1984 – 1986
Program creator and writer: Richard Carpenter
Bechdel Test? Probably not.
England is a paradox. It’s repressive, class bound, notoriously racist, and practically synonymous with colonialism. It’s also a hot bed of left wing intellectualism, the adopted home of Kropotkin, and the country that made punk global. Its not surprising then, that at the height of Thatcherism, with The National Front killing South Asians on the street, one of the hottest shows of television was about an unrelenting anarchist militia fighting colonial power in the name of an indigenous nature spirit.
At the height of Thatcherism, with The National Front killing South Asians on the street, one of the hottest shows of television was about an unrelenting anarchist militia fighting colonial power in the name of an indigenous nature spirit.
They got away with this under the guise of historical content dressed up with myth and magic. While sold to ITV as a “children’s show” Robin of Sherwood’s themes were amazingly sophisticated and its production values made it the best heroic fantasy story on film or television produced in the 1980s. The setting was the last period during which England was itself a colony, a century after the Norman Conquest of 1066. During this time, French-speaking Normans had replaced most of Anglo-Saxon chieftains of England and the King of England was also the Duke of Normandy. The Saxons, aka the English, were a colonial underclass speaking a gutter language.
In the pilot movie we learn that Robin is the son of Ailrick, a Saxon rebel from the village of Loxley. The Normans not only kill Ailrick but burn Loxley and deny that it ever existed. Robin is raised by a miller alongside the miller’s young son Much. Fifteen years latter Much kills one of “The King’s” deer. He and Robin are captured as poachers and taken to Nottingham Castle. They escape, along with several others, to Sherwood Forest to live as outlaws. They talk of how they will survive while always being on the run. Tom, a Fletcher, says they need to “stay away from trouble.” His friend (lover?) Dicken says, “do as you’re told and they’ll leave you alone.”
Robin ventures deeper in the forest, drawn towards a mysterious shaman. The shaman serves as the mortal vessel of Herne the Hunter, the god of the English forest. Herne gives Robin a magic sword and tells him that he is his chosen son and has a destiny to fight oppression. Robin returns to the group, and what follows sets the tone for entire series:
[Will Scarlet] “Loxley? Is that you, Loxley?”
[Robin] “No. Not Loxley. Robin. Robin in the Hood.”
[Little John] “Robin in the Hood? Have you been bewitched too?”
[Robin] “No, not bewitched, awakened, chosen by Herne the Hunter, his son. You were sleeping. You slept too long. We all have. It’s time we woke. Time we stopped running. Nobody ran at Hastings.”
[Tom the Fletcher] “No, they stood and died by the thousands!”
[Robin] (fiercely) “But at least they died fighting!”
[Will Scarlet] “That’s an old battle to bring up. That was a long time ago.”
[Robin]“And what’s happened to the English since then Will?! I mean where are they?” He confronts Tom. “Stay away from trouble?” He confronts Dicken “Do as you’re told and they’ll leave you alone?! He grabs Dicken and points to him. “Is this the spirit of England?!! Villages destroyed so that princes can hunt unhindered. The people bled dry to pay for foreign wars! No voice! No justice! NO ENGLAND!! … Well, it’s time to fight back!!”
It’s hard not to raise a fist in solidarity to a speech like that, but the way “England” is used sounds like nationalism and nationalism is always troubling to us anarchists. The way “England” is used is also odd because the characters are least four hundred years too early to be talking about an English nation-state whose people (allegedly) have “voice” in government. “England” is a modern metaphor with an unclear meaning. Fortunately, the meaning of Robin’s “England” is clarified by the end of the first season in the episode “The King’s Fool.”
Like most modern adaptations of Robin Hood, the series takes place during the reign of Richard the First. Richard is traditionally viewed as the great “English” hero of the Crusades even though he was a Norman. Robin Hood is also an English hero, so having them hate each other is a problem for patriotic storytelling. The usual way to fix this is to blame the oppression Robin fights on Prince John, who ruled as regent when Richard was off killing Muslims. John was the bad king the Magna Carta was written to keep in line, so it’s OK to blame oppression on him. So in the usual (Errol Flynn for example) version, Richard comes back to England, Robin meets him in the forest, swears loyalty, gets pardoned, and together they go slap Prince John’s pinky.
