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Hood: It Be Magic?

by Danny Evans


I was looking forward to the new Robin Hood series on the Beeb with the kind of expectation that really shouldn’t be associated with Saturday evening telly.  Nothing brings out the childish glee in me like the Lincoln green legend.  But I also had several concerns.  Would the new production be an attempt to bring Dr Who into a Medieval forest, all pretty and young and knowing?  Maybe it would be even worse; like Hollyoaks in camouflage, with the robbing from the rich and giving to the poor replaced by angsty blokes in tights emoting under oak trees.

What I was unrealistically hoping for was somewhere between Errol Flynn, Ivanhoe and Maid Marian and her Merry Men; funny, camp and swashbuckling without jettisoning those aspects that make the legend resonate through the ages.  If it seems like a tall order to combine all that with mass appeal, it should be remembered that this has been done before.  The Adventures of Robin Hood, the iconic Technicolor interpretation that made Flynn a household name, was written by Norman Reilly Raine and Seton I. Miller to not only swash some buckles but to rally American sentiment against the Nazi menace.  Leftist scriptwriters blacklisted in the States by the House of UnAmerican Activities found work writing for the British Robin Hood series that ran in the ‘50s with the famous theme tune, incorporating themes of racism and social injustice.  Myths that survive for so long can only do so if contemporary themes are projected on to them. 

While it is thought that the original template for the Robin Hood legend emerged from folk tales related to resistance to the Norman invasion, the first ballads tell of, alternately, a bloodthirsty and selfish bastard, and a happy go lucky trickster.  In more modern retellings he has been portrayed as a Saxon rebel against the foreign overlords, a noble fighter for the legitimate authority supposedly embodied by King Richard and a fey dandy, but more or less prominent, and most evocatively, has been the idea that Robin Hood ‘robbed from the rich to give to the poor.’

As far as I’m concerned, the new series has potential but could go either way at this stage.  Robin is portrayed as a young noble returning from the Crusades to find his manor being brutally mismanaged by the new Sherriff of Nottingham.  The Crusades provide a background for references to Iraq which abound to varying effect; “Why did I travel 2000 miles to fight evil when the real cancer was at home?” asks Robin in the second episode.  Well, quite.  One problem with the ‘disillusioned noble’ angle is that it undermines the ‘Saxon freedom fighter’ interpretation that first emerged with Ivanhoe and which could have proven a more useful reference point for an allegorical take on Iraq: the injustice of armed occupation resisted by guerrilla bands with hero status among the people and reviled as terrorists by authority.  In the ace straight-to-video Robin Hood with Uma Thurman that came out in 1991, drowned by the hype around the Kevin Costner abomination, this is highlighted with simple but effective devices such as the Saxons and Normans talking in different accents.  At this stage the main goodies and baddies look and sound like rival Am Dram gangs getting ready for a scuffle in Topman.

Keith Allen plays the Sherriff as a slightly less bonkers John Reid, all ‘detention without trial’ this and ‘law and order’ that.  It’s pretty funny but drawing out parallels between Britain in the 21st century and England in the 12th fudges the fact of military occupation by a foreign power, which you would have thought was the obvious springboard for contemporaneity.  The soldiers do look great though; faceless hulking brutes whose monopoly of armour and weaponry, when compared to the raggedy peasants of Nottingham , is suitably evocative.

Happily, this Robin Hood still gives to the poor.  The ending of the second episode, in which the villagers of Loxley return to find food and money tacked to their doors, was really well done and gave the climactic battle scene a sense of context.  Other nice touches include the character of Much, an apparent homage to the Robin character in Maid Marian and her Merry Men, whose campness is in keeping with a pre-watershed version of the blatant homoeroticism of the early balladry.  There’s room for improvement but it’s early days, so hopefully they’ll sack off the annoying arrows that flash across the screen with the scene’s location, introduce Friar Tuck, and get Robin kitted out with a proper longbow; the silly toy he uses to fire out arrows as if it was automated looks like something he got free with his cornflakes. 

So anyway with all these pros and cons skittering around my head I decided to write a script myself and send it to the BBC.  My idea was to base a story on last year’s arrest of the two apparent British undercover operatives by Iraqi police that prompted an armed assault on a police station in Basra .  Transposed to 12th century Nottingham , the undercover agents would be provocateurs commiting atrocities while pretending to be a part of the merry men.  Captured and about to receive people’s justice in Loxley, the Sherrif sends a battalion to retrieve them, only to be confronted by Robin Hood and his band, supported by the villagers, who are prepared to turn their territory into a kind of guerrilla locale in permanent revolt against the Normans.  And then I saw the trailer for the third episode.  It was way too similar. 

In the event it was also very similar to a plot from the HTV Robin of Sherwood series.  Turns out ‘my idea’ for an episode was about as ‘original’ as going in a heavy direction for the second album.  Which makes me more inclined to forgive the unnecessary complications added for the BBC version and the continued infuriating pacifism of our heroes.  So if you’re planning on studying for a Masters in Robin Hood studies here’s what to say about the new series: it’s ok like, but let’s hope it goes in a heavy direction for the second series.  





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