beginning it had been decided that The Adventures of Robin Hood would be as historically accurate as a television show could possibly be at the time. It is for this reason that English historians were consulted in making this show. This would actually find its way in the plots of some of the episodes. Some episodes were based around English medieval law. "The Final Tax" involved peasants distressed by the heriot or the death duty under which a lord could seize the property of serfs who have died. "A Year and a Day" was based around the law under which a peasant who had escaped serfdom and lived in a city for a year and a day would become a free man. Other episodes drew upon instances from the old Robin Hood ballads. "Dead or Alive," the first season episode in which Little John is introduced, includes the famous quarterstaff battle between Robin and John which had originated in the ballad "Robin Hood and Little John." The first season episode "Maid Marion," in which the character of that name is introduced, Marian disguises herself as a boy much as she did in the ballad "Robin Hood and Maid Marian." "A Guest for the Gallows" blends the plots of two ballads together, as Robin disguises himself as a butcher (using elements from "Robin Hood and the Butcher") to save Will Stutely from the gallows (using part of the plot of "Robin Hood Rescuing Will Stutely").

Not only would The Adventures of Robin Hood involve top notch writers and one of the greatest set designers of all time (Peter Proud), but its production team would also include individuals who had already made the mark on British entertainment or soon would. While Hannah Weinstein served as the series' executive producer, Sidney Cole, who had produced films for Ealing Studios, served first as the show's associate producer and later producer. He would go onto produce Danger Man. Ralph Smart had written several British films since 1930 and began directing films in 1949. He would direct several episodes of The Adventures of Robin Hood, as well as write a few. Not only would he go onto write, direct, or produce several of Miss Weinstein's other series, he would also go onto create the Fifties British series The Invisible Man and the classic spy series Danger Man.

For the lead role of Robin of Locksley, better known as Robin Hood, actor Richard Greene was cast. Prior to World War II, Mr. Greene had actually been a matinee idol with a successful film career. He appeared as Henry Baskerville in Fox's classic 1939 adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervillles (the first movie feature Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson), and as Gareth Tyce in Stanley and Livingstone (1939). During the war Richard Greene distinguished himself with the 27th Lancers. Unfortunately, he would not see the same success in film following the war as he had before. Although he received good notices for his performance in Forever Amber (1949), he would soon found himself typecast in adventure films, which included Rogue's March (1953) and Captain Scarlett (1953). As a result Mr. Greene increasingly turned to the stage for work. Unfortunately this, coupled with a divorce, left him in dire financial straits. When offered the lead in The Adventures of Robin Hood, he took it. The series' success would insure his financial security until his death.

In the role of the Sheriff of Nottingham, actor Alan Wheatley was cast. Mr. Wheatley had been an industrial psychologist and later turned to acting on radio. In the Thirties he appeared in several early television productions, including Julius Caesar and The Tempest. Following the war he appeared in such films as Casesar and Cleopatra (1945) and Whispering Smith Hits London (1951). In 1951 he starred as Sherlock Holmes in the BBC series of the same name. Actor Archie Duncan was cast in the role of Little John. He had appeared in such films as The Elusive Pimpernel (1950) and The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), and he had even a role in a Robin Hood film prior to The Adventures of Robin Hood. He played Red Gill in 1952's The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men. In television he had appeared as the legendary smith Weland in an adaptation of Rudyard Kipling's "Weland's Sword" on the series Puck of Pook's Hill in 1951 and as Inspector Lestrade on the 1953-1954 series of Sherlock Holmes. For five episodes, after Archie Ducncan was recovering from he had sustained on the set while saving children from some falling scenery, the role of Little John was played by Rufus Cruickshank. For rescuing the children, Mr. Duncan received the Queen's medal for bravery.

Friar Tuck would be played by Alexander Gauge. Mr. Gauge had made his film debut in The Interrupted Journey in 1949 and went onto appear in such films as Mother Riley Meets the Vampire (1952), The Pickwick Papers (1952), Beau Brummell (1954), and The Hornet's Nest (1955). During the run of the series Maid Marian would be played by two actresses. The first was Bernadette O'Farrell, who played the role from 1955 to 1957. The young Irish actress had made her film debut in 1947's Captain Boycott and went onto appear in Lady Godiva Rides Again (1951) and The  Story of Gilvert and Sullivan (1953). She left The Adventures of Robin Hood in 1957, despite letters from viewers begging her not to do so. The role was taken over by another young Irish actress Patricia Driscoll, who would play the role until the series ended in 1960. Patrici Driscoll had appeared in the films Silent Witness (1954) and Timeslip (1955), and also had a recurring role on the series The Other Man in 1956. At the time in Britain she was perhaps best known as the presenter of Picture Book, a children's show, from 1955 to 1957.

