Maid Marian and Her Merry Men: Complete Series 1-4 Box Set Review
Normally, you need never pay very much attention to what's written on the back of a DVD case. On the off-chance that what's written there might bear some relation to what is included within, you'll probably be disappointed to learn that the list of extras were written by someone barely on speaking terms with those who were actually involved in producing the release. Maid Marian And Her Merry Men is the exception. Not that it's any more factual than any other release but it does include such gems as, "Marvel at the relatively young Tony Robinson's hilarious cavortings in the days before he got boring and started digging holes in the mud!" or, "watch the hysterically laid back Danny John Jules and realise there is life after Red Dwarf!" Why, it's almost better than what's actually on the discs.
Unlike more adult fare, which, to avoid upsetting anyone, often avoids any silliness in favour of a more straight-faced telling of a story, children's shows get by with as much nonsense as they can fit in to their thirty minutes. Round The Twist is my own favourite, a show that packs more daft moments into each of its thirty minutes than does many fully-fledged comedies, often with more farts, bogies and fake poo than a entire street full of joke shops. For others, and coming some years after Paul Jennings's show, it will be Maid Marian And Her Merry Men, a series that follows on from Blackadder somewhat in that it stars (and is written by) Tony Robinson and rewrites an equally famous period of history, namely that of the crusades when King Richard was abroad and his nasty brother Prince John ruled over the people. And they were miserable. From out of Sherwood Forest came one who would save the royal subjects. One who was strong, passionate and with wits sharper than the sword they would wield...no, not Robin Hood, who, at this time, is sewing Prince John's underpants, but Marian!
"She'll be as excited as a policeman with two truncheons!" It's lines like that that are the making of Maid Marian And Her Merry Men. Very often, particularly so during the still-ongoing Pixar years, people write of the importance of writing gags both for children and adults as if this was an entirely new thing to do. Unfortunately, where this has landed us with such unnecessary moments as a Cops-spoof in Shrek 2 or almost the whole of Shark Tale, it seems to have been forgotten that it was once commonplace to write shows for the whole family. Family entertainment it was called and in spite of this sounding like an anachronism now - the whole family? sitting together in front of just the one television? - Maid Marian And Her Merry Men is just that, a wonderful little series that aims its gags at mum and dad as much as it does their children.
This boxset brings all four series of Maid Marian And Her Merry Men as well as the Christmas Special. It may have been the apprenticeship that he served while working on Blackadder, although he was also a veteran of the sketch show Who Dares Wins, but Tony Robinson ensures that Maid Marian is of a very high quality right from the very beginning. There's a silly story about Marian's tadpole, admittedly, but the plotting that gives Robin Hood his name and his notoriety is tight, fast-paced and written with an eye on both slapstick and the well-constructed gag. A perfect example comes late in the series with the Sheriff accepting a shipment of arms that he (and Ye Baddies) must build themselves. A dozen jokes about flat-pack furniture come as the Sheriff of Nottingham builds an airplane out of sheets of plywood and a giant rubber band while, come the moment he shouts, "Chocs away!", Maid Marian cuts to Gary eating a box of chocolates and hurriedly putting them behind his back.
Maid Marian has so many of these moments that it makes them look effortless. The curious fear that the villagers have of Scunthorpians reaches a superb denouement when, having described them as having two heads and four legs, they run in terror when Marian and Rose, tied together for Guy of Gisbourne's amusement, hop into Worksop. The Giant Toad Monster of Stoke-on-Trent makes a similar impact but there's really no end of them throughout these four series. The early slapstick gives way, in the second and third series, to better-written spoofs of roleplaying, The Beatles, Robin Of Sherwood, the Eurovision Song Contest, the British seaside holiday and Brown Nose Day, even if the on-the-night tally of monies raised stubbornly remains at 000 gold pieces throughout the charity spectacular. It's to Maid Marian's credit that not only are these not watered down (or made less funny) for the benefit of children but uses its origins in the Children's BBC slot to get away with almost anything. And they do, mixing complete nonsense, a spot-on spoof of the Robin Hood legend and a dozen or so gags in every episode to make this a great comedy. No wonder Tony Robinson, rather than following it up, became boring and started digging holes in the mud!
