Robin Hood: The Complete Second Series Review
This time last year, I finished a review of series one of Robin Hood by asking, "Now, who's Robin again?", saying that the show was at its best when it rushed about like an excited child, hopelessly in love with its own silliness and its footling about in medieval settings with swords, horses and bows and arrows. Perhaps reflected in the plastic Saracen sword that was on sale in toy shops before Christmas last year, Robin Hood was all about giving children a setting for their games, arguing about who was going to be Robin before a gang emerged consisting of three Robins, a tomboy who covers for Djaq, one big-boned lad who never gets to be anything other than Little John and his sister who will do for Marian. If they're lucky, they'll get a willing Dad to join in as the Sheriff of Nottingham, whose mind will be on the football results as makeshift arrows are thrown at him and who ends the day bruised, battered and, in a case of life reflecting art, missing a tooth on account of Little John getting a little too enthusiastic with a broomstick.
What problem there was with the first series concerned itself with how serious the show was at times. Above all else, it was very keen on drawing parallels between life in the 12th Century and modern-day goings-on in the Middle East, particularly the Bush'n'Blair war on terrorism. Indeed, the question of one man's terrorist being another man's freedom fighter was never very far from the Sherwood Forest of Robin Hood. Similarly, the plucking of Djaq from the Holy Land and the placing of her in Nottingham left Robin Hood positively aching to make the most of the mystery of the Middle East. Robin Hood was all talk of black powder, of the presence of Western armies in the Holy Land and of many more Saracens stomping through Sherwood Forest than I would have thought likely at the time of the Crusades.
This second series, as I wrote then, seemed to take this criticism to heart. Instead of the well-meaning politicking of the first series, this second was all about Robin Hood, Little John, Much, Alan a Dale, Djaq and Will Scarlet as a gang. Indeed, they say as much in the first episode of this series, with Robin Hood telling each of them that regardless of their name, they are all Robin Hood, "We are Robin Hood!" they shout, perhaps rather too loudly for those meant to be hiding out in the forest. But the message is clear, Robin Hood is not any one man but a legend and this series does its best to suggest why, so very many years later, we're still talking about him. And this isn't for the usual reasons of the rich being robbed to help the poor or outlaws in Lincoln green but because it seemed to be as much fun as being a member of the A-Team. And that's a lot of fun!
Like Errol Flynn laughing as his defeat in a scrap with his Little John, series two of Robin Hood remembers that family entertainment like this ought to be funny. Be it the gang of outlaws querying the origin of the meat that Much cooks for dinner - Much claims that it's chicken but Will Scarlett mentions that he hasn't seen many squirrels of late - or of the Queen Eleanor the Queen Mother taking a shine to the Little John of this series, particularly when slung over his shoulder and dodging arrows. This comes in an episode that is as much of a lark as this series ever gets, with Little John finding himself being compared to the equally muscular Legrand while Robin leads his men on a National Treasure-inspired quest for treasure.
On the other hand, if there are more gags in this series, the situations in which Robin and his gang find themselves are often darker and more threatening. A good example is Angel of Death, in which Joseph travels to Nottingham and finds the Sheriff a willing accomplice in the poisoning of his people. The murder of Dan Scarlett leaves Will seeking revenge and while a black humour still cuts through the drama, when Will turns to Nottingham to take his revenge, the series pitches the notes of terror just right. The Sheriff's sister arrives in Nottingham and turns out to be an even nastier character than Vaizey while a day on which the Sheriff goes missing ends with the torch lit armies of Prince John marching through the streets of Nottingham to raze the city to the ground. Even Robin Hood is not immune to his, arming himself with a sufficient number of throwing knives with which to slaughter the Black Knights of Prince John. And unlike the first series of Robin Hood, Robin and his gang are frequently put in such danger as to have Little John saying that, "...today would be a good day to die!" Indeed, near its end, the gang of outlaws find themselves in a situation that looks hopeless, surrounded on all sides by mercenaries who are happy to wait over several sunsets and sunrises before cutting them down. Even Robin's wit fails him.
More than that, though, are two stories that will keep people's interest over the series. Early in the series, Gisborne arrests Alan a Dale turning his hand to con tricks in The Trip Inn and cuts him a deal - his freedom and the occasional bag of silver if he will turn traitor to Robin and his gang. Eventually rumbled, Alan is eventually thrown out of the gang and rides alongside Gisborne as a man of the Sheriff. And yet, even when Alan a Dale leaves for the Holy Land in the company of the Sheriff and Gisborne, his story of betrayal and redemption isn't quite finished. But the main story arc in this series is that of Shah Mat, or checkmate. In this, Prince John and the Sheriff conspire against King Richard and employ not only the Black Knights but the king's own noblemen against him. Robin might remain a step ahead at times but it is only with We Are Robin Hood that he comprehends the forces that the Sheriff has brought against him and against the king.
The series ends in the Holy Land with a finale that has moments of surprise, of times when all seems lost for Robin and of murder. Perhaps it's not quite as ambitious as it could be, looking to have been set in a corner of the world that is to the Holy Land what Robin's camp is to Sherwood Forest. Somewhere that is sparsely populated and even more sparsely furnished even by the standards of the desert. King Richard, when he finally appears, seems to travel with a much smaller army than one who is fighting for the seat of Christendom while the great cities of Damascus, Jerusalem and Acre are conspicuous by their absence. No Kingdom Of Heaven this, then. It all ends with Robin returning to England with a much reduced gang to that which set out for the Holy Land. It may be that this, being the middle chapter of a story, is the one to best deal with death, with murder and with love and love and it does so very well. Where it goes from here will be interesting. What began as a series to inspire children to muck about in rivers and forests and of swinging a broomstick about in the manner of a Saracen sword draws to a close with some dead, some missing and some choosing to remain apart from England. Series three ought to see its audience through the long winter months and would do well to bring this story to the conclusion that it deserves.
All thirteen episodes from series two of Robin Hood are included on this release. These are described below:
Sisterhood: Robin lies dead on the forest floor...an arrow in his eye. Or is he? As one of Lady Davina's (Sara Stewart) guards looks him over, Hood springs up and demands a mere tenth of their wealth. Escaping into the forest, Hood inspects his gang's taking, picking out a ring with the sheriff's insignia on it. Who was this woman? Keeping watch on the castle, Robin sees many more passing through its gates, each of them wearing the same ring. Tricked by Davina and arrested, Robin learns of the Black Knights, together sworn to kill the king. But Robin isn't the only one in Nottingham's gaols. Alan-a-Dale has found himself the guest of Gisborne and Guy has a deal in mind, one that will make both their masters look good.
Booby And The Beast: The great hall in Nottingham Castle is being transformed by the Sheriff. No, not into yet another dungeon to hold yet more of those arrested by the armies of Prince John but a casino! The Sheriff has extended an invitation to Prince Frederick of Hanheim (Dexter Fletcher), a notorious gambler well-known throughout Europe, to come and play dice. The Sheriff believes the prince to be something of a booby and is set of fixing the game but word has reached Sherwood Forest that whatever the Sheriff wins will land in the castle's new strong room. A raid on that will be difficult but not impossible. And the prince may not be such a booby as the Sheriff thinks he is!
Childhood: A gang of boys are playing Robin Hood in the forest when they come upon a strange scene. Gisborne has a group of archers firing at a prisoner. On any normal day, the arrows would have slain the man but the boys just gasp when the arrows bounce off him. Gisborne knifes the man in the back to ensure his silence and sets off after the boys, who, other than his own archers, are the only ones who know about this indestructible armour. One escapes and cries out to Robin Hood for help. Robin learns that this armour is yet another facet of the Sheriff's war machine but that Gisborne, now safe within the armour in battle, will kill anyone who knows of it.
Angel of Death: A pestilence has come to Nottingham. People are dying in Pitt Street and while windows are boarded and doors are locked, the sick are nursed in makeshift hospitals that Robin had hoped he had seen the last of. But Dan Scarlett, in Nottingham to visit his son, knows that it is not a sickness at all but a poison whom Joseph (Ralf Little) has visited upon the poor at the behest of the Sheriff. Such information proves fatal and entering the city gates, Will Scarlett announces that Hell will come to Nottingham that night.
Ducking and Diving: A messenger is coming to Nottingham with news of the king's arrival in England, not only at what port but when. Unfortunately for Robin, his best plans go awry when he fails to intercept Henry of Lewes. Suspecting he has a traitor in his gang, he leaves for Nottingham Castle alone to kill Lewes. But Lewes is in no fit state to talk. He has reacted badly to a bee sting en route. The king's physician has no remedy and so Gisborne turns to Matilda (Josie Lawrence), the wise woman of Locksley, for assistance. Matilda is no friend of the Sheriff's and delays Lewes' recovery yet further, which earns her a ducking in Locksley pond under trial as a witch. It is to Locksley that Robin rides, wanting Lewes and to rescue Matilda, taking her to Sherwood in time for the birth of her granddaughter.
For England...!: Shah Mat is continuing apace. The Black Knights are gathering at the castle for the signing of the Great Pact of Nottingham. Some, though, are wavering, fearing for their fate come the return of the king. To this end, the Sheriff of Winchester (Denis Lawson) arrives to steady their nerves but Robin believes that Winchester will betray the king. Such faith is misplaced, though, as Winchester is angling both for the county of Sussex and the hand of Marian as reward for his signing the Great Pact. Dressed as entertainers, Much, Will and the rest prepare for battle but only should it come. Robin, armed with throwing knives and in the costume for a Black Knight, is dressed for murder.
Show Me The Money: The men of Sherwood stop a man as he walks through the forest. Trussed up and hanging from a tree, he protests that he is the poor and that the bag of money around his waist is but ten shillings and that is to pay off the debt that is owed to the Canon Of Berkley (Tony Slattery), who has imprisoned a young woman until the entire debt is repaid. Robin laughs this off, saying that these ten shillings will make little dent in the two thousand pounds that John of York (John Hopkins) owes for Beatrice (Fernanda Dorogi). But Robin has a plan. Where the Sheriff's money goes, so there will be the Great Pack of Nottingham. Using the gang's monies, Robin pays off Beatrice's debt...only the Sheriff has a new and ingenious method or storing his money.
Get Carter!: Now living in Sherwood Forest with Robin and his gang, Marian should be enjoying life. But she is headstrong and unwilling to listen to Hood or his men, running into a battle in the village without heed for her own safety or those around her. When Robin and his men got to the aid of those in Clun Village, Marian endangers them all but it is there that Robin meets Carter (Joseph Kennedy), a fighter almost as good as he is. But something about him seems familiar, even to Much asking Carter is they served together in the Holy Land.
Lardner's Ring: A messenger arrives at Locksley manor expecting to find Robin but, instead, discovers himself in the company of Guy of Gisborne and the Sheriff of Nottingham. Mortally wounded, he flees into the forest but his peg leg makes him easy to track. He ends up dying in Robin's arms, while the last thing he says is, "Lardner!" Everyone, the Sheriff included, is now searching for Lardner while a Fool (Matthew Horne), hired to entertain at Gisborne's party, piques everyone's interest when he mentions the trouble that Lardner's Ring will bring. Only Djaq knows who Lardner is. And what.
Walkabout: The Sheriff is having an uncomfortable night's sleep. Tossing and turning, he dreams of Robin Hood. Before the sun rises, he has mounted his horse and rode out of the castle, still asleep at the reins. He wakes up in Sherwood Forest, meeting with Ceris (Charlie Brooks) and finding that they have something in common...to steal from Hood. Ceris his money while the Sheriff wants his Great Pact back. But today is the day that Jasper (Lee Ross), an envoy from Prince John, arrives to check that no harm has come to the Sheriff. Every second Thursday, he arrives, gets the Sheriff to stamp his book, shares a glass of wine and leaves. Only there is no Sheriff and no stamp. Jasper informs Gisborne that, in the absence of both, Nottingham will be razed to the ground before sunset.