In “The King’s Fool,” that story is monkeywrenched. Richard does pardon Robin and company when they unwittingly save his life. They follow him to Nottingham, enjoying the fact that the Sheriff can no longer lay a hand on them. The King, charismatically played John Rhys-Davies, dazzles Robin and even listens diplomatically to Robin’s pleas on behalf of the poor. One by one company realizes that their pardon was political decision to humiliate the Sheriff and endear Richard to commoners. Finally, Little John confronts Robin about Richard’s duplicity:
[Little John] What does he care about England? How long has he ever spent here? A few months and he’s off again, isn’t he? Once he’s drained the country of money…
[Robin] You were a serf; he gave you your freedom!
[Little John] Oh, yes – to die for him in Normandy!
[Robin] Well, we could have died in Sherwood.
[Little John] Then I’ll choose Sherwood! … I loved you, Robin. You were the Hooded Man, Herne’s Son, the people’s hope. Now… now you’re the king’s fool.
The Robin learns that Richard has levied a new tax to finance his new war in Normandy. Robin confronts him in open court. Richard makes the joke that he should give Robin a pig’s bladder to hit him with like any licensed fool, thus confirming Little John’s accusation. Robin leaves the court realizing the truth.
[Robin] I was wrong, from the beginning. He’s a warrior. Nothing else matters to him.
[Friar Tuck] And he’ll leave England to the mercy of people like the Sheriff.
Richard tries to have Robin discretely murdered, but of course Robin escapes. By rewriting the story of Robin’s reconciliation with the English proto-state, it’s clear that the England Robin fights for is an ethnic nation and not a nation state. He also trashes the softened image of Robin Hood as a reformer forced to extremes. Robin is a revolutionary and remains one throughout the series.
The series takes an interesting turn at the end of the second season. Eldritch-looking brunette heartthrob Michael Praed took a role in a Broadway play, leaving the show without its lead for the third season. They replaced him with pretty blonde Jason Connery. Rather than try to claim they were the same man, they let Herne chose another son. Drawing from the often-contradictory Robin legends they replaced one version of Robin, the peasant Robin of Loxley, with the rogue knight version Robert of Huntington. Robert reunites the outlaws, but it takes several episodes for him to gain acceptance since he is a noble. At first there is no proof that the new Robin in the Hood is he, so he tricks the Sheriff and his father for a while. Ultimately, he is disinherited and outlawed. The lesson is clear – the bourgeoisie can join the revolution but they must give up everything.
Season three had twelve episodes, twice as many as the each of the first two seasons. The increased pace led to shortcuts in production and guest writers for the scripts. Jason Connery was solid in his role, but didn’t have Micheal Praed’s presence. Praed looked like the chosen son of a pagan forest spirit. Somehow, Connery didn’t. The series went from amazing and inspired to just really good.
Despite its excellent portrayal of class struggle, the show had some issues with gender and ethnicity. Women aren’t seriously objectified in this show and Micheal Praed’s tight pants and open shirts are more sexualized than anything they put the female cast in, but Marion (Judi Trott) is the only regular female character. She’s also the only regular female character in the source material, but they could have added someone if they wanted.
Marion was promoted from damsel in distress to revolutionary fighter in the second episode, “The Witch of Elsdon.” Early in the episode, Marion is shown cooking and doing odd jobs in the outlaw camp and getting zero respect for it. She confronts Robin and demands that he let her fight. After this episode she frequently uses a longbow but does not fight hand to hand. She is also included in strategic discussions. Female archers are something of a trope. Bows allow women to be strong and dangerous without putting them in the thick of combat. The thick of combat remains a masculine area. Thus feminism is given a nod but patriarchy is preserved.