Normally at this point, your writer would include an episode guide. However, with four series of Maid Marian And Her Merry Men to get through, better that we deal with each series in turn rather than each episode.
Series One: This begins with Marian herself walking through Sherwood Forest on the way to find her pet tadpole a new owner. Unfortunately, this brings her to a meeting with the horrible Sheriff of Nottingham. By her interrupting the Sheriff's torturing of some villagers, Marian falls foul of those in command of the county (and country). Together with cowardly tailor Robin of Kensington (Wayne Morris), hustler and spiv Barrington (Danny John Jules), the short-but-very-violent Little Ron (Mike Edmonds) and the very stupid Rabies (Howard Lew Lewis), she escapes into Sherwood Forest to live as an outlaw and to rob from the rich to give to the poor. However, things do not go according to plan. Marian aside, the outlaws are not very outlaw-ish. They are not handy with a sword, less so with a mace and positively hopeless with a longbow. Marian sets out to change this, starting by teaching her gang of Merry Men to shoot an arrow. With an archery contest at the castle, Robin foolishly enters dressed as a chicken. Before the Sheriff sees through this clever disguise, Marian decides that she ought to save her most hopeless Merry Man.
Soon after, it's Pancake Day and the Sheriff decides that King John needs to be remembered for something. And what that something is will be a game in which a man hits a white ball with a long stick towards some coloured balls that he'll try to sink into six pockets placed around the table...and it will be called John. And there will be a bit of blue chalk with a dimple in it. There would be a bit of green cloth to play it on but the Merry Men needed some material for their clothes of Lincoln green. In The Miracle of St Charlene, King John receives some bad news. His uncle has died, which is good news, but has only left him a rotten old hot water bottle. The Sheriff sets out to sell the hot water bottle for a lot more than it's worth but there's something precious within the hot water bottle...something that neither King John nor the Sheriff realise.
In The Sharp End of a Cow, King John fires the Sheriff and sets about trying to capture the outlaw on his own. By some error, the peasants of the village think that Robin, not Marian, is the hero amongst the Merry Men and King John plans to put an end to that. Finally, a mysterious stranger rides through the countryside. Ooooo-oooohhhh...the hooded man. Or, rather, Ooooo-oooohhhh...the white knight. Or, actually, the whitish knight as his once-pristine tunic has picked up some stains on it since it was first crafted. All the people of the county are in awe of this stranger. Marian believes that he is King Richard returned from the Crusades and that he will restore order to the country. The Sheriff has kidnapped all the children of Worksop to welcome the king home just in case Marian is right. But first there's a tea set to recover.
Series Two: The Right Honourable Dennis Skinner arrives in the forest. Or at least his namesake, The Beast of Bolsover, does. The Beast, alongside his nephew, the Nuisance of Nuneaton, picks a fight with the Merry Men on the paths of Sherwood Forest and sends even Little Ron packing. Later, he occupies the gang's camp, sealing its gates and throwing rotten fruit over the wall. Something must be done...and thanks to a bump on the Sheriff's head, it will be. With the Beast dispatched, Marian and the Merry Men get back to protecting the village of Worksop, which is blessed by a visit from the Worksop Egg Fairy. Or, as Marian knows well, the village chicken has laid an egg. With the king crying out for an egg for his tea, it's up to Marian to protect the eggs from the Sheriff...and from the silly superstitions of the villagers.
The Sheriff arrives in the village of Worksop and starts to hand out fines in the third episode in this series, Little Brown Noses. Wearing trousers without a belt, not wearing a helmet while riding a hobby horse and arresting a chicken for being illegally parked. Not, other than Colin the Chicken, that he arrives home with very much...a big potato, a dead shrew, three conkers and a hobby horse. With the Sheriff asking for a fine of 200 gold pieces for Colin's release, Robin sets about raising the money through a mega charity event, Brown Nose Day! Meanwhile, in Rabies In Love, romance is on Rabies' mind when he finally meets someone who can beat him at arm-wrestling...and it's a woman! Unfortunately, King John has plans for this woman. Her name is Fergie, she has ginger hair and he wants her to marry Guy of Gisbourne. Finally, in the two-part Rotten Rose, Rose Scargill, an old school friend of Marian's, arrives in Worksop and finds herself smitten with Robin. But she's not the only one. "I'd like to blow his hunting horn and set his heart a shiver!" sing the ladies in the village. But unlike them, Rose is just as smitten with the money that is to be made from turning Robin in to the Sheriff. Very soon, Robin is in jail and he's blaming Marian.
