The Legend of Robin Hood (BBC 1975) – Part One

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The stories of Robin Hood have proven to be evergreen and have featured in numerous film and television adaptations over the years.  On British television, probably the two best-remembered takes on the character are Richard Greene’s The Adventures of Robin Hood (1955-1960) and Richard Carpenter’s much later, somewhat radical reworking of the legend, as seen in Robin of Sherwood (1984-1986).

The Legend of Robin Hood, broadcast in 1975, was a six-part serial which drew some of its inspiration from the earliest surviving written material (namely the ballads, such as A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode).  Naturally, some elements (such as Robin’s beheading of the Sherrif) are omitted and The Legend of Robin Hood is also content to cherry-pick material from later interpretations of the stories (neither Maid Marion or King Richard appear in the ballads, for example).

One of the strengths of The Legend of Robin Hood is that it’s a serial, rather than a series, so the tale it tells is finite – with a beginning, a middle and an end.  As enjoyable as the Richard Greene series was, it had an seemingly interminable number of episodes which ensured that character development could never be anything other than minimal.  Although Robin of Sherwood was also a series, the decision by Michael Praed to jump ship (for the dubious pleasures of Dynasty) after series two did ensure that his character (Robin of Locksley) could have a clearly defined fate, something also shared by Martin Potter’s Robin.

After serving a decent apprenticeship in numerous films and television series, The Legend of Robin Hood seemed to be Potter’s first step towards a more substantial career.  But for whatever reason, this never happened and his credits eventually spluttered to a halt – after an episode of All Creatures Great and Small in 1988 there’s nothing until the rather undistinguished television movie The Outsiders in 2006.  But although his later career never developed in the way I’m sure he would have wanted, he still makes a first-class Robin Hood.

He’s supported by an impressive roster of acting talent – Diane Keen as Maid Marion, Paul Darrow as the Sheriff of Nottingham, William Marlowe as Sir Guy of Gisborne, John Abineri (later to take a key role in Robin of Sherwood) as Sir Kenneth Neston, David Dixon as Prince John, Tony Caunter as Friar Tuck, Conrad Asquith as Little John, Michael J. Jackson as King Richard and Yvonne Mitchell as Queen Eleanor.

Part one opens with the Earl of Huntingdon (Anthony Garner) preparing to leave for France.  Before he goes, he places his infant son, Robin, in the charge of Father Ambrose (David King).  Ambrose is charged to find the young Robin a safe place to live and when he’s of age he’ll be told that he’s the rightful heir to the Huntingdon estates.  In some versions of the Robin Hood legend he’s a lowly-born Saxon and in others he’s the noble Earl of Huntington, so it’s a nice twist that this adaptation is able to incorporate both.

Robin is brought up by the forrester John Hood (Trevor Griffiths) and remains ignorant of his true identity.  This isn’t the most effective part of the story as it’s hard to understand why the young Robin would have been removed from the manors at Huntingdon – surely his father could have found somebody he trusted to act as guardian in his absence?  It also has to be said that Robin takes the news that he’s the Earl of Huntingdon very calmly (Martin Potter registering no more emotion than if he’d just been told it was raining outside).  But now the truth is known he sets off to London to seek an audience with King Richard and claim his inheritance.

He’s somewhat delayed, as on the way he meets Lady Marion and her uncle, Sir Kenneth Neston.  Neston, like Robin, is a proud Saxon, so Robin is perturbed to discover that he plans to marry his niece to Sir Guy of Gisborne.  Earlier, Robin saw an example of Sir Guy’s brutal justice (a man arrested for stealing berries from one of Sir Guy’s bushes) so he queries why.  Neston believes that marriages between Saxons and Normans will dilute the Norman influence – Robin is polite, but noncommittal.

William Marlowe always offered a nice line in dangerous villains and his Sir Guy is no different.  Although Sir Guy is polite and courteous in this episode (and also seems sincere in his love for Marion) Marlowe manages to give the impression that he could erupt into violence at any moment.  He dominates the first scene with the Sheriff of Nottingham and the Abbot of Grantham (David Ryall) although a later scene between the Sherriff and the Abbot gives a chance for Paul Darrow to show that he’s equally as dangerous.