Throughout its run The Adventures of Robin Hood would feature actors who would one day become famous. Among the best known actors to appear on the show was Donald Pleasance, one of the actors who played Prince John. He appeared in the role five times. Leo McKern, who would later gain fame as Number Two on The Prisoner and Rumpole of the Bailey, appeared in two episodes, including the pilot. Patrick Troughton, who had played Robin Hood in the previous BBC series and would gain fame as Dr. Who, appeared in eight episodes. Wilfrid Brambell, who would later gain fame as Albert Steptoe on Steptoe and Son and appear as Paul McCartney's grandfather in A Hard Day's Night, guest starred in two episodes. Peter Asher, who would go onto fame as part of singing duo Peter and Gordon, guest starred as young Prince Arthur in four episodes of the show. His sister, Jane Asher, who would find success as an actress and model in the Sixties and fame as Paul McCartney's girl friend, guest starred on four episodes. Edward Mulhare, who would later star in The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, would appear in nine episodes of the show. 

The famous theme song was written by American composer Carl Sigman, perhaps best known for having co-written "Pennsylvania 6-5000" with Glenn Miller. The song was sung by Dick James, who would become more famous for founding Northern Songs Ltd. with John Lennon and Paul McCartney to publish The Beatles' songs. Dick James would hit #14 on the British singles charts with "Robin Hood" backed by another TV theme, "The Ballad of Davy Crockett." In 1956 Gary Miller released his own version which was an even bigger hit. It reached #10 on the British singles chart and spent 28 weeks in total on the chart.

The Adventures of Robin Hood would be one of the first shows ever produced for ITV specifically and for British commercial television in general. Curiously, the United Kingdom would not be the first place it was ever aired. On 22 September, 1955, the very day that commercial broadcasting began in Britain, The Adventures of Robin Hood  made its world debut in Canada at 6:00 PM Central Time on Toronto's CBC station, CBLT. British viewers would have to wait until 25 September, 1955 at 5:30 PM on Associated Television (ATV) in London. In the United States The Adventures of Robin Hood debuted on 26 September, 1957 at 7:30 PM Eastern Time/6:30 PM Central Time. In the United Kingdom new episodes would continue to air until 12 November, 1960. In the United States, CBS aired The Adventures of Robin Hood in primetime until 22 September, 1958. On 4 October, 1958 the series moved to Saturday mornings where both reruns and new episodes would be shown. It remained a part of the CBS Saturday morning line up until 26 September, 1959. Ever since the show ended in 1960, it has aired around the world in syndication. From 2008 into 2009 in Region 1, Mill Creek Entertainment released all four seasons of the series on DVD.

The Adventures of Robin Hood proved enormously popular on both sides of the Atlantic particularly with young boys. Not surprisingly, this would result in a good deal of merchandise. Louis Marx and Company produced a playset tied into The Adventures of Robin Hood, complete with plastic figures made to resemble the cast. In 1956 Bilt-Rite produced a jigsaw puzzle based on the show. As might expected, there were books published which tied in with the series. Rand McNally published an Elf  Book entitled The Adventures of Robin and His Merry Men based on the show. As the character Robin Hood was in the public domain even then, the late Fifties saw  a boom in collections of Robin Hood stories and even new editions of such classic works as The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood by Howard Pyle. British biographer and children's book writer Roger Lancelyn Green even wrote his own retelling of the Robin Hood legend entitled The Adventures of Robin Hood. In the United States there was a boom in Robin Hood comic books even before the series began. Magazine Enterprises would publish an Adventures of Robin Hood comic book, tied into the series, from 1955 to 1957.

While The Adventures of Robin Hood had a large following among young boys on both sides of the Pond, there can be little doubt many adults watched the series as well. The cast was largely composed of veterans actors from the stage and screen, and this was reflected in the quality of their performances. The series was directed by such skilled directors as Ralph Smart, Terence Fisher (who would direct many classics for Hamemr Films), Don Chaffey (who would go onto direct episodes of Danger Man, The Avengers, and The Prisoner), and Lindsay Anderson (who would become famous as the director of such films as If..., O Lucky Man,  and The Whales of August). Of course, arguably the series strong suit was its scripts. Written by writers blacklisted in the United States who had considerable resumes in film, The Adventures of Robin Hood was very intelligently written.

Indeed, many of the episodes of the series had a basis in the contemporary British and even American politics of the day. In the first episode, "The Coming of Robin Hood," Robin of Locksley returns home from the Crusades to find his lands and castle occupied by the villainous Rodger de Lisle (played by Leo McKern). After tying to get his property back, Robin finds himself an outlaw. The episode's plot reflected the poor treatment veterans returning from World War II sometimes received in Britain. Written by writers who were victims of McCarthyism themselves, many of the episodes centred were based around the Communist witch hunts which had taken place in the United States in the Fifties. Indeed, "The Alchemist" involved a woman who nearly fell victim to a literal witch hunt, accused of being a witch after her son had smelted gold from stolen plates.In "The Intruders" villagers turn against Robin Hood after they falsely believe he has robbed htem. In "The Inquisitor" a corrupt inquisitor pressures Tuck to confess his loyalty to Robin. In "Goodbye, Little John," the Sheriff of Nottingham's deputy (John Arnatt) offers Little John a deal in exchange for a pardon.