Series Three: King John wants a present. He lets everyone know how much he wants a present, letting the Sheriff know that anyone who doesn't give him a present must not like him very much. And those who don't like the king get nailed up by their nostrils. Unfortunately for the Sheriff - but good for Marian! - the king's present, a life-size jelly baby, is captured by the Merry Men! Covering up the loss via the invented holiday of Bloopy, the Sheriff plans on getting everyone in Worksop to give the king presents they can ill-afford. Barrington's talent for impersonations may prove useful! In Driving Ambition, Rose is back. And Marian is bored. With Worksop offering only the Rumblelow National Mud Throwing Cup, Marian plans on hosting A Song For Sorksop, telling Barrington to stop miming to the music so she can hear herself speak. There's excitement in the county. Guy has entered. So too has Barrington while even Brother Cliff, the singing monk, is going to appear. But everyone wants the pot of gold that awaits the winner and the Sheriff is going to resort to crooked means to get it.
In Keeping Mum, Marian's Mother is coming to visit. Only she doesn't know that Marian is the county's most notorious (and unknown) outlaw. Instead, her mum thinks that her daughter is a dental reception. So that their friend isn't rumbled, Robin and the rest of the Merry Men pose as dentists, swapping their coats of Lincoln green for white tunics. Everything is going swimmingly...until Guy of Gisbourne gets a toothache and falls for Robin's disguise. But someone sees right through it and he's planning on using her mother to get to Marian! But such plans are as nothing next to the arrival of an alien. When a strange fireball is seen flying over Worksop, Guy isn't the only one silly enough to believe that it heralds the arrival of visitors from another planet. With everyone saying They Came From Outer Space only Marian can see that someone is using the passing comet as a means to steal from the peasants - even the very clothes off their backs! - and she thinks she knows who it is. As the villagers take to wearing barrels held together by ropes, Marian and the Merry Men head to the castle to get the peasants's rags back.
It's Robin's turn to cook. As Marian, Ron, Barrington and Rabies wait at the table, they gaze down at their empty plates. Robin starts making excuses for not cooking dinner that night. At the Worksop takeaway, Snooker gives him not the mud chow mein with extra mud that he'd asked for but a beansprout. With Guy bathing in the castle and the King demanding a Chinese takeaway, Robin goes a-wandering with his beansprout when Robin And The Beansprout takes a fairy-tale feel. Finally, in The Great Mud Harvest, the Sheriff has finally taxed the peasants of Worksop such that they have nothing else. To celebrate, he sacks Gary! But, as the king quickly reminds him, no money coming from Sherwood means that there's no need for a sheriff. And with that Nottingham finds himself joining Gary on the dole queue. With everyone feeling so down, Robin appears in a gleaming white suit to cheer people up. "By the end of this episode, it'll be filthy!" says Marian. With Robin off in the forest, Marian learns just why it is that Robin will get so dirty. There's oil in that thar village!
Series Four: The final series begins with the Sheriff announcing that he and King John have chosen Worksop as the entrance to a wonderful new tunnel. It will be a tunnel to prosperity ("Hooray!"), to opportunity ("Hooray!") and to Scunthorpe ("...where?"). Unfortunately, the villages don't take kindly to the idea that Scunthorpians will now be able to visit Worksop. They smell of garlic and eat snails...and that won't leave any escargot for Gladys, Snooker and the rest of them. With Marian arriving back with a new haircut, she finds her Merry Men in the mood for games. Chronic The Hedgehog, The Maze of Mystery hosted by Gamesmaster Robin O'Hood and Dungeons And Dragons. And Guy has been kidnapped and it's Marian who's being blamed! Toys and games are also cluttering up the castle in Bouncy Sheriff and the king's not happy. He orders Nottingham to clear his castle of Guy's toys or he'll be employed not for the raising of taxes but of keeping the royal nephew entertained. Nottingham isn't the only one who's unhappy. Marian is fed up with having to do all the work in her gang and quits!
