Robin Hood: The Complete First Series Review
It's fair to say that this version of Robin Hood has its detractors. In fact, it's probably more accurate to say that a good many more people dislike Robin Hood than would count themselves as fans. It's also very easy to understand why. There is, after all, a strong British tradition of adapting the story of Robin Hood for television, with the 1955-1960 series of The Adventures of Robin Hood - Carl Sigman and Dick James, not Bryan Adams, will be most people's musical memory of Robin Hood - and, very much later, with the Michael Praed and Jason Connery ITV series of twenty years ago, Robin of Sherwood. There is also the Kevin Costner film of 1991 and, long before that, the classic Adventures of Robin Hood in 1938. With a modern sensibility to making good on the highlights of television and films of the past and with the BBC encouraged by family dramas after its success with Dr Who, this should have been a success. How, the people cried aghast as the barely-out-of-his-teens Jonas Armstrong arrived fresh from the Crusades to return to his home of Locksley, did they get this one so wrong?
However, I'm not one of those people. My mind will, quite frankly, gibber with excitement at the thought of anything medieval and though Robin Hood is lacking in the amount of clanking armour that it could offer, there are still plenty of battlements, longbows and torchlit castles for Robin to muck about in. This Robin Hood, though, does what many before it did not and that is to look back at the adventures of Errol Flynn and to realise that Robin ought to be a larger than life character who dallies with young ladies, crosses swords with Sir Guy of Gisborne and splits an arrow with one drawn from his own bow, all while howling with laughter at the misfortunes heaped upon the Sheriff of Nottingham, who growls frustrated at the antics of the one-time Lord of Locksley Manor. The Adventures Of Robin Hood has this viewer giggling like a schoolgirl throughout, with this BBC retelling proving to be little different.
Set in England during the 12th century, Robin Hood opens with our hero returning home after fighting for king and country in the Holy Lands during the Third Crusade. The England that he left five years previously is not the England that he returns to. The people of Locksley who he bade farewell to when he joined the king's armies grumble under the force of law that has been applied in his absence. Before opening the door of his own home, he learns why. Riding into Locksley is Sir Guy of Gisborne (Richard Armitage), wearing leather, a chip on his shoulder and a scowl and he takes an immediate dislike to Robin. Before the day is out, Robin learns who it is that Gisborne takes his orders from, the Sheriff of Nottingham (Keith Allen), who is taxing the poor excessively and gathering the gold to within his castle. Shocked at the way in which the Sheriff has ruined Nottingham, Robin draws his bow against him...
"'ere, I'll be Robin, you're Alan, you're Will Scarlet, your sister is Marian and my mate is gonna be Little John!" That's the reason for this version of Robin Hood, a show that builds on the success of Dr Who by having the BBC create another family drama for showing on a Saturday night when the kids, mum and dad crowd around the television and the fireside, turn the lights down and escape into Sherwood Forest. It's a show made for adventures in back gardens, woodlands and forests, for climbing trees, for mucking about in the ruins of buildings and for slashing about with a broom handle as though it were a Saracen sword. It's for camping out at night by a fire, for dressing up in grubby old clothes and for romping around in a gang. It has a hero, a beautiful maiden and a couple of villains growling into their black leather. It has romance, comedy and a very dashing Robin. It has the robbing of the rich to give to the poor and it rouses Saturday night like nothing else. It couldn't be any more entertaining if it learned a few card tricks and how to cut a lady in half and if the BBC asked for an increase in its licence fee to pay for this alone, I'd happily dust off my chequebook to pay for it.
Much of the grumbling that first came with Robin Hood was with regards to the childishness of the thing. Robin and his men were less bandits than boy band, strutting about in Sherwood Forest with designer stubble, fanciful outfits and a way with a Sracen sword. However, they are quite the figures from history when compared to the wicked Sheriff of Nottingham, who is accompanied by a silent, "Boo! Hiss!" and by a chorus of children shouting, "He's behind you!" Early on, he takes a small bird from a cage and crushes it between his hands. He is happiest when dispensing violent justice, revels in putting down Gisborne and would be at his happiest, as he has been recently, when dunking an old woman accused of witchcraft. Without a snickering sidekick but with the brooding Guy of Gisborne, the Sheriff cuts a swathe of nastiness across Nottingham, leaving an already-miserable population feeling even worse and lucky to still have the scraps from their own table.
