Robin of Sherwood – Robin Hood and the Sorcerer. Part One

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Robin of Sherwood is for many, myself included, the definitive take on Robin Hood.  There are many reasons why, which include the quality of Richard Carpenter’s scripts, the excellent ensemble cast and the stylish direction.  As we work our way through the series I’m sure there’ll be other reasons that I’ll pick out.

Robin Hood and the Sorcerer has to fulfil the task of introducing all the main characters.  This allows Carpenter to set out his stall – many elements will be familiar, but he also takes the opportunity to subvert some familiar aspects of the legend.

We open with a flashback, some fifteen years previously.  Ailric  (Wayne Michaels) is unable to prevent his village of Loxley from being burnt to the ground by the Sheriff’s men but is able to hide his young son, Robin, with the Miller’s family.  The burning of Loxley is an early indication of the visual sweep that the series will employ – Ian Sharp’s direction favours deep filters on the skyline and plenty of hand-held camerawork during the fight scenes, but there’s also care taken that most of the deaths occur off-screen.

One notable exception is Ailric, who’s run to ground by the Sheriff Robert de Rainault (Nickolas Grace) and his men in the middle of a stone circle.  The location, and the prize (a silver arrow), which the Sheriff plucks from Ailric’s dead body are early indications of the series’ mystical edge.  Ailric’s death – filled full of arrows – is a brutal one and it can hardly be a coincidence that Robin of Loxley would later suffer a similar fate (although that happened off-screen).  Ailric’s dying words (“the hooded man is coming”) is a nice tag into the credits, although the question has to be why it took so long for him to arrive.

We then flash forward fifteen years to the present day, where Much (Peter Llewellyn Williams) has just killed one of the King’s deer, much to Robin’s (Michael Praed) displeasure.  So although it becomes clear later that he’s inherited his father’s rebellious fighting streak, to begin with he seems to want a quiet life.  Of course, the wise thing to do would have been to have left the deer where it was – but Robin decides to carry it out of the forest, running straight into Sir Guy of Gisburne (Robert Addie).  Oh dear.

The shooting of the deer and Sir Guy are familiar parts of the Robin Hood legend, so there’s no surprises to be found in this part of the story.  Sir Guy is every bit as superior as you’d expect and Addie is perfect in the role (essentially he plays him as a public schoolboy with a very mean streak).

The first major diversion from the familiar comes when we’re introduced to Will Scarlet (Ray Winstone).  Robin and Much join him in the castle dungeon, where he emerges from the shadows with a real sense of menace.  He quickly fills them in on his backstory – his wife was raped by soldiers and then trampled to death by their horses – which means he now only lives to kill.  Although as he’s shortly due to be hanged, it doesn’t look like he’s going to live for too much longer. Not that that seems to bother him unduly.  This radical recreation of the character (previously Will tended to be a cheerful chap in tights) is a gift for Winstone who hits the ground running and never lets up.  In retrospect it’s easy to see that his star quality was already in place.

Also lurking in the shadows are Tom the Fletcher (Paul Duggan) and Dickon (Mark Audley).  They’ll also escape along with Robin, Much and Will and will be members of Robin’s outlaw band.  If you’ve watched Blakes 7 (which itself had nods to the Robin Hood legend) then it’s possible to guess that Tom and Dickon won’t be terribly long-lasting characters.

Marion (Judi Trott) and Friar Tuck (Phil Rose) are also introduced.  Marion is the ward of the Sherriff’s brother, Abbot Hugo (Philip Jackson), whilst Tuck spends his time attending to Marion.  When Hugo first appears, he’s upset with his brother because he’s been ordered to drain his fish pond!  He’s also shown to be keen for Marion to enter a nunnery, so that the church can obtain her lands.  The greed and corruption of the church is a familiar theme in the Robin Hood legends and Carpenter maintains that here.  Jackson (although not a very central figure) is always a delight and his scenes with Grace are a joy.

But if Hugo wants Marion to take holy orders, then the Baron de Belleme (Anthony Valentine) wants her for his new bride.  From the opening scene it’s plain that the arts the Baron follows are black ones.  It takes an actor of class and distinction to play a part like the Baron without it tipping over into either melodrama or parody and, of course, Valentine is perfect.  Even when he has little or no dialogue he exudes a real sense of menace.