Amidst the fog and the smoke of Worksop, the people of the village are stricken by the Plague. Or, rather, a plague...just not the more famous one. Well, the common cold, actually but there's no telling them that, nor the king who snuffles into his tissues in the castle. Hoping for some rest'n'relaxation by the sea, the kind demands that the Sheriff build a seaside holiday camp in Sherwood. With the villagers forced to keep the king entertained and still pay their taxes for the privilege, who can free them before the coming High Forks Night? In The Wise Woman Of Worksop, the Merry Men are keeping everyone awake all night with their campsite raves. No one knows what to do until Gladys comes up with a plan. Unfortunately, it doesn't go quite as expected. Not only is her father arrested and locked up in the castle dungeon but this magic leaves the Merry Men looking uncannily like the Beatles. When all seems lost, the arrival of Pixie Paul and his little wife Linda is a very timely one!
In Robin The Bad, Clem Costner comes to Sherwood Forest, an actor from the Peas In The Pod lookalike agency who does some dreadful things in Worksop. Looking exactly like Robin Hood, everyone is soon pelting Robin with rotten fruit and cheering on the Sheriff. The people call him Thickhead...only Marian is confused. But Barrington, Rabies and Little Ron aren't and figure out a way to prove that Robin was innocent. And maybe save Clem's job as well! Next, in The Nice Sumatran, Marian creeps into the castle to scare King John into giving up his throne...and it actually works! Unfortunately, he not only gives his crown to Guy of Gisbourne, who's an awful king, but comes to live with the Merry Men. Following the example of the Nice Sumatran - "Snappy dresser! Nice hair!" - the Merry Men let the king stay in their camp. But these bandits were not meant to live with royalty and Marian heads back to the castle to scare Guy into giving the crown back to the king. Finally, in Voyage To The Bottom Of The Forest, the Merry Men travel to the strange world of Engyland, where Rabies is hailed as a hero by the people of Workflop, one who will save them from the wicked witch!
Rather than these being an entirely new release from Eureka!, one suspects they've simply bundled up the four series releases of previous years into a new box, put a new price on the cover and shipped them back out to the shops. Those of you who purchased the previous releases will not find any improvement with these discs but, no matter, as they're generally not a bad lot. As is always the way with releases of this sort, the first series is the least impressive looking, due more to the original production rather than anything Eureka! have done.
The first series is the softest-looking of the four and, of those six episodes, it's the first that looks the worst. Still, it's far from being unwatchable and once you accept that it's less clearly-defined than other shows, there's not much to complain about. The episodes are in good enough shape, colours and brightness are generally good and there's no obvious problems with the condition of the series. The second series looks a lot better right from the very beginning. Not only is the picture much warmer-looking but the colours are brighter and the picture is a little sharper. This improvement in the series is consistent with the six episodes in the third series while, by the fourth series, it really does look very good indeed. By then, the picture is sharp and while there's still the odd blip, such as the picture turning blue for a split-second in the first episode of series four, there's less and less to find fault with as the series goes on.
The series' audio is presented in DD2.0 and is subtitled throughout. Although there's little that stands out in any of the twenty-four episodes, the audio is pretty good throughout. Any problems are shown up most clearly in the songs, which sound thin and reedy. Where these would have sounded fine on the single-speaker televisions of twenty years ago, they don't sit particularly well in the home entertainment systems of today. Otherwise, though, the dialogue is always clear while the action does at least sound fairly convincing.
With so much in the set, these are broken down series-by-series, beginning with Series One, where things kick off with a Trailer (34s) that looks as though someone at Eureka found it on a videotape during the weeks in which this was prepared for DVD. Next up are a couple of pointless clips from the German-language version of Maid Marian And Her Merry Men, How The Germans Saw Maid Marian, broken into Klammer 1 (4m30s) and Klammer 2 (4m19s), which are taken from episodes five and six, respectively. The main special feature is a Commentary by Tony Robinson on the first episode in the series on which he explains how he set about writing the show, what he would have done differently later had this episode come later in the series and how his experiences on Blackadder informed Maid Marian And Her Merry Men. Although, he's still not sure about the rats in this first episode. The last extra on the disc is a Lute Karaoke (54s), which allows viewers to sing along with the theme song. Finally, like all the other two-disc sets in this box, there is an eight-page comic.