There’s no doubt that the DVD has picked up some sales due to Darrow’s appearance.  Thanks to his always watchable performance as Avon in Blakes 7, he’s maintained a healthy fan following.  Whilst he resists the temptation (unlike some of the later Sheriffs) to go way over the top, his Sheriff still has flashes of cold violence, which are rather Avon-like.

Diane Keen is a winsome and appealing Maid Marion.  It’s a more traditional performance than some of the later, more warrior-like, versions.  This Marion, whilst she has a mind of her own, is also presented as a very much a heroine to be saved (screaming and almost insensible when attacked by a gang of outlaws, for example).

Michael J. Jackson may lack the imposing presence of some other notable Richards, such as Julian Glover or John Rhys-Davies, but despite his rather slight frame he’s still commanding.  He easily manages to best his brother John, who pleads with him to be made regent before Richard departs for the Holy Land.  David Dixon (later to be the unearthly Ford Prefect in the BBC1 adaptation of The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) offers a similarly off-kilter performance here.  Although he has only a few moments screen time in part one, Dixon still makes an impact as John comes over as a spoilt, weak and unstable man who is easily manipulated.

Many adaptations of the Robin Hood stories open with Richard already in the Holy Land.  This one is a little different, as we see Richard preparing to leave (with Robin due to join him).  Richard has recognised Robin as the rightful heir to the Huntingdon estates and he bestows further honour on him by making him his squire.  The outspoken Robin isn’t pleased though as he believes that strife will befall the kingdom if the King leaves to fight the Saracens.

Although Robin’s not yet an outlaw (and we’ve yet to meet the Merry Men) quite a lot of ground has been captured in this first episode.  Production wise, it’s typical of the era (interiors shot on VT and exteriors on film).  For anybody used to programmes from this era, the production values are pretty typical (although it must be said that some of the interior sets do look uncomfortably stagey).  Possibly the worst production flaw comes at 45:54, when the edge of the backcloth (which has been hung to simulate evening outside the windows of the Throne Room) is clearly visible.

Martin Potter is an earnest and likeable Robin Hood, although it’s true that he does sound rather well spoken for somebody brought up in humble surroundings.  But whilst he lacks the impish humour of some of the other Robins, he still comes over as a likeable leading man and the first fifty minutes have laid the ground nicely for the remainder of the serial.

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The Legend of Robin Hood (BBC 1975) – Part Two

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Making his way through Sherwood Forest, Robin is attacked and robbed.  But the sight of Robin’s ring is enough to make one of the robbers stop and think.  After bathing Robin’s wounds, he tells him his name – Will Scarlett (Miles Anderson).  It’s interesting that Scarlett and his friends aren’t actually outlaws.  Although they’re happy to waylay and rob any likely traveller, at this time they’re still free men.

They’ve suffered under the rule of the Abbot of Grantham (David Ryall) though.  The Abbot has controlled the Huntingdon estates for the last twenty years, bleeding them dry, as well as extracting bitter revenge on any malefactors.  Once such is Ralph Gammon (Stephen Whitaker) who had one of his hands cut off for stealing.

The character of the Abbot is a familiar one from many versions of the Robin Hood tales – he’s far from a holy, pious man of god – instead, he takes pleasure in the finest clothes, food and wine (whilst many around him starve).  Before he left the Huntingdon estates he stripped them bare, but Robin, together with Will and Ralph, are able to restore what the Abbot stole.

They’re helped by Friar Tuck (Tony Caunter), formally in the Abbot’s employ, but now a free agent.  Caunter isn’t the rotund Tuck we usually see, but some of his other traits are present and correct (such as a love of wine).  He’s also deeply argumentative and is clearly someone who won’t be pushed around.  When Will tells him to kneel before Robin, his lord and master, Tuck indignantly replies that “I only ever bow to Christ, which annoys my so-called betters on earth profoundly.”  After helping Robin to locate his pilfered possessions, Tuck disappears, but it’s certain we haven’t seen the last of him.