The cast do a fine job in bringing Robin Hood to the screen. As might be expected, Keith Allen does tend to steal the show as the Sheriff of Nottingham - he has all of the best lines - but Jonas Armstrong makes for a good hero, with a glint in his eye, a way with a sword and, aided by stuntmen, looking the part as he leaps off the castle to a waiting horse. He also does well to rubbish the memory of the Costner legacy of Robin Hood that has the hero looking a bit wet when compared to the sheriff. These two work well off one another. Robin's lot aren't so well written but Joe Armstrong stands out as Alan-a-Dale - he's the only one, with his, "I'm not being funny but...", that has a catchphrase - while Richard Armitage is suitably brooding, nasty and a bit dim as Sir Guy of Gisborne. Lucy Griffiths is as lovely as Marian ought to be, not quite lighting up the screen as much as Olivia de Havilland did in 1938 doing well to catch the eye of the young girls in the audience. And, as the Nightwatchman, proving that the girls can be as tough as the boys.
The problem with Robin Hood is not any of that. It is at its best when it is rushes about like a excited child, hopelessly in love with its own silliness and its fooling about on medieval settings with swords, horses and bows and arrows. It even does well to shoo away stories that quickly settle into a pattern. The early episodes have Robin arriving just in the nick of time to save someone from a hanging but Brothers In Arms has the sheriff bring the hangings forward by an hour. Robin rests on the battlements as three bodies sway from the gallows. What works less well is its moments of seriousness with stories that try and draw a parallel between the events of the 12th Century and today. Most times, it feels as though the writers couldn't quite help themselves and have a tendency to leave the scripts tripping over the lines drawn between the Crusades and the more recent adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. Robin mentions the Qu'ran for the first time in Parent Hood but does so frequently thereafter, there is the explosive black powder of A Thing Or Two About Loyalty and for a quiet part of England, Nottingham hosts many a Saracen guest en route from the Middle East. Gisborne delivers a speech about not shying away from the outlaws that is, with its woolly notions about terror, something that George W Bush or Tony Blair might have delivered whilst planning for Iraq.
Happily, in taking a child's view of the show, one can ignore all of that in favour of watching Robin Hood and his gang muck about in Nottingham and foiling the plans of the wicked sheriff. The second series, which is currently playing on the BBC in the run up to Christmas, appears to have taken this criticism to heart, with much fewer parallels drawn between the 12th Century and the modern day in favour of stronger stories, much darker situations and a greater emphasis on action. The cast are clearly having a ball, it looks great and is as daft, as exciting and as funny as Robin Hood ought to be. Now, who's Robin again?
Will You Tolerate This? (44m44s): Alan-a-Dale is hunting a stag in the forest. Unfortunately, he is poaching and before he can let loose an arrow, he is captured by the king's men. As justice is threatened - a hand shall be cut off as punishment for poaching - arrows rain down on the guards, each one from the bow of Robin Hood, Earl of Huntingdon and Lord of Locksley Manor. But the people are no happy. In the king's absence, the Sheriff of Nottingham has the rule of the land and has become richer as his people have become poorer. Taxes are crippling the villagers, there is no trade in the city and the people are starving. Robin takes up his place in Locksley to do something about this but finds himself entangled with some outlaws living in Sherwood Forest.
Sheriff, Got Your Tongue? (43m47s): Robin Hood has been taken prisoner. Not by the Sheriff and his men but by the band of outlaws led by Little John. Tied to the trees in the forest, Robin plots his escape, not knowing that at that moment, the Sheriff is lining up the people of Locksley to draw Robin out of the forest. Should he escape, Robin will be arrested by the Sheriff's men and will be hanging in Nottingham in the morning. But if he does not, two of his villagers will die for each day that he remains a free man. Albeit a free man imprisoned by outlaws.
Who Shot the Sheriff? (44m34s): Riding through the villages of Nottingham to collect taxes, the Sheriff's bailiff is murdered by an arrow in his back. All thoughts turn to Robin Hood but he and his men know that he was standing in a nearby wood and was but a witness to the crime. With his own men blaming the Nightwatchman, Robin and the Sheriff form an unlikely alliance to discover the identity of the murderer.
Parent Hood (44m34s): Robin finds an abandoned baby in the forest but discovers that he is part of a trap set by Gisborne. In the fight that follows, Royston White becomes the first of Robin's men to be captured by the Sheriff's men. White is being held in the Sheriff's prisons but he will say nothing but for, "I am Royston White and I fight for Robin Hood and King Richard!" The Sheriff's plan is for Royston to be freed from prison to assassinate Robin Hood but Royston tells him that he would rather kill his own mother. "Yes...what an amazing coincidence!" Royston's mother is alive and well but may not be for very much longer not when the Sheriff threatens to have her hanging from the gallows in Nottingham if Royston does not deal with Robin.