Other episodes would deal with other contemporary themes. Prejudice was explored in the episodes "The Wanderer" and "The York Treasure," in which Jewish refugees face hatred for their ethnicity and religion. "The Infidel," in which a Saracen is falsely accused of murder, also dealt with religious prejudice. "A Tuck in Time" features a deadly war machine from the East which Tuck's evil twin plots to sell to Prince John, which would decidedly turn things in favour of the Normans. Deadly war machines would be all too familiar to a populace living in the shadow of the atomic bomb. In "Brother Battle, " Robin Hood must help a monk who has consistently been punished for his attempts to teach commoners to read.

Ultimately The Adventures of Robin Hood would prove that British commercial television was capable of producing shows of the same high standards as the BBC. It would also prove to be the first British television series to meet with real success in the United States, as such it would have a lasting influence on both British and American broadcasting. In the short term the success of The Adventures of Robin Hood would lead Hannah Weinstein and Sapphire Films to produce similarly themed adventure shows, most of which would find their way across the Pond: The Adventures of Sir Lancelot, The Buccaneers (starring a young Robert Shaw), and Sword of Freedom. Other companies in both the UK and the U.S. would follow suit with their own similarly themed shows, such as Wiliam Tell, Tales of the 77th Bengal Lancers, Tales of the Vikings, Ivanhoe (starring Roger More), Sir Francis Drake, and others.

In the long term, as the first real transatlantic hit, The Adventures of Robin Hood was probably responsible for the cycle of British adventures series that lasted from the Sixties into the Seventies. One of ITC's early attempts at  modern day adventure series, The Invisible Man from 1958, would find its way to the United States. Unfortunately it would not be the success of The Adventures of Robin Hood had been. ITC would produce more hits, some of which would be hugely successful on both sides of the Atlantic: Danger Man, The Saint, Man in a Suitcase, The Prisoner, The Champions and Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased).  Other companies would follow suit. Associated British Corporation (ABC) would produce such adventure series as The Avengers, The Protectors, and Callan. Even the BBC would produce its own adventure shows: Doctor Who and Adam Adamant Lives.  It can be argued that it was the success of The Adventures of Robin Hood which paved way for the many British adventure shows of the Sixties.

Arguably, it was also the fact that The Adventures of Robn Hood was a hit that paved the way for other British shows making their way across the Atlantic. The Adventures of Robin Hood proved that American audiences would watch a show produced in the United Kingdom and, what is more, that show could be a hit in America. In many respects it can be said that The Adventures of Robin Hood paved the way for Danger Man, The Avengers, The Saint, Are You Being Served, Keeping Up Appearances, Doctor Who, and every other British show which has aired on American television.

It even seems possible that The Adventures of Robin Hood may have had an impact on the modern day version of the Robin Hood legend. Robin Hood was portrayed as a returning crusader in Joachim H. Stocqueler's 1849 novel Maid Marian, The Forest Queen. The 1901 operetta Maid Marian by Reginald De Koven and Harry B. Smith also portrayed Robin Hood as being on a Crusade, albeit after his career as an outlaw in Sherwood Forest. Douglas Fairbanks' movie Robin Hood featured Robin as a returning crusader. Even after the highly successful Douglas Fairbanks film, however, it was a rare thing for Robin Hood to be portrayed as having returned from the Crusades. That is, until The Adventures of Robin Hood. The series begins as Robin of Loxley returns from the Crusades to find his property stolen. Since the TV series, Robin has been portrayed as a returning crusader in the 1991 movie Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Mel Brooks' 1993 parody Robin Hood: Men in Tights, and the 2006-2009 BBC series Robin Hood. While it is possible that Robin Hood having served in the Crusades was simply an idea whose time had come, it seems significant that The Adventures of Robin Hood did it prior to many other films and TV shows.

Since its original run ended in 1960, The Adventures of Robin Hood has been rerun endlessly around the world. In the early Naughts it was rerun on the Encore Action channel. Currently it is being shown on the small broadcast network RTV in the United States. In 2000 Marathon Music and Video released a set of 21 episodes on VHS. Several companies would release episodes of the series on DVD over the years. Alpha Video and Platinum Disc Corporation both released collections of episodes in 2004 and subsequent years. Starting in March 2008, Mill Creek Entertainment released the entire four seasons of the series, the fourth season set being released in 2009. They now have the complete run of the show available. Nearly fifty years after The Adventures of Robin Hood ended its run, it continues to draw viewers. This should not be surprising. It was not only a high quality series, but one that was historically ground breaking as well.

No comments: