Sunday, March 30, 2008

Robin of Sherwood

Of the British shows which aired in the Eighties, perhaps none is better remembered than Robin of Sherwood. The series followed the adventures of Robin Hood, the outlaw of myth and legend, who in this show is appointed champion of the people by the mystical entity Herne, Lord of the Woods. Robin of Sherwood aired from 1984 to 1986 on ITV in the United Kingdom and on Showtime in the United States.

Robin of Sherwood was the creation of Richard Carpenter, then best known as the creator of the children's show Catweazle. In some respects Robin of Sherwood was the culmination of Carpenter's work until that time. He had already dealt with fantasy in Catweazle (which featured an 11th century wizard thrown forward through time to the 20th century) and, as the creator of the series Dick Turpin (with Sidney Cole, who had produced Danger Man, and Paul Knight, executive producer on The Adventures of Black Beauty), he had already dealt with outlaw heroes. Paul Knight, who had worked with Carpenter on Dick Turpin, was the original producer on the series. Carpenter's version of the Robin Hood legend would in many respects be positively legendary. Prior to Robin of Sherwood, no film or television adaptation of the Robin Hood myth had incorporated mythology into their storylines, nor had they included strong elements of fantasy. Despite the often fanstasic elements found in Robin of Sherwood, the show was also set apart from previous Robin Hood adaptations in being grounded in the real life history of England.

Initially, Carpenter had tried to sell Lord Lew Grade on the show. Unfortunately, Grade had experienced a number of flops in the early Eighties, from Raise the Titanic to Legend of the Lone Ranger, resulting in problems within his organisation. As a result, Grade simply could not do the show. In the end Carpenter went to HTV (a contractor for ITV) and Goldcrest Films (who had produced Chariots of Fire and Gandhi), with additional backing provided by the American Showtime premium movie channel.

Robin of Sherwood would be blessed with one of the best casts for any show of its type. Carpenter and Knight decided upon Michael Praed in the pivotal role of Robin after seeing him in the West End production of Pirates of Penzance. Following the show Praed would go onto a good deal more success on stage, in plays ranging from Carousel to Sleuth. He would also play Phineas Fogg in The Secret Adventures of Jules Verne. Ray Winstone, cast as Will Scarlet, would go onto appear in such films as Sexy Beast and King Arthur. Clive Mantle, cast as Little John, would go onto appear in the shows Casuality and The Vicar of Dibley. One regular on the show was not meant to be a part of the cast. Mark Ryan was cast in the role of Nasir, the Saracen henchman of the villainous Baron De Belleme in the first episode. Originally, Nasir would have died in combat with Robin Hood. Mark Ryan got along with the cast very well and Nasir showed all the signs of possibly becoming a very popular character. Producer Paul Knight then thought that they should not kill Nasir off, but make him a regular on the show. Richard Carpenter, all too aware of the inauthenticity of having a Saracen running around Sherwood Forrest, had his doubts, but eventually came around to the idea.

The stunt coordinator on Robin of Sherwood was Terry Walsh, who already had considerable experience with medieval fantasy. He had been stunt coordinator on the films Dragonslayer and Krull. Walsh arranged a "boot camp" for the actors in which they could learn those skills necessary for medieval combat--swordsmanship, archery, the use of the quarterstaff, and riding.

The music on the series was provided by Irish folk group Clannad. Oddly enough, although they wrote the music for the series, the group never saw an episode of the show. Each year Paul Knight would visit the band in Ireland to pick up approximately an hour of music for use on the show.

Robin of Sherwood was very much an upscale production. Much of the series was filmed on location around the woods of Bristol, where the trees are a bit more period than those now in Sherwood Forest (fir trees having been imported in the 19th century). It was also shot on locations ranging from the Saxon Tithe Barn in Bradford-on Avon, Great Chalfield Manor in Melksham, Farleigh Hungerford Castle, and Lacock Abbey.

Robin of Sherwood debuted on HTV in the United Kingdom and Showtime in the United States in April 1984. The show became an almost immediate success, swiftly developing a cult following. Fan clubs on both side of the Pond were formed in very short order. Michael Praed would become something of a sex symbol for women in both the United Kingdom and the United States.

Despite its success, all would not go smoothly for Robin of Sherwood. After the second series, Michael Praed was offered the role of D'Artagnan in a musical version of The Three Musketeers. Feeling this was not a chance he could pass up, Praed then left the show. The producers were then faced with the fact of finding another leading man. They considered such actors as Simon Dutton, Paul McGann, Jason Carter, and Neil Morrissey before finally casting Jason Connery, son of Sean Connery (who had played Robin Hood in the movie Robin and Marion), in the role. That having been said, Connery did not play the same character as Praed. Praed had played Robin of Loxley, an English yeoman. Recalling that in some legends Robin was a nobleman, Carpenter made Herne's new champion Robin of Huntingdon, son of the Earl of Huntingdon.

Such a change in leading men could hurt other shows severely, but Robin of Sherwood continued to be a success in its third series. Ultimately, it was not declining popularity that would result in the cancellation of Robin of Sherwood, but simple economics. In the mid Eighties Goldcrest saw a downturn in its film division. Box office flops such as Revolution, The Mission, and Absolute Beginners cost the studio millions. Since Robin of Sherwood was a very expensive show to make, it was cancelled to cut costs.

While it would end after its third series, Robin of Sherwood would maintain a cult following to this day. Indeed, it would be one of the most influential adaptations of the Robin Hood myth ever made. It was the first such adaptation of the Robin Hood legend to incorporate a strong does of magic and mythology into its plots. Other adaptations, from Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves to The New Adventures of Robin Hood (both low points in the long history of the characters), would follow suit to some degree or another. It was also one of the first adaptations of the legend to be placed in a gritty, realistic, medieval setting. Other adaptations, including BBC's most recent Robin Hood series, would follow suit. It was also the fist adaptation of the myth to introduce a Saracen character, something repeated in such adaptations as Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.

Robin of Sherwood has proven to be the most popular Robin Hood series besides The Adventures of Robin Hood with Richard Greene. It has maintained a cult following to this day. Indeed, it was released on DVD in the United Kingdom in 2002 and in the United States and Canada in 2007. I think it is safe its popularity will continue for some time.


Toby O'B said...

I have the LP (woosh, I'm old!) of Clannad's "Robin the Hooded Man" and used to listen to it for very blissful background music while working on the computer.

I've only seen a handful of episodes - picked up the VCR copy of one about Herne the Hunter, and the others during free Showtime weekends. I'll have to add this series to Netflix. (I've already got the Richard Greene version in my queue.)

Unknown said...

I am a big fan of the Donegal Irish Trad group Clannad... but alas! I have never seen this program.

Mikeachim said...

Great post.

I'm currently watching them on DVD. Yes, a great show (for the time - it is occasionally intolerably cheesy in places compared to popular modern shows). It had that indefinable essential quality, 'feel'. The gorgeous Clannad music helped, as did the strange, semi-surreal Herne The Hunter thread running through it.

Cancelled at a time when it was strongest. Horrible shame. But nice, in a way.

Randal Graves said...

I've never seen this series, but have heard good things from those that have, and they said it's much better than the newest incarnation from a few years back.