Turk Flu (43m54s): The social highlight of the Nottingham calendar has arrived with the Nottingham Fair and the Silver Arrow competition. Robin is tempted...but first he must deal with the Sheriff's plans for a mine. Having sacked or murdered the previous miners, the Sheriff plans on bringing in Saracen slaves to start the mine working again. But Robin, discovering what it is that is being mined, joins with the Nightwatchmen to put a stop to it and to free the slaves before the Sheriff can put them to work. And, of course, to win the Silver Arrow!
The Taxman Cometh (43m48s): There are plots against the king...and there is a crooked butcher to deal with, demanding that he taste the rancid meat that he sells to the people of Nottingham. Thanks to the castle sewers, Robin and Much make a quick escape. Back in the forest, they encounter Flaxton and his son, who claim to be farmers on their way to the market in Nottingham. But Flaxton is a very well-dressed farmer and doesn't seem to be able to know that you can't milk a billy goat. It doesn't take long for Robin to learn that he is a tax inspector. But rather than kill Flaxton, Robin sees an opportunity to get within the castle and to free the Sheriff of some of his riches.
Brothers In Arms (44m34s): Robin and his men aren't the only outlaws in Sherwood Forest. There is another, one who also claims to be working in the service of Robin Hood but who is surprised when confronted with Hood, who is less than happy at this turn of enterprising lawbreaking. However, when their leader turns out to be Tom, the brother of Alan-a-Dale, Robin must decide if he ought to swell the numbers in his rack. Alan, in spite of Tom being his brother, isn't sure that he can be trusted. Meanwhile, pawnbroker Lucky George is in town but Robin intends to have his luck run out!
Tattoo? What Tattoo? (43m52s): During his five years abroad, Robin Hood has never forgotten a distinctive tattoo on the arm of the man who tried to murder King Richard in an encampment in the Holy Land, one that he will never forget. What surprises him is that he sees that same tattoo closer to home, the first suggestion that the king may have enemies even on English soil. With Robin holding Gisborne in the forest and Djaq imprisoned in Nottingham, a rescue is planned. But Robin's men must do this on their own.
A Thing Or Two About Loyalty (44m37s): The sheriff is bored. For far too long Lambert, friend of Gisborne and a scientist in the employ of Nottingham, has been talking about an explosive black powder but has so far revealed nothing. All of that is soon to change when he lights a fuse and watches as the crates of explosives leave a blackened crater in the ground. Lambert has plans for his explosive to be used in the mines. The sheriff has...different plans. Imprisoned in the dungeons and tortured, Lambert refuses to cooperate. To learn what Lambert knows, Much gets himself arrested and imprisoned alongside him. But the sheriff has a unexpected fate for Much.
Peace? Off! (43m35s): The church in Locksley has stood for many years but when an arsonist attempts to burn it down, Robin, much to the surprise of his men, save him from being drowned as a heretic. Taking him into the forest, Robin learns something of who he is and why he has returned to England from the Middle East but he brings with him a mask that has his men claiming to see the Devil in it. Meanwhile, an emissary from Saladin arrives in Nottingham to make peace but the Sheriff isn't having any of it. Robin seeks to convince him otherwise.
Dead Man Walking (44m00s): Little John has been an outlaw for so long that his wife believes him dead and his young son has never seen his father alive. On a tax collecting raid on a village, Gisborne arrests the boy and imprisons him, all in broad daylight and with Little John watching helplessly from the woods nearby. Attempting a rescue, Little John finds himself in prison alongside his son. But it is there that his wife leans that he is still alive. However, it may be the last that she will see of him.
The Return Of The King (44m24s): News arrives in Nottingham that King Richard is making his way back to England and will soon be arriving at a port on the south coast. While this is good news for Robin, it bodes less well for Marian, who had promised to marry Gisborne should the king ever return. As a final wedding gift to herself, Marian, disguised as the Nightwatchman,attempts to steal Gisborne's wealth to share it out amongst the people but tragedy awaits her at Locksley Manor.
A Clue: No (44m36s): As King Richard continues to make his way home, Gisborne prepares for his wedding to Marian. He has, though, some unfinished business with Robin Hood and leads a group of soldiers, archers and cavalry into the forest to where he believes Robin is hiding. When the day of the wedding arrives, Much makes a shocking discovery about King Richard and sets off to save Marian, save those in Nottingham who have plotted against the sheriff and to save his friend Robin.