Palace intrigue is a key part of this episode (and indeed the whole serial).  The Queen Mother (Yvonne Mitchell) has returned and urges Richard to make John regent in his absence.  Richard refuses (his choice is Longchamps) but he does grant John a portion of the kingdom to administrate (including Nottingham).  Amongst Yvonne Mitchell’s key credits are the 1954 adaptation of Nineteen Eighty Four and the Out of the Unknown episode The Machine Stops.  This isn’t a particularly taxing part, but she manages to portray the Queen’s icy detachment very effectively.

The revelation that the Abbot, the Sheriff and Sir Guy are all involved in a plot to murder the King is another indication that this version of Robin Hood is, at present, more concerned with courtly intrigue than it is with the down-trodden and repressed Saxons.  Robin learns of the plot and is eventually able to warn the King, but by then his unexplained absence has brought disfavour upon him.

Richard has disinherited him as well as branding him an outlaw.  But in their final meeting, before Richard departs for the Crusades, he strongly implies that as an outlaw he’ll be able to stay in England and do some good.  It’s slightly odd that on the one hand Richard makes him an outlaw and on the other seems to tacitly approve of him, but it means that all the pieces are now in place.

Robin Hood, and his band of men, are outlaws and they face two implacable enemies – the Sheriff of Nottingham and Sir Guy of Gisborne.  And since Richard has agreed to the marriage between Sir Guy and the Lady Marion, that provides yet another reason for conflict …..

The Legend of Robin Hood (BBC 1975) – Part Three

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Robin and his small band of friends take shelter in Sherwood Forest, but they’re not alone.  It would be reasonable to suppose that Sherwood would be home to many different groups of outlaws (although we’ve not often seen this developed in most of the film or television adaptations).

Robin quickly becomes aware of a formidable rival gang (dressed in green) who are led by a giant of a man, John Little (Conrad Asquith).  Although some of his men aren’t trustworthy (and one later betrays Robin) Little John is presented as a dependable and honest man, although he’s somebody who’s not unused to violence.  He used to work at Nottingham Castle, but he got into an argument with his superior and threw him into the moat (after hitting his head with a hammer first, just for good measure!)

Robin and John meet for the first time and settle their differences in the traditional way – via a quarterstaff duel in the middle of a streaming lake.  It’s a nicely shot film sequence, with some effective quick intercuts (although it’s true that the scene is a little short).  After they both end up in the water, any enmity they previously felt has been forgotten and they pool resources and information.  John mentions that Sir Guy (who’s now taken charge of Robin’s estates at Huntingdon) is due to be married there.

Robin, naturally, makes haste to see Marion one more time – but thanks to one of Little John’s untrustworthy men, Sir Guy and his soldiers are waiting for him.  If only Sir Guy had dealt with him here then the story would have been over some three episodes early.  But, as usually happens, he leaves Robin locked up, although he doesn’t stay locked up for long (thanks to a little help from Marion)

There’s a lack of Paul Darrow in this episode, which is a shame, but on the plus side William Marlowe does get a very decent share of the action.  Whether he’s playfully taunting Marion or ordering his inept soldiers about, Marlowe’s always a joy to watch.  If Darrow’s Sherriff is more of an intellectual and a schemer, then Marlowe’s Sir Guy is an instinctive fighter and everything’s bubbling up nicely for the climatic confrontation between him and Robin.

So far, Robin and his men have only been concerned with their own self interest.  But towards the end of part three we see them help others less fortunate than themselves for the first time.  Prince John has burnt several villages to the ground and taken all the unfortunate inhabitants to work as slaves in a nearby silver mine.  Robin is able to free them (rather easily, it must be said) and afterwards he confronts John.

David Dixon continues to give a layered performance as John.  On the one hand, it’s possible to suggest that he’s nothing more than a stooge (manipulated easily by the likes of the Sheriff) but on the other he does seem to have a mind and a will of his own.  Robin tells him that the villagers are now free and that he’ll take enough silver to rebuild the burnt villages whilst the rest will go to fund Richard’s Crusade.