Robin and Marion meet for the first time – he bursts into her bedchamber as he’s attempting to escape from the castle.  Love at first sight?  Possibly.  Again, the audience will be primed that Robin and Mation will become an item, so their attraction to each other doesn’t need to be overstated, as it’s plain they’ll meet again. Trott is delicately beautiful, although she also manages to show that Marion’s wilful and rebellious nature is already present and correct.

Robin has another meeting. This happens in the forest where he encounters Herne the Hunter (John Abineri).  This was another of Carpenter’s additions – mixing the legend of Herne the Hunter with the legend of Robin Hood.  Having Herne around is handy – since he can pop up at important times with a sage piece of advice (like Yoda, but with antlers).  His initial appearance is fascinating  –  Herne asks Robin if he fears him.  Robin replies no, because he’s only a man.  As we’ll see though, Herne is more than a man and Abineri was exactly the right man for the part.  It’s another fairly small role, so it needed someone powerful who could hook the audience’s attention straight away and Abineri certainly delivers this.

Herne’s first job is to make Robin the saviour of the poor and the oppressed.  In most versions of the Robin Hood legend there comes a point when Robin decides to champion those most in need of help.  In Robin of Sherwood, Herne is shown to be the driving force behind this.  “They are all waiting. The blinded, the maimed, the men locked in the stinking dark all wait for you. Children with swollen bellies, hiding in ditches, wait for you. The poor, the dispossessed, they all wait. You are their hope.”

We’ve yet to be introduced to Little John (Clive Mantle), although he’s been seen several times in the story to date. Little John is under the spell of the Baron and is sent out to Sherwood to kill Robin.  This then sets the scene for one of the most famous elements of the Robin Hood legend – the quarterstaff duel between Robin and Little John on a narrow bridge above a stream.

Because of John’s possession, this is not the jolly, light-hearted trial of arms we’re used to seeing.  It’s a brutal fight (albeit one that takes place in a gorgeous setting – with a cascading waterfall behind them).  Robin comes out on top of course, and breaks the Baron’s spell on John, earning his thanks and loyalty.

A second meeting with Herne is enough to convert Robin.  This is something of a leap, since he was (at best) very undecided just a short time before and Robin’s subsequent stirring speech to his men about freedom is a tad overwrought.  Had this conversion happened after he learnt that Much’s father had been brutally murdered by Gisburne then it would have seemed more natural. Since the Miller had been his stepfather since Ailric’s death, he would have had a very personal reason to fight.

Some of the motifs of the series (“nothing’s forgotten”) and Robin’s sword, Albion (“charged with the powers of light and darkness”) are already present and correct and with Marion extracted by Robin from Gisburne’s clutches the story is nicely poised.

Robin of Sherwood – Robin Hood and the Sorcerer. Part Two

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It’s rather ironic that Robin “rescued” Marion from Gisburne’s clutches, only to learn that he was actually taking her to where she wanted to go – Kirklees Abbey.  Robin’s visibly shaken about this.  “You don’t look like a nun” he tells her.  Both Praed and Trott are lovely in these scenes – Robin is rather earnest and gauche, whilst Marion sees no future for her in Sherwood.  As she tells him, it’s fine to be his May Queen, but what happens when winter comes?

So he drops her at the Abbey and they exchange long, lingering looks – although this is obviously far from the end of the story.  That’s reinforced when Robin pays another visit to Herne and has a vision of the future (which includes Marion as a sacrificial victim).  Herne then utters cryptic messages which Robin doesn’t fully understand.

The silver arrow, which the Sheriff obtained after murdering Robin’s father, comes back into play.  It’s interesting that Robin never seems to be aware that his father was killed by the Sheriff,(if he knew this it would give him a strong reason to seek revenge).  But possibly that would have been too obvious, instead Carpenter seems content for the audience to know more than the leading man.

The Sheriff explains to Hugo that the arrow is an ancient artefact – a symbol of England (i.e. pre-Norman England).  Whilst de Rainault is aware that others claim it has mystical properties, he personally doesn’t seem to believe this.  For him it’s simply an object that was used to rally a rebellion and – if it falls into the wrong hands – could do so again.