Robin Hood was another example of the BBC dipping its toe into high-definition waters after Bleak House. There are still some big-name exceptions to this - while Torchwood is filmed in HD, Dr Who is not - but this is notable for seeing the BBC releasing Robin Hood in three formats, DVD, HD-DVD and Blu-Ray. One doesn't doubt that the high-definition formats will look very good but even on standard-definition DVD, this is probably the best release yet produced by the BBC, its lush, bright colours looking crisp and sharp, the action is clear and untroubled by any problems in the encoding and even the CG, which wasn't so obvious on the television broadcasts, now stands out against the backgrounds. Which might sound like a bad thing but there isn't a great deal of it. The bitrate is consistently up around 9Mbit/s. I thought this looked fine when it was shown on television last year but this is looks so much better that, if not like an entirely new show, certainly makes watching it again something of a treat.
There are two audio tracks, DD2.0 as per the original broadcast and DD5.1. There is a clear difference between the two. Both are as clear as each other but the digital surround track making that much more of the extra channels. There's plenty going on in the rear speakers and much use of the subwoofer, with the surround effects making the show that bit more impressive. Much of this comes from the DD5.1 being the intended audio track and though it's not the default option, it is available on each episode. Finally, there are English subtitles throughout.
Commentaries: There are four spread over the set, one on each disc - Sheriff, Got Your Tongue?, Parent Hood, Tattoo? What Tattoo? and A Clue? No is the full list of episodes that feature commentaries - with each one featuring a mix of cast and crew. With his background in comedy, the two that feature Gordon Kennedy are the best, with Kennedy remembering well the off-the-set goings-on and Lucy Griffiths does well to play off him. The two of them work well together, as do Anjali Jay and Jonas Armstrong on the other tracks, but soon establish the format of these commentaries in that they're light on anything as regards the production but much stronger on anecdotes, laughs and jokes at those not in the room.
Hood Academy (15m44s): Part of the pre-showing publicity for this show made much of the Hood Academy, a pre-filming set up to get the actors riding horses, shooting arrows and fighting with sword and staff. It certainly seems to have helped the actors adapt to the roles as though they're not quite of the standard set by the Jedi of the Star Wars prequels - no Ray Park kung fu acrobatics here! - they're quite decent enough to carry off the parts of 12th Century outlaws, with none of them blinking as their swords clash, none of them falling off their steeds (or failing to get onto them), none of them blinding one another with a bow and arrow and none of them limping off the set having decided it's much too dangerous a shoot for them.
Character Profiles: Like the commentaries, these are spread throughout the set with each character being given a potted history by the cast and crew, particularly with actor or actress portraying them. There is some repetition between profiles and with the later making of but they're not without interest. The characters featured are Robin Hood (7m54s), Marian (5m23s), Royston White (4m07s), Guy of Gisborne (5m07s), the Sheriff of Nottingham (4m46s), Little John (6m55s), Will Scarlet (4m54s), Djaq (4m23s) and Much (5m27s).
Making Of Robin Hood (29m20s): It's off to Hungary to catch up with the cast and crew, sometimes in costume and sometimes not, as they tumble through the woods, play cricket amongst the trailers and duck out of the action shots as the stuntmen move in. The boys look to be very happy, Lucy Griffiths not so much - she claims to be happier when, in every couple of episodes, another girl comes out to keep her company - but this does a fairly reasonable job of catching up with the production.
Dressing Hood (16m03s): The tights are out - what ten-year-old boy is going to want to be someone who wears tights? - as is much of the emerald green in favour of various shades of brown (the heroes), black (the villains) and, of course, beautiful dresses for Marian. Although, to be fair, Sir Guy of Gisborne does look like a runaway from an S&M-themed variety night. This feature meets with the costume designers and the cast as they're fitted in their outfits before filming. As such, it's familiar fare but does at least confirm that this television show, rather than being a ragbag of hired costumes, with the emphasis on the rags, has more of a big-screen feel to it. A big-screen version of a pantomime perhaps but looking much better than most television productions.
Designing The Hood (11m09s): Designing the 'hood...I get it. This short feature looks at the building of the impressive-looking sets in Hungary in which they built the castle in Nottingham, the village of Locksley and Marian's home. All of them look terrific although just when the viewer is marvelling at the craftsmanship, Lucy Griffiths does reveal the truth behind the television magic to say that the castle is made of polystyrene. And that's much more disappointing.
All of these extra features, with the exception of the commentaries are subtitled.
There's a rather depressing moment in the extras when Foz Allan describes this as being Robin Hood for the Playstation generation, thus making the connection between this and many other zippy efforts that are all light and flash and force the viewer, whether they want to or not, into being savvy with the modern vocabulary of television. There ought to be no shame on the part of the BBC to say, as did many of the more complimentary reviews, that this is simply an entertaining, old-fashioned Saturday evening romp with swords, castles and archery. It's not the perfect Robin Hood - that remains the Errol Flynn film of 1938 - but it is just right for Saturday evenings as the nights close in. And if I were a ten-year-old boy, this could well be the greatest television show ever.