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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

Robin of Sherwood: The Complete Collection (review)

Herne’s Son Returns

Anglophile TV fans have been waiting for this one for a long while: the complete Robin of Sherwood, 26 episodes of what some consider the definitive rendition of the Robin Hood story. Produced for British TV between 1984 and 1986, this is a realistic portrayal of cultural upheaval in the early 13th century, shot entirely on film and on location — both rarities in British TV at the time — with a stark nod to earthy nature and with a grim authenticity regarding the short, rough lives of the people of the time.
Unlike the current Robin Hood series that just wrapped its second season on BBC America, there’s a dash of mysticism mixed in with the mostly historical realism here: Robin of Loxley, son of a serf, is chosen by Herne, a forest demigod who appears incarnated as an ordinary man (think: pagan medicine man), to be Herne’s Son, the Hooded Man, champion of the downtrodden and oppressed. Of which there are many in Nottingham, where the Norman invaders are consolidating their hold on power in the form of the conniving sheriff, Robert de Rainault (Nickolas Grace: An Ideal Husband), and his lieutenant, the all-action, no-brains Guy of Gisbourne (Robert Addie).

Michael Praed’s fey Robin is an athletic swordsman, bowman, and fighter, but he’s far more compelling as a spiritual counter to the Normans and — in the most captivating aspect of this production — their coinvader, the Church. No other retelling of Robin Hood has recast the epic battle he fights as one not merely of the powerless against the powerful or the poor against the rich but of the pagan against the Christian. And then there’s Nasir (Mark Ryan: The Prestige), the Saracen warrior who joins Robin’s band of rebels in Sherwood Forest and brings in a hint of the religio-cultural disorder the Crusades in the Middle East at the time introduced to Britain; as a character Nasir was so influential that the Muslim Saracen has become a staple of all subsequent retellings of Robin Hood.

Alas that Praed (Darkness Falls) left the show after 13 episodes, for the overall quality suffers just a little bit when he is replaced by Jason Connery (Shanghai Noon) as Robert of Huntingdon, son of an earl whom Herne chooses as the next Hooded Man. A sense of the goofy and the baroque creeps into Connery’s 13 episodes, which feel slightly less historical and slightly more fantastic. Still, that the series managed to incorporate two of the very different theories about who Robin Hood may have been, if he were actually a real person — was he a serf? was he a nobleman? — is just another fascinating facet of this intoxicatingly enjoyable show. (Fans of currently hot British actors will want to check out Ray Winstone [Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, The Departed] as the grittiest Will Scarlet ever.)

The extras: Two of the set’s 10 discs are given over to bonus material (in addition to the 14 commentary tracks, which I’ve barely begun to crack, on the episode discs). The new retrospectives are great: I always love hearing the people who created something special like this as they look back; featured here are many cast members, creator/writer Richard Carpenter, producer Paul Knight, and Maire Brennan from the Irish band Clannad, which created the show’s wonderfully evocative score. There’s also a a behind-the-scenes documentary made at the time of the show’s production, outtakes, alternate credit sequences (the show was retitled simply Robin Hood when it aired in the U.S., and so we got slightly different titles), and more.

MPAA: not rated

viewed at home on a small screen

posted in:
tv on dvd
  • TJP

    Sounds like a good show, but all I can think of seeing the picture is that he is requiring Robin to “bring him…ANOTHER SHRUBBERY!”.

  • Jan Willem

    I saw the first series back in the eighties and enjoyed it, although I don’t feel any strong urge to revisit the show at this time. The atmosphere is somewhat similar to Mary Stewart’s Merlin novels (The Hollow Hills, and so on): mysterious yet firmly rooted in historical and earthy reality.

  • jakob1978

    I absolutely love this series, it’s just so well done, and the casting is almost perfect…I can’t think of any better Will Scarlett than Ray Winstone or Clive Mantle as Little John.

    The only sad thing is the fact that funding fell through after series 3, so they couldn’t continue on. There’s some tantalising threads in s3 that never get followed up on.

  • Angela

    Fantastic! I never knew the show even existed until last year, when I visited some friends in Northern Ireland who absolutely insisted on showing it to me. I’m glad they did. Beats the hell out of Prince of Thieves.

  • there’s a Series 3? does it have a different Robin?

  • Paul Hayes

    I think it’s probably more correct to say that it was rarer for BBC series than it was for ITV. Although of course they also did videotaped drama, ITV and their associated companies had been doing dramas on film pretty much since their inception.

  • MaryAnn

    Series 3 is Jason Connery. Michael Praed’s episode fell across two seasons. This set is the entirety of what exists for this series.

  • Karen R

    I bought the first set of DVDs that came out a year or so ago with just the Praed seasons. What memories they brought back! Including the one that I’m certain this series convinced my parents I was a TV nutcase because of the way I reacted when Praed’s Robin died.

    I felt really attached, I’m sure, because at the time in the ’80s when the series was produced I was working at a local public broadcasting station in a small city. The show was promoted to us by the BBC for purchase. I think I’d seen only one preview episode, but I sensed its differences — the music, the actors, the mythos. I did some supreme lobbying to our program director, who gave in and bought it for broadcast. I still have the press packet and a big ceramic tankard with the Robin of Sherwood logo!

    Thanks to the show I also fell in love with Clannad and even drove to a nearby college town which was the only place with a record store that sold Clannad albums and cassette tapes. (I’ve since seen Maire Brennan perform live twice right in my new neighborhood. She was lovely and laughed out loud when I produced a couple of the old vinyl records for her signature. I’ve since also met Michael Praed at a TV network convention in his “Secret Adventures of Jules Verne” days. Still a lovely man.)

    The night the episode aired, lo, more than 20 years ago now, with Robin’s death-by-way-too-many-arrows-to-possibly-survive, I was absolutely devastated. Back then we had no Internet or spoilers or any communication between fellow viewers to help anticipate such trauma or recover from it. God, I still remember how I felt. Like the world had dropped out from under my feet. I stumbled into the kitchen and called the guy in our station’s control booth to be sure it had actually happened. In fact, in hindsight and in all honesty I have to say it was a feeling very similar to what I felt the morning of Sept 11. (I now live a mile from the Pentagon.)

    Funny how certain stories can affect us, no?

    To have the series appear on DVD has been a real trip down memory lane. Yes, the episodes can be quite uneven in their storytelling quality, but the actors’ believability always made up for it. And the DVDs are proof that the long-tail economy does really exist (thank God for us Anglophiles).

  • Paul Hayes

    That’s interesting what you say, Karen. I know they do it now, but I had no idea BBC Worldwide (or Enterprises, as was) were selling ITV shows back in the 1980s. Was it a Lionheart thing?

  • Karen R

    Paul.. I believe we bought it through the IPS (Inter-regional Program Service) or something like that, which was located in Boston. It was a go-between for a lot of the BBC/ITV/Ch 4 stuff to PBS and directly to PBS stations.

    I don’t have the tankard in front of me right now where I am, but I’m pretty sure there was a Lionheart logo on it. I’ll check and confirm later.

    Also to MaryAnn, sorry for the mega-post! Dang that was long. Guess I had something to get off my memory chest.

  • Karen R

    Samuel Goldwyn logo on tankard, which may mean nothing.

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