But it’s the perfect bait to draw Robin out of Sherwood, so he offers it as first prize in an Archery contest.  The Archery contest is one of the staples of the Robin Hood legend, but by making the prize a mystical artefact Carpenter is able to add his own stamp on the familiar tale.  And it’s an intriguing story-beat that the Baron is also keen to acquire the arrow.  Although it’s a symbol of good for Herne and Robin, the Baron would no doubt be able to put it to a different use (which brings to mind the oft-repeated phrase that Robin’s sword contains “the powers of light and darkness”.  The arrow, like the sword, can be used for eiher purpose – it’s up to the nature of the user).

Robin’s old-age make up (a white beard, a padded chest) is quite impressive.  Which member of the Merry Men goes in for amateur dramatics then!?  But if he’s going to win the arrow he’ll have to defeat the finest shot in the land, Flambard (Thomas Henty) as well as the Baron’s man, Nasir (Mark Ryan).  As we’ll learn, Nasir is a man of few words (I think he speaks more in the recent audio play The Knights of the Apocalypse than he did in the whole three years of the television series!)  Unlike Little John, Nasir doesn’t seem to be under the Baron’s spell – he’s simply content (at the moment) to work for him.

With Flambard and Nasir such good shots, how can Robin compete?  Very well, as it happens.  This begs the question as to whether he genuinely was that good or if his performance was being subtlety guided by Herne.  The Sheriff smells a rat.  Robin’s dead centre shot would be impossible for most people, “but not for Herne’s son.”  So does the Sheriff believe in magic after all?

This latest debacle infuriates the Sheriff.  How will they be able to entice Robin out of Sherwood now?  The Baron has a solution – if they give him Marion then Robin will attempt to rescue her and the Baron (with a little help from the devil) will destroy him.  Hugo isn’t happy (although he’s mollified when he learns that the Baron doesn’t want her lands, he only wants her).  The Sheriff considers one Saxon virgin a small price to pay for vanquishing a dangerous outlaw, although Friar Tuck (earwigging) isn’t at all happy.

Tuck has been a background figure so far, but it’s Marion’s betrayal by both the Sheriff and the Abbot which forces him to finally take sides.  When Marion is later captured, he tells the Hooded Man, who sets out to face the Baron alone.  As he tells the others, this isn’t a fight with bows and arrows – it’s a fight between the powers of light and darkness.

Marion continues not to play the victim, telling the Baron that he’s a victim of his devil, not a servant.   She’s tied to a pentacle and readied for sacrifice, but first Robin has to face the Baron.  This isn’t a fair fight, as Robin sees his bow burst into flames.  Like the rest of the story it’s a stylishly directed sequence, dripping with atmosphere.  Perhaps the most effective part is when the incidental music suddenly stops and the Baron inflicts a number of long-range cuts on Robin.   Mind you, the Baron’s (apparent) death scene is pretty memorable as well, with Anthony Valentine giving it his all.

It might have been deliberate that after a great deal of build-up, the Baron de Belleme was fairly easily defeated.  He may have had the power of darkness to call on, bur it’s a non-believer like de Rainault who’s able to strike a bigger blow – as his men manage to kill both Dickon and Tom.  Carpenter was aware that once the series was up and running it would have been difficult to kill off one of the main characters (although events conspired to make this happen in The Greatest Enemy) so instead he created a couple of Merries who looked as if they were going to be regulars, only to cut them done in their prime.

This also enables Robin to make a stirring speech which acts as the mission statement for the series. With the sunlight beating down, making the forest seem even more idyllic than usual, he tells the Merries and Marion that “our friends who were killed, they’ll never starve, or be tortured, or chained in the dark. They’re here with us in Sherwood and they always will be, because they’re free”.

Robin Hood and the Sorcerer covers a great deal of ground in 100 minutes. It manages to shine new light on old stories, sharply introduce the large cast of regulars as well as pointing the way ahead to the way the series will develop. With Robin and Marion now married by Herne and Nasir a member of the Merry Men, all the pieces are in place.

Robin of Sherwood – The Witch of Elsdon

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Thanks to Gisburne’s faked evidence, Jennet of Elsdon (Angharad Rees) is convicted of witchcraft.  She and her husband, Thomas (Cornellius Garrett), are due to be hanged in three days time.  But then the Sheriff offers both of them a pardon, provided Jennet uses her skills with herbs to incapacitate Robin and the rest of the Merry Men …..