Series Two: There are fewer extras to accompany the second series. Beginning with an Internal BBC Trailer (7m22s), which, once again, seems to have arrived fresh off VHS, it goes on to feature a game of Hunt The Chicken. The first of these isn't bad as it describes the background to the show and allows the cast to describe both the series and two tie-in novels, although they do end on what one can only assume are a few in-jokes for the benefit of the BBC sales team. There are also two Commentaries on this set, one with Tony Robinson (and those members of the crew responsible for make-up, costumes and direction) on The Beast Of Bolsover and another with director David Bell, actors Mike Edmonds, Howard Lew Lewis and David Lloyd on Little Brown Noses. These are generally better than that with Robinson on his own as the contributors can work off one another to keep the conversation going. Even then, presumably due to the amount of time that passed between the making of the series and now, that conversation tends to dwell on what people remember of that time. Finally, there is an eight-page comic.
Series Three: On to the third series in the set and the first extra offered to us is a Commentary on Mum's The Word (or Keeping Mum as it appears in the list of episodes) featuring Tony Robinson, actors Kate Lonergan and Howard Lew Lewis and Production Assistant Alison Law. Lonergan and Robinson are good together but Alison Law is the real highlight in the commentary, having a good knowledge of the making of the series and not afraid to share it but the whole track is very good with the cast laughing along at the comedy. The other main extra is a feature on creative writing (9m57s) with Robinson, David Lloyd and Mark Billingham. This only mentions Maid Marian in passing as Robinson catches up with Lloyd and Billingham, allowing them to say what has happened to them over the intervening years with Lloyd now writing for Doctors and EastEnders and Billingham having gone on to have a very successful career as a writer of thrillers. Finally, there is the eight-page comic and a Photo Gallery.
The Christmas Special is also included as an extra in this set, being Much The Minimart Manager's Son. In this, Barrington hosts a tap-lesson in Worksop but it's rudely interrupted by the Sheriff and his men. Under some small amount of interrogation, Robin reveals his true identity to the Sheriff but he's talked out of arresting our man by some words from Much the minimart manager's son. Romance is in the air as Marian falls for Much, even taking him to their hideout in the forest. But all is not as it seems with Much, not least when he pays a visit to the Sheriff and accepts a small bag of gold coins. But for what? Meanwhile, the villagers are terrified of the Giant Toad Monster of Stoke-on-Trent! Moreso when it appears in Worksop. Or is it just Guy looking for someone to play with. Originally, this was broadcast as a single fifty-minute episode but has since been repeated in two parts. It's presented here as a single episode once again but there's a clear difference in the two halves of the episode. The second half is more like series four in that the picture is sharper and the colours much richer than the episodes up to his point.
Series Four: There are two Commentaries on this set but unlike the other series, this one offers one on each disc. The first in this series comes on Tunnel Vision with director David Bell, actors Kate Lonergan and Forbes Collins and writer/actor Mark Billingham and it's not bad. Bell keeps the conversation going but it lacks Robinson's in depth knowledge of the series. The second commentary in the set features Robinson, Kate Lonergan, Danny John Jules and Mike Edmonds on Robin The Bad and is much better. There's a good atmosphere in the recording room with the cast not only laughing at the episode but at what merchandise (and props) they managed to sneak off the set and like the best of the commentaries on this set is certainly worth a listen. Otherwise, this series offers some Improvised Sketches (5m19s) with the cast, recorded during the reconvening of the cast for the making of these DVDs. Tony Robinson also interviews illustrator Paul Cemmick (4m39s) about the four comic books released to accompany the series. On the second disc in this set, Tony Robinson, David Lloyd, Mark Billington and Forbes Collins all offer ideas for a brand new series of Maid Marian And Her Merry Men. They could have been awful...but they're not, least of all Collins's idea of there being singer 50 Groats, the medieval equivalent to 50 Cent, in Worksop. Finally, there is the usual eight-page comic.
If I had anything like fond memories of this show - it came slightly too late in the day for me the first time around - my name would already be on the pre-order list. However, given how it was lapped up by my own children, I have no reservations in recommending this. It's as well-made as any BBC children's show and funnier than most comedies you might care to mention. And after a full week of Maid Marian, I'd be perfectly happy with another one should the BBC ever care to make it. 50 Groats and all.