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Maid Marian and Her Merry Men 1st Series DVD
by Danny Evans
Legends exist to be messed with. The legends of Robin Hood developed through an oral tradition of tall tales, told and re-told, shaped and transformed by bards and by blaggers. When written down they were subject to the prejudices of the literate, in the Middle Ages an elite group. Apparently the original ballads were chock full of homoerotic imagery, and you don’t need to be an expert in metaphor to see why the basic story leads to this interpretation. A band of ‘merry’ men, a fella ironically nick-named Little John, long bows, staffs, tights, I’m sweating as I type here. So, the story goes, a bunch of monks invented Maid Marian at some point as Robin Hood’s healthy outlet, determined that a story already rebellious should not retain its further subversive twist.
Nowadays it’s not the monks we have to contend with, but Hollywood, that creates static archetypes for our changeable heroes. In the case of Robin Hood there’s the brilliant, dashing, depression-era Errol Flynn version. Written before McCarthy began his assault on the rebel imagination, it was designed to rally the American public against the threat of fascism, depicted here by a slimy autocratic King, surrounded by viciously ambitious yes-men. And it was ace, gloriously photographed in the new Technicolour, with buckles swashed like nobody’s, and not even the later revelations about Flynn (Nazi sympathizer who lied about the size of his John Thomas apparently. Do all Nazis have genitalia related complexes? Perhaps any Party members reading this could let us know?) could spoil it. But Kevin Costner had a go with the woeful Prince of Thieves, a revenge flick with some very clunky ‘messages’ about family, loyalty and race (Hey! You Moors aren’t all bad!) and nothing on the wealth redistribution angle. That I remember anyway.
I only mention these because anyone approaching a re-telling of the Robin Hood story, even for a comedy, even for a kid’s version, has to contend with the images lodged in our heads: from the dashing to the dull.
Tony Robinson dealt with this in the ‘kid’s’ programme, Maid Marian and Her Merry Men, which ran for four series from 1989-1994 (Costner’s travesty was released in 1991), through a complete inversion of the tale’s bare bones, with a few sly observations on the nature of legends. So, at centre stage, Robin Hood makes way for Maid Marian, the monks’ contribution, and in the process he regains a foppish aspect in a hilariously vain and cowardly characterization. Marian herself is a bossy, naïve cross between a girl guide and a student politico, constantly irritated by the mistaken assumption that Robin Hood is the gang’s leader and given to making perfectly observed adolescent speeches about resisting oppression. Little John becomes Little Ron, a dwarf (“Why’s he called Little Ron?” “Because his mum called him Ron. And he’s quite small.”) And the band is completed with Barrington, a Rastafarian, and Rabies, a giant idiot.
This unlikely force torments the hapless Sheriff of Nottingham (Tony Robinson) and his dozy men-at-arms more by default than design, their booty rarely yielding more than teddy bears and boxer shorts. Misunderstandings and exaggeration lead them to become folk heroes, a process summed up in the delightful and insanely catchy song, “He’s Popular” in which the strength and bravery of the band is hailed by the poverty stricken and mud encrusted ‘poor people.’
Twists to the tradition abound in two well worn yarns; the silver arrow competition, attended by Robin in a somewhat conspicuous chicken costume, and the return from the Crusades of ‘good’ King Richard at the end of the series after spending “10 years killing people in Beirut.” In this episode, ‘The White-ish Knight’, the returning king is pleasingly revealed to be, not a hero, but exactly the same as the incumbent.
The series is pitched perfectly between slapstick silliness and intelligent jokes and will be bought for more than just nostalgic reasons. By infusing the legend with humour, Robinson breathed new life into what should be a living story. Hopefully this DVD release will be followed up with the subsequent series, and bring Maid Marian the recognition it deserves; it’s a landmark series that surely would have been repeated ad nauseam had it not been made for children’s telly. Tony Robinson went on to Time Team and to hanging out with the fossils in the Labour Party NEC. As for the monks, I feel sure they got their reward in heaven, for services to story-telling, homophobia and the BBC; all three of which, so I hear, play well with the Big Man.
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