Treasure of the Nation: Legrand (Steven Beckett) arrives from the Holy Land with a message from the king. But the map doesn't make any sense, neither to Robin nor the man who carried it west. Robin and his gang set off on a quest, which takes them to Paxton (Andy Helfer), to a set of standing stones, to a secret underground chamber and to the treasure itself, which takes something of a liking to Little John.
A Good Day To Die: It is Robin's birthday and Much has prepared a celebratory feast. But they are betrayed and surrounded by mercenaries hired by the Sheriff to kill Robin and his men and mount their heads on spikes outside the castle. Inside, the gang wait, sharing their secrets with one another on a day they believe they are destined to die. Meanwhile, Alan a Dale discovers that the Sheriff and Gisborne are leaving for the Holy Land on a mission, he believes, to assassinate the king. Alan rides to rescue Robin while the Sheriff waits for his boat to France. But will Alan be forgiven?
We Are Robin Hood: Robin and his gang are now in the Holy Land, tracking the Sheriff, Gisborne and Marian as well as staying ahead of them in search of King Richard (Steven Waddington). But rather than enjoying a hero's welcome, Robin is greeted as a traitor to England and imprisoned. Far from home and with no friends other than those he has travelled with, Robin battles for all of England, finding that an old friend comes to his aid just when the Sheriff sets out to draw blood and to bring Shah Mat to its conclusion.
This section has been brought over from the review of the first series of Robin Hood as there are very little to differentiate one from the other. Robin Hood was another example of the BBC dipping its toe into high-definition waters. The lack of special effects, or very many of them, seems to make this possible. But while one doesn't doubt that the high-definition formats will look very good, even on standard-definition DVD, this is not at all bad, 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 crisp 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. However, there is one encoding error in Walkabout, when the sound crackles and drops out for a few seconds but these are check discs and this problem may not be present on the finished version of the discs. Hopefully it was spotted here and fixed before retail versions were produced. Otherwise, though, there isn't a problem. Finally, there are English subtitles throughout.
There are four Commentaries out over these five discs, on Sisterhood (Foz Allen, Dominic Minghella and Lucy Griffiths), Show Me the Money! (Gordon Kennedy, Sam Troughton, Griffiths, Richard Armitage and Anjali Jay), A Good Day to Die (Kennedy, Minghella, Jay, Troughton, and Armitage) and We are Robin Hood (Kennedy, Jay, Troughton, and Armitage). These start well, with some structure to that of Sisterhood, particularly with Allen and Minghella explaining some of the background to the making of the episode but by the time this gets to the busier recordings for Show Me the Money! with Gordon Kennedy and others watching the cricket scores as they also watch the episode, there's less being said about the show and more of the characters cracking gags and talking over one another. Still, this viewer had no complaints about the same on the first series of Robin Hood and none here either. Gordon Kennedy does well to keep the conversation going, while the relationship between the members of the cast seems to be a good one, particularly between Kennedy, Griffiths, Troughton and Jay. Anyone wanting much as regards the production is sure to be disappointed. Those after mere anecdotes, laughs and jokes at those not in the room are likely to be less so.
All of the other bonus material is presented on the fifth disc in the set. The main feature is Beneath The Hood (27m29s), a making of the show filmed on the set in Hungary. There are interviews with all of the principal members of the cast (and crew) and it's a very reasonable one. The interviews themselves are good, with it being perfectly clear how much the actors are enjoying the on-location filming, but the feature assumes that the viewer has watched the season given how much it reveals. Speaking of which, there are two other features but it's hard to say very much about them without giving away everything about the manner in which two characters write themselves out of the show. Indeed, if you should come to this set not having watched the entire series, you would be well advised to avoid the last disc entirely as even the titles of the features give away two major twists. Still, like Beneath The Hood, they're well made, feature interviews with the cast and crew, particularly those most affected, and last for 18m19s and 7m14s.