Naturally, John doesn’t take this at all well and we end with him promising that Robin will hang.  This now means that there’s three highly motivated men – the Sheriff, Sir Guy and Prince John – who all want Robin’s head, which helps to raise the stakes just a little more.

The Legend of Robin Hood (BBC 1975) – Part Four

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Part Four is where Robin Hood becomes the outlaw of legend.  At the start of the episode though, things are quite different.  Robin and his small band of followers are virtual prisoners in Sherwood Forest – under constant siege from the Sheriff’s men and forced to eat whatever they can find (which isn’t much).

Hunger drives them to Ralph’s village but what they discover there puts there own hardships into stark context.  The villagers are dying from malnutrition, with the children suffering the worst.  A third of their food was taken in taxes for Richard’s Crusade and another third was taken by the Sheriff.  What they’re left with is simply not enough.

Starving villagers are a familiar sight in many versions of the Robin Hood tales, but there’s often a lack of logic as to why (and there’s no particularly good reason given here).  Robin says that it’s the evil preying on the weak, but as the villagers exist to provide the food that ends up on the tables of the Sheriff and Sir Guy (amongst many others) there’s no reason to either work them to death or starve them.  If Sir Guy is so cavalier with his workforce how will he replace them?

Logical flaws aside, it’s the sight of the downtrodden masses that fires Robin’s crusading zeal.  From now on, he and his men will control Sherwood and levy a tax against all travellers through the forest.  This they will distribute back to the poor and needy.  One such recipient is the headman of Ralph’s village, Thurkill (William Simons).  It’s not a particularly large part for Simons (although he’s an actor I’ve always enjoyed watching – he’s very good, for example, opposite Alan Dobie in Cribb).  He does sport a  impressive false beard though – unconvincing facial hair is always a feature of series such as these (other examples are easy to find).

Tony Caunter’s Friar Tuck continues to impress.  Tuck is a free spirit, roaming Sherwood by himself, but often coming into contact with Robin and his friends.  In part four he attacks and kills two soldiers who are pursuing a man who they intend to brand for non-payment of taxes.  Tuck’s anger is evident, just as his remorse is afterwards.  Life and death is often casually dispensed in Robin Hood’s world, but it’s clear that in Tuck’s case there’s always a debt that has to be paid.

Sir Richard of the Lea is a figure who appeared in several early Robin Hood ballads (such as A Gest of Robyn Hode).  He appears here (played by Bernard Archard) and his story is very similar to the one in A Gest.  Sir Richard owes an Abbot a debt of four hundred marks and if he doesn’t repay the money today then his lands are forfeit.  Robin and his men feed him whilst they listen to his tale.  Afterwards Robin asks for payment and Sir Richard says they are welcome to what little money he has (he claims to only have a handful of coins).  When they confirm that he was telling the truth, Richard is touched by the man’s honesty and integrity and loans him the money he needs to reclaim his lands.

The one major difference is that here Sir Richard needed the money to equip and send his son to fight with Richard in the Holy Land, whilst in A Gest his son had been arrested for murder and the four hundred marks were used to bribe the local Sheriff.

It’s always nice to see Archard and it’s even better news that the Abbot is played by Kevin Stoney.  Stoney oozes with his trademark languid villainy and is a delight, as always, to watch.  Apart from his connection with Sir Richard, he’s also scheming with the Sheriff and Sir Guy.  All three are plotting to put John on the throne (although the absence of both Michael J. Jackson and David Dixon from this episode means that the political intrigue takes a backseat).

Instead, part four is much more concerned with the emergence of Robin as a leader of men.  We also see him start to influence the oppressed Saxons to fight back.  Sir Richard offers Robin a hundred longbows – an offer Robin gladly accepts, as he instantly sees how they can be used by the villagers.  “They proved their bravery by fighting with their bare hands. No longer peasants whipped by their masters. These will make them into an army.”

But as in any battle, there’s a price to pay.  At the end of the episode Robin loses a key member of his band and it’s an early indication that no-one (not even the familiar names) can be guaranteed to still be alive at the end of part six ….