The Witch of Elsdon opens with a double prophecy – two for the price of one, you might say.  Robin later correctly interprets the first part (the location of the Sheriff’s taxes) but sadly isn’t able to work out who might be poisoning their drink (although it’s probably obvious to most of the audience).  Bit of a waste of time Herne bothering to tip him the nod then.

The use of prophecies has to be done carefully – it’s a handy storytelling shortcut but it can also turn into a magic wand to explain away plotholes.  However it does work quite well here, as it gives Robin foreknowledge which isn’t shared by the others.  He knows that a cart will be passing somewhere through the forest, apparently carrying nothing but sacks of grain, whereas it’s actually brimming over with tax money.  Although the theme isn’t really developed there’s a faint air of tension amongst the Merries (especially Tuck) as they can’t understand why Robin seems to be heading off on a totally arbitrary course.  That he decides not to tell them he’s acting on something he learnt about in a dream could be significant.  Does he fear they wouldn’t believe him, or is he simply being aloof – as maybe a good leader should?

Their adventure with the tax man marks the start of tension between Robin and Marion.  Robin wants Marion to stay behind – he tells her she may get hurt  – which Marion doesn’t take at all well.  Later , there’s a nice scene where Judi Trott wordlessly views the drunken, belching Merries who are crowing about how they abused the unfortunate tax-collector, Gregory (David Goodland).  Marion doesn’t say anything – but then she doesn’t have to as her expression speaks volumes.  She loves Robin, but now seems to be wondering exactly what she’s let herself in for.

Nickolas Grace continues to be a source of great amusement and entertainment.  Sheriff Robert de Rainault is well served by this script, with the following moments being particularly memorable.

  1. His comment when he realises that Gisburne has invented charges of witchcraft against Jennett because she refused to sleep with him is priceless.  “I’m really most impressed.  If she tried to bewitch me, I’d be inclined to let her.”  Delivered with Grace’s trademark sneering insincerity of course.
  2. The hapless tax-collector Gregory finds himself kicked and punched around the castle floor before the Sheriff orders him to be taken to the rack.  Best to say that de Rainault’s not pleased with him then ….
  3. The Sheriff delights in taunting Jennett as he drafts her pardon, which is totally dependent on her delivering Robin to him.  And just to make a point, he throws a cupful of wine in her face.  The rotter!
  4. Robin and the Sheriff have their first sword fight.  Although fairly short it’s still energetically staged and this direct physical content does – as Robin concedes – signify that their feud has reached another level.  Now the Sheriff won’t rest until one of them is dead.

Angharad Rees, a familiar television face in the late seventies thanks to Poldark, is nicely vulnerable as Jennet.  That Jennet’s conflicted about what she has to do is obvious, but her husband’s fate is paramount.  It’s just a pity that she catches the eye of Will, who becomes instantly smitten with her.  Will, by far the most emotionally damaged of the Merries, doesn’t take her betrayal at all well – even if the others (especially Marion) find it easier to understand and forgive.  Cue several scenes of Ray Winstone looking especially downcast.

If the basic plot is quite straightforward, then it’s the character building moments (Robin and Marion, Robin and the Sheriff, etc) which make this a rewarding episode to rewatch.  The weather gods obviously smiled on the filming again, as the forest scenes are bathed in sunshine.  There’s plenty of fighting and Robert Addie gets dunked under the water numerous times.  So what’s not to like?

Robin of Sherwood – Seven Poor Knights from Acre

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When a one-eyed thief called Siward (Simon Rouse) steals a sacred emblem from a small band of warrior knights, it spells trouble for Robin and the others.  Their leader, Reynald de Villaret (Yves Beneyton), mistakenly believes that Robin was the thief and he’ll stop at nothing to exact his revenge.  Much is taken hostage whilst Robin is easily defeated by de Villaret in a one-sided swordfight.  Robin then has to endure trial by battle, facing the imposing form of Heinrich von Erlichshausen (Duncan Preston).

Seven Poor Knights from Acre opens sedately enough, with Robin and the Merry Men indulging in a game of skill.  Who can shoot an arrow into a swinging sack which has been placed some distance away?  Nobody it seems, until Marion steps up and does!  Robin then goes one better by piercing the rope which suspended the sack.  He mutters that it was a lucky shot, but he’s probably only being modest.