The Norman/Saxon ethnic tension is huge part of the show and is used to pound in an anti-colonial message. In the pilot, the Sheriff refers the English with a sneer as “native rabble,” thus drawing a strong analogy to Victorian references to Indian, African, and Asian people. Over and over, the series shows us that England was conquered and oppressed and that conquering people and oppressing them is extremely shitty. This was an easy way to talk about ethnic struggle because it’s safely in the past. Modern English ethnicity is a merger of the old Anglo-Saxon and Norman cultures. But when they worked outside of the roots of modern England, the series didn’t do as well with ethnicity.
To its credit, this version of Robin Hood was the first to introduce a Saracen character to the outlaw band. The idea has been copied since then, but at the time it was an awkwardly-handled afterthought. Medievalist and actor Mark Ryan was cast in the pilot as the non-speaking captain of the guard to the devil-worshiping Simon de Belleme. Belleme was a former crusader. After some screen tests, they decided to give Mark Ryan two scimitars and named him Nasir on the excuse that Belleme had bewitched him in Palestine and dragged him to England. As the dailies rolled in from shooting, they realized that Mark Ryan looked totally badass on screen. They decided to keep him. They revised the ending of the pilot and had Nasir join the outlaws. It was a long way back to Palestine and he had nothing better to do. He still didn’t get any lines though.
Nasir was the only pseudo non-white on the show — “pseudo” because while the character is supposedly Semitic, Ryan is actually a slightly olive-skinned Englishman who happens to have dark curly hair. Because his role was nonspeaking in the pilot, they give him sparse lines throughout the first two seasons. When he did speak they played it like he was struggling with the English language. They didn’t give him proper dialog or a backstory until season three. As well being the silent mysterious other, there was also an unfortunate scene in which the outlaws were eating a boar. “No pig?” asks Little John. “No pig.” answers Nasir. The outlaws chuckle. They probably were just trying to remind the audience that the quiet guy was Muslim, but it comes across as marginalizing.
The episode “The Children of Israel” does a much better job with religious and ethnic diversity. They take on England’s history of anti-Semitism with accuracy and compassion. Since loaning money for interest was forbidden by the church but was socially necessary, Jews were allowed to do it on the assumption that they were damned to hell anyway. In order to allow them to collect on debt without reprisal, the King claimed ownership of the all the Jews in England during this period. Thus to attack a Jew was to attack the King’s property. During the twelfth century, a series of suspicious riots occurred in which Jews were anonymously and conveniently murdered. This is the basis of the episode. Joshua de Talmont confronts the sheriff about his massive debt. Guy of Gisburne develops a mad crush of Sarah de Talmont Joshua’s daughter. The Sheriff orders Gisburne to start an anti-Jewish riot. Gisburne claims that the Jews were marking their doors the blood of a Christian child rather than a lamb. Gisburne warns the Talmonts through a note then helps murder all the other Jews in Nottingham. He kidnaps Sarah in order to convert her to Christianity and marry her. She tells him exactly what she thinks of him in a very fiery, utterly badass speech. There are some great moments in this episode, like the interactions between Nasir and the Talmonts. They remind us that Jews and Muslims used to get along much better before colonialism fucked things up. Sarah was pretty brave too. I wish she had picked up a weapon and joined the outlaws. Maybe between her and Marion the series would have passed the Brechdel test.
Despite its flaws, Robin of Sherwood gave us three seasons of quality television about a pagan anarchist militia. It remains a cult classic, but one wonders if they knew they making an anarchist TV show? Well, series creator Richard Carpenter once said
“…the success of Robin of Sherwood is that it struck a chord in people. They felt all the times that they didn’t have change for the parking meter or they got a silly note from the tax man, and all the sort of petty bureaucracy which is not quite the same having your hands chopped off because you shot a bow, but at the same time there’s a little bit of the anarchist in all of us.”
2 thoughts on “Robin of Sherwood”
It’s also interesting how much the mystical aspects of the show have stayed with people over the years, even though they were often tangential to the series.
I watched this series in the 1980’s and loved it. Not sure how it would stand up now though but very fond memories. It was the “Game of Thrones” of it’s time.