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The Legend of Robin Hood (BBC 1975) – Part Five

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Richard is a prisoner of Leopold in Austria, who demands a ransom of 150,000 marks for his release.  It’s a substantial amount, but Richard’s mother Queen Eleanor (Yvonne Mitchell) is determined to raise it.  John on the other hand would probably be quite happy if Richard remained a prisoner for the rest of his life ….

This is a familiar thread in the Robin Hood tales and Richard’s imprisonment is historical fact (as is John’s later offer of a substantial amount of money to his captors if they kept Richard a prisoner).

There’s enough money to pay the ransom – safely held in Nottingham Castle – since John has been illegally diverting taxes that should have gone to London.  Queen Eleanor meets with Robin and he informs her of this.  Evidence of John’s treachery clearly pains her, but she is powerless to interfere as she has no authority in Nottingham.  But maybe Robin and his men could sneak into the castle and steal the money?

It’s clearly a risky venture, since the castle is heavily fortified.  And Tuck asks Robin why should they “throw away our lives for King Richard? A King who’s never in England and now beggars his people with his holy wars, his crusades?”  It’s a fair point, since the historical Richard spent very little time in England during the time he was King (and he didn’t even speak English).  Robin’s response is a traditional one.  “In King Richard lies England’s only hope. It’s either his rule or the evil of a man like Nottingham.”  In fact, John turned out to be a decent king, although he certainly had his flaws.  But the Robin Hood tales require a hero and a villain and usually we see Richard on the side of the good and John on the side of the bad (irrespective of the actual historical truth).

Elsewhere, Robin and Marion’s relationship seems to be doomed.  She refuses a trinket he offers her (because it’s stolen).  Marion grieves for the way that the life of an outlaw has changed him and she considers that their love is a doomed one.  Meanwhile, Sir Guy grows impatient to marry her and tells Sir Kenneth that he’ll take her whether she’s willing or not.  He also tells him that he’ll drown him in a barrel of his own ale if he complains!  This is finally enough to convince Sir Kenneth that Marion’s marriage to Sir Guy is a very bad idea.

Highlight of the episode is the slightly incestuous relationship between Eleanor and John.  Considering his age it’s disturbing to see – at one point she cradles him like a baby as well as kissing him on the lips several times.  William Marlowe and Paul Darrow continue their excellent double act and Conrad Asquith’s Little John is allowed a nice character beat at the start of the episode (when he wonders exactly how he’s fallen into the life of an outlaw).  Little John has probably been the most underdeveloped of Robin’s men, so it’s a welcome moment.

As a former worker at Nottingham Castle he does have his uses though – he knows a secret way in (which makes the infiltration by Robin and his men a little more plausible).  Delightfully, they come across both the Sheriff and Sir Guy and take great pleasure in tying them up.  Robin tells Sir Guy that he wouldn’t attack a bound man, but the next time they meet both of them will have swords in their hands and there will be a final reckoning.  Sir Guy’s response is rather muffled by the gag!

The raid isn’t a total success though as John is captured.  Later, Sir Guy demands to know from Sir Kenneth where Robin and his friends have taken the money.  If Sir Kenneth knows then he’s not telling and it’s inevitable that the two men will fight to the death.  It’s just as inevitable that the much younger Sir Guy will emerge as the victor (and Sir Kenneth’s bloody demise is viewed by a horrified Marion).  Had the sword-fight been shot on film it might have been easier to cut it in a tighter way, alas videotape doesn’t allow such luxuries.  So it does look rather stagey and unconvincing – but it still has a certain impact, especially when Sir Guy finishes him off with a dagger to the neck.

Little John is due to hang in the grounds of Nottingham Castle, so tradition decrees that Robin will attempt a daring rescue.  This he does, but the celebration is short-lived when he learns that Sir Kenneth is dead and Marion is a prisoner of Sir Guy.  So everything is now in place for the final chapter of the story.