As the contest continues, there’s an interesting conversation between Robin and Will.  Will wonders why Robin hasn’t killed Gisburne yet (which no doubt had also crossed the audience’s minds).  Robin replies that the people hate Gisburne, so as long as he’s alive his cruelty will drive more people to their side.  It’s reasonable to assume that Robin has also considered the possibility that he might be replaced with someone fairer – which obviously wouldn’t suit their purposes quite so well.

I didn’t mention last time that the Merries have now increased by two, James (Steven Osborne) and Martin (Martin West).  This is probably because they do so little it’s easy to forget that they’re there (think of Private Sponge in Dad’s Army – always in the background but never really one of the “gang”).  And poor James doesn’t go any further than this story, as he’s cut down in the brutal battle between the Knights and the Merries.  Martin continues to the end of the first series and then just disappers sometime before the start of series two.

The initial tussle between the Merry Men and the Knights is another excellently directed sequence by Ian Sharp.  It’s plain that Robin and the others are way out of their depth as the Knights, encased in armour and mounted on horseback, herd them around the forest like sheep.  Sharp also elects to shoot from inside one of the Knights’ helmets, which adds to the sense of claustrophobia and dread.

If one was being picky, then you have to wonder how these incredibly professional warriors allowed a sneak-thief like Siward to steal their most sacred relic.  Was nobody keeping guard?  It’s also something of a coincidence that Siward crossed paths with Robin at exactly the right moment for de Villaret to jump to the wrong conclusion that the Hooded Man was the thief.

Speaking of coincidences, what are the chances that the Sheriff and Gisburne would turn up at the village where de Villaret and the others have set up camp?  No matter, as it allows the Sheriff and de Villaret to face off very entertainly, whilst Gisburne blunders around annoying everybody.

Simon Rouse, later to play DCI Jack Meadows in The Bill has the small, but key, role of the shifty Siward.  Duncan Preston, best known for his work with Victoria Wood, is very butch as the impressively named Heinrich von Erlichshausen.  This warrior knight doesn’t say much, but he scowls impressively and his face (bearing numerous scars) is obviously his own personal battlefield.  The majority of Yves Beneyton’s roles are in French language films and television (although his English credits include Chariots of Fire and The Borgias).  Still, it’s nice that for once a role like this wasn’t played by an English actor putting on a dodgy accent.

de Villaret is a formidable foe, and that’s one of the main reasons why this episode works well.  Even this early in the run, the Sheriff’s soldiers seem to be little more than a never-ending supply of stuntmen whose sole purpose in life was to fall off a horse and/or a castle battlement (after they’ve been filled full of arrows).  But the warrior knights offer a much sterner challenge and although we know that eventually Robin will win through, it’s more satisfying if he has to work for his victory.

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Robin of Sherwood – Alan a Dale

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Alan a Dale (Peter Hutchinson) is a wandering minstrel who happens to wander through Sherwood Forest.  He’s stopped by Robin and the others, although after they find his pockets are empty (maybe he’s not a very good minstrel?) the Hooded Man tells him he can go on his way.  But then they learn he’s heading to Nottingham to kill the Sheriff ….

Alan, who seems incapable of not speaking in purple prose, is a most unlikely murderer until he reveals the reason for his torment – his heart is broken because the Sheriff plans to marry his true love, Lady Mildred de Bracey (Stephanie Tague).  It doesn’t go unremarked that maybe a humble minstrel is setting his sights rather high, but no matter.  Alan’s blithely confident that love will conquer all.

Alan a Dale was a fairly late addition to the legends of Robin Hood, first appearing in the seventeenth century.  Richard Carpenter sticks fairly close to the original story – a lovesick minstrel – but he adds a little extra spice by changing Alan’s rival from a faceless Baron to the Sheriff of Nottingham.

de Rainault is far from enthusiastic about his impending nuptials, describing poor Mildred as a “pansy-faced sixteen year old virgin”!  This same scene has to be one of my favourite Sheriff/Gisburne two-handers.  Gisburne is still fuming that Little John was spotted in the village of Wickham (more about this in a minute).  In order to teach the villagers a lesson he proposes driving them into the forest and then burning the village to the ground.