The Legend of Robin Hood (BBC 1975) – Part Six

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Robin has sent Sir Guy an invitation to meet in single combat.  Initially Gisborne refuses, but when Marion artfully remarks that this is because he’s a coward, he naturally changes his mind.  Given that the Robin/Gisborne feud has formed an integral part of the serial, it might be expected that it would be the climax of the story.  Instead, it’s essentially a prelude to the main action.

Robin and Sir Guy meet in Sherwood Forest.  It’s a brutal fight (shot on film) which obviously took some time to record.  It was worth it though, as director Eric Davidson (and the highly experienced film cameraman Elmer Cossey) made full use of the impressive location.  Gisborne elects to start the fight with a shield and a wicked-looking mace whilst Robin only has a sword (clearly chivalry doesn’t demand that they have equal weapons!)  Indeed, there’s not a great deal of chivalry in the fight as Robin is content to aim some well timed kicks and punches to disorientate his opponent.

Eventually Robin emerges triumphant which means that Marion is finally free from Sir Guy’s advances.  But if he believes that the death of Gisborne has removed the obstacle to their union, he’s to be sadly disappointed as she returns to her own lands.

At the same time, John continues to push for power.  He’s keen to depose Longchamps and install himself as regent, but the Bishop of Durham (Malcolm Rogers) is a major obstacle.  The power-hungry Sheriff sees a chance to kill two birds with one stone – dispose of the Bishop and blacken Robin’s name – so he pays a convicted criminal to kill the Bishop whilst claiming to be one of Robin Hood’s men.

With a survivor left alive to spread the news that Robin and his friends are nothing but common criminals and murderers this marks the beginning of the end for Robin’s band of men.  Ralph Gammon and Much are hanged by soldiers in the forest and elsewhere Tuck is mortally wounded (our last sight of him is his lifeless body slumped in a forest clearing).  It’s a brutal turn of events and one which most adaptations of the Robin Hood legends wouldn’t attempt, but it’s an accurate indication of just how short life could be during this period.

Richard returns to put paid to John’s scheming and he promises Robin a full pardon and the restoration of his lands and titles, but there’s one final twist to the tale.  Robin, ill with fever, returns to Huntingdon.  He’s tended by a woman who he later discovers is Gisborne’s sister, but only after he’s drunk a goblet of poison she gave him.  It’s a logical and circular, conclusion to the story – Robin kills Gisborne so Gisborne’s sister revenges her brother’s death by killing Robin.

It has some similarity to the early ballad Robin Hood’s Death, which survives only as a fragment of a larger, now missing, work.  A later variant adds the familiar scene of Robin shooting an arrow into Sherwood and asking to be buried wherever it lands.  Here, we see Little John do it, and Marion is at his side as they both watch the arrow fall.  It’s the final scene in a quietly outstanding serial that manages to take many very familiar story elements and weave them into something cohesive.

With Little John the only merry man standing at the end, it’s possible to see the whole story as an exercise in futility.  What did Robin achieve and will things really be better now that Richard is back?  If you enjoy Robin Hood for swashbuckling derring-do and witty one-liners then this darker interpretation may not be to your liking.

When Richard captures the Sheriff and tells him that his treason will cost him his life, the Sheriff wonders if Prince John will also suffer the same fate.  Of course not, as though Prince John was an equal and willing partner, his royal blood will protect him from any punishment.  Paul Darrow is one of the serial’s many strengths and he continues this right up to his final scene.  Richard tells him that he’ll hang, but the Sheriff replies that his rank entitles him to the axe.  So he’s told that he’ll have it, with his head to be displayed on a pike on the castle gate.

Although some rate this as one of the best versions of the Robin Hood legend, there are a few dissenting voices – mainly highlighting the staginess of the studio scenes.  It’s a fair comment, but the positives of the extensive filming and the performances manage to outweigh any little niggles about a few of the studio sequences.

Martin Potter is an energetic Robin Hood (although maybe just a little too well spoken for somebody brought up as a commoner).  There are very few weak links in the cast and Potter, along with William Marlowe, Paul Darrow, Diane Keen, David Dixon and Tony Caunter are especially good.  It’s certainly a production that still holds up today and is worth seeking out (the 2 Entertain DVD is deleted, but can be found for a reasonable price).