The Sheriff’s rage – he’s taking a bath by the way – is wonderful to see.  After overturning his tray of food so that it ends up in the bathwater, he acidly tells Gisburne that the people of Wickham are his property – if they burn the village who will work the land? To say nothing of the fact that Gisburne plans to send them into the forest where they’ll be able to join up with Robin Hood!  Grace and Addie continue to entertain (and it’s easy to spot a possible homoerotic undertone when de Rainault asks Gisburne to rub him dry – “harder!”).  Look out too for the extra who puffs out his cheeks after the Sheriff leaves the room as if to say “he’s in a right mood today.”

John’s been spending his nights in Wickham with the small, but beautifully formed, Meg (Claire Toeman).  As we see John enter Meg’s hut, the camera rather prudishly remains outside.  Instead, we focus on an owl who listens impassively to Meg’s giggling questioning comment about why they call him Little John, when that’s not the case at all …..

These scenes are a nice chance for Clive Mantle to add a little character to the bluff John.  John obviously loves Meg in his own (rather selfish) way, but reacts with barely disguised horror when she talks about joining him in the forest.  That possibility had clearly never even crossed his mind. It’s also escaped his attention that he’s putting Meg and the others in danger, leaving Robin has to spell it out. John can disappear into the forest but they can’t – therefore the villagers will be the ones who’ll suffer at Gisburne’s hands.  Praed’s Robin shows a  pleasing flash of anger at John’s stupidity, which helps to emphasise that he possesses the steel to be a real leader of men.

The Sheriff is at his beastly best when speaking to the unfortunate Mildred (he spends his time wondering why she cries so much).  Mildred is undeniably rather wet, which does suggest she’d be the perfect match for Alan.  It’s certainly impossible to imagine a life of wedded bliss between her and the Sheriff – although it’s stated several times that he’s only interested in her dowry (ten thousand marks).

Robin wants the money to pay the fine levied by Gisburne on the villagers of Wickham, whilst he also sees a way to stop the marriage (waylay the priest and substitute Alan in his place). Not everything goes to plan – the Sheriff keeps the money and doesn’t have to marry the girl – but this means thar Alan and Mildred are able to ride off into the sunset together. They don’t have any money, but they have each other. Aww, bless.

Although Alan a Dale doesn’t have the most gripping story, it’s simply choc-full of wonderful moments.  The Sheriff/Gisburne bathtime spat I’ve already mentioned, but there’s also the extraordinary sequence where Robin and Gisburne battle it out in the mud.  It looks hideously uncomfortable – and doesn’t advance the story one jot – but it’s all good fun.

Robert Addie enjoys a classic comedy moment when he attempts to coach the guards into giving a rousing cheer to celebrate the Sherrif’s forthcoming marriage.  Their first attempt is wonderfully half-hearted, but they get better with a little practice.  Oh, and Much dresses up as a woman and the Sheriff and Gisburne are attacked by bees! It’s all happening.

I’m rather intrigued as to why Peter Hutchinson was dubbed throughout by Simon Shepherd.  Surely it would have made sense to cast an actor who both looked and sounded the part?  The dubbing does add a little distance to Alan’s character, but since it’s done rather well it’s not the disaster it might have been.

Although more than a little predictable – it’s so obvious that Alan and Mildred will end up together – Alan a Dale works well as a light-hearted interlude before the darker themes of the season closer, The King’s Fool.

Robin of Sherwood – The King’s Fool

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Robin and the others rescue a knight, who gives his name as Chevalier Deguise, from a band of Sherwood cutthroats.  They treat him to a feast of meat and wine and then later politely request that he pays their bill.  The knight has no money on him, but Robin notices that his horse is a fine beast and decides it would be a fair exchange for all the hospitality he’s received.

The knight challenges the outlaws to a wrestling contest – winner takes all – and Little John steps up to defend the honour of the Merry Men.  But this is no light-hearted bout and the knight’s sheer power and will to win overcomes John.  Shocked by what he’s seen, Robin asks him who he really is.  The knight replies that he’s King Richard …..

With The King’s Fool, Richard Carpenter once again puts a twist on familiar aspects of the Robin Hood legend.  Good King Richard (away fighting in the Holy Land or a prisoner in Germany) is a staple part of virtually every retelling of the tale.  He’s generally presented as England’s one true hope, with his brother John painted as a venal usurper who lacks all of Richard’s fine qualities.

As the opening credits tell us that John Rhys-Davies is playing King Richard, the audience is placed in the position of knowing more than Robin and the Merry Men right from the start (which gives the opening fifteen minutes a little extra frisson).  For example, when Robin passes around the communal bowl with the ritual words “Herne protect us” Richard prefers instead to honour “King Richard”.  The others, after a momentary pause, nod in agreement.

But although they don’t dismiss Richard out of hand, it’s also plain that most of them share no particular love for their King.  Most outspoken is Will, who regards him as just another lord and master (and just as corrupt).  Ray Winstone pulses with anger in this scene as does Rhys-Davies (who, remember, has yet to reveal his true identity).  It look as if Richard and Will might come to blows, but Robin manages to diffuse the situation.  However, the irony that the hot-headed Will is completely right from the beginning is clearly not accidental ….

The wrestling match is brutal, with both Richard and Little John almost reverting to an animalistic state.  After Richard emerges victorious and reveals himself to be their King, he pardons Robin and the others.  They might be outlaws, but they saved his life and that – in his eyes – wipes the slate clean.

Robin is keen to go to Nottingham to attend Richard, as are the others, all except Will. “I trust very few people, and I’m looking at all of ’em. I’d die for each one of you. But there’s no way I’m going to Nottingham”. Perceptively he casts doubt on the permanence of Richard’s patronage.  He’s pardoned them now, but what happens tomorrow or the day after?  That Will’s the only one to realise this is a slight weakness of the story – as the others calmly walk into Nottingham and allow themselves to be apprehended by Gisburne and presented to the King in chains.

The predictable happens – Richard angrily tells Gisburne to release them and Robin and the others are treated as honoured guests – but it would have probably served them right if Richard had decided to have them all executed on the spot.  Presumably Robin’s still dazzled by Richard’s star-power (the moment where the King offers Robin his hand to kiss in the forest is a nicely played scene by Michael Praed – watch how Robin flinches before accepting the honour).  For those brought up on the previous Robin Hood stories which presented Richard as the “hero”, everything seems to be moving in the direction you’d expect.  This Richard might be louder and more boorish than most versions of the King, but he’s pardoned Robin so he must be good, mustn’t he?

The first discordant note is struck when Robin attempts to make an appeal to Richard on behalf of the poor. The King, only half-listening, cuts him off mid-way through and whilst he applauds Robin’s sentiments it’s plain that this is done only for show.  The King is a skilled politician and by co-opting Robin he’s removed a potentially dangerous enemy and turned him into an ally.

Robin remains flattered for a while that his opinions are sought (to the obvious irritation of the Sheriff) but his desire to serve the King only helps to speed up the fractures in the Merry Men.  Will was the first, but now – one by one – they leave him, until only Tuck, Marion and Much are left.  Almost too late Robin realises he’s been well and truly manipulated – Richard has no love for either England or its people. Little John succinctly sums up their feelings. “I loved you, Robin. You were the Hooded Man, Herne’s Son, the people’s hope. Now … now you’re the king’s fool.”  Mantle, his eyes full of tears, plays the scene well.

The King, having tired of Robin, decides that the Hooded Man should die and Gisburne is despatched to do the deed.  The action ramps up after Gisburne takes a shotbow bolt in the back (fired by Marion) and Robin faces stiff opposition from a number of sword-wielding soldiers.

Marion’s been fatally wounded and only the magic of Herne can save her.  Following Robin Hood and the Sorcerer, the mystical elements of the series have rather taken a back seat (although The Witch of Elsdon did have some handy prophecies which moved the plot along nicely).  The miraculous revival of Marion does feel like a little bit of a cheat, since it begs the question why Robin doesn’t call on Herne every time somebody’s close to death

But although it’s a little irksome in story terms, it’s still an impressively shot and acted sequence as Robin and Marion end up at the same stone circle seen at the start of the series (the one where his father was killed by the Sheriff’s men fifteen years previously).  And as if by magic the Merry Men reappear.  Now that Robin has rejected the illusionary power offered by the King they’re all free to take up residence in Sherwood once more.

Thanks to a pulsating performance by John Rhys-Davies, The King’s Fool closes series one on a high.  Apart from maybe a slight dip with The Witch of Elsdon, the quality remained very consistent and series two would maintain – and at times better – this high standard.