Old Gems: Robin of Sherwood (1984-1986)

The best Robin Hood(s) of all

Robin of Sherwood

So Robin of Sherwood isn’t lost – it’s coming out on Blu-Ray very soon, has been available on DVD for ages, has been repeated on ITV3 ad infinitum and you can watch big chunks of it on YouTube. Neither has it a weird title sequence – it’s just Robin Hood running through the woods to the immortal sounds of Clannad.

But I don’t care. I loved Robin of Sherwood as a kid and I still do, so I’ve spent all of 10 seconds thinking really hard to come up with the new “Old Gems” category for shows that I can’t even come up with a thinly veiled excuse for covering beyond the fact that I liked them.

Now, Robin Hood is one of those stories – like Sherlock Holmes – that gets remade every few years with a new spin. We’ve just had Russell Crowe’s thinly veiled Iraq war version, and the BBC recently had a three-series, low budget, slightly rubbish version starring – among others – our very own Richard Armitage. Go back to the 50s and one of the most popular shows on TV was ITC’s The Adventures of Robin Hood, which I just about remember seeing bits of at primary school, bizarrely enough (no, I’m not that old).

But back in the 80s was the version that for many people is still the definitive version – Robin of Sherwood. This took the old stories familiar to anyone who knew the legends of Robin Hood – Alan-a-Dale, the silver arrow, Maid Marion, the return of King Richard, Little John and the fight at the river, Friar Tuck, Will Scarlet, Much the Miller’s Son, et al – and added a couple of new sensibilities: a desire for authenticity married, paradoxically, with swords and sorcery.

But it also added a lot more: a Saracen called Nasir who integrated in so well, the makers of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves included one of their own in the movie as a result. And it also managed to include both versions of the Robin Hood myth: the Robin/Robert of Loxley myth and the Robert of Huntingdon myth, in which Robin is either a peasant who gets uppity or he’s a nobleman who decides to fight for the poor. How did it do that? Simple – it killed Robin Hood.

Cue the perfectly normal title sequence and a nice big clip of John Rhys Davies as King Richard as the “Chevalier déguisé”.

Robin of Sherwood, in essence, is the same story we all know already: the Normans have been ruling England since 1066, King Richard is on the throne but off fighting somewhere, leaving his brother John in charge. John’s regime is cruel and he relies on corrupt and equally cruel Sheriffs to manage the country. In Nottingham is a sheriff so cruel that he causes an uprising led by a guy called Robin, who hides away in the nearby forest of Sherwood with his gang of fellow outlaws, a motley bunch he assembles all with their own reasons for fighting the Sheriff. And, of course, there’s also a love interest in the form of Marion.

What differentiates Robin of Sherwood from the normal telling of the Robin Hood myth is its foundations in Anglo-Saxon myth. Following on from magical TV shows of the 70s such as Ace of Wands and Sky, Robin Hood – aka Robin i’the Hood as the show more formally calls him – is mentored by a man shamanistically claiming to be the spirit of Herne the Hunter, an otherwise obscure woodland god from English folklore whose name can still be found on certain English landmarks (such as Herne Bay). Robin, who is proclaimed as “Herne’s Son” is given one of the Seven Swords of Wayland (an Anglo-Saxon god of the smithy) by Herne – that sword being called Albion, an old name for England. Because in Robin of Sherwood, Robin Hood isn’t just a guy fighting to help the poor – he’s the embodiment of the spirit of the old Anglo-Saxon England and the show makes frequent callbacks to the Battle of Hastings as the last time that the spirit of England was seen.

Other aspects of the legend get a swords and sorcery treatment as well. The silver arrow, which is just a prize in an archery competition in the legend, is actually one of Herne’s magical symbols of England – Robin doesn’t enter the competition just to win a prize and stick one to the sheriff. He does it to recover the symbol, his defeat of the King’s archer arousing a spirit of rebellion and defiance in the cowed people of England. Stone circles make frequent appearances as sources of great magic and devil worshipping and pagan rituals are prevalent. Herne, himself, a normal man who wears a totemic stag’s head in order to be possessed by the spirit of Herne, is a source of wisdom and marvellous magical quotes and riddles that seem to speak to deeper truths:

Q: What binds the hunter to the hunted?
A: The arrow

Robin: You’re not a god. You’re just a man
Herne: We all must be gods. All of us

The other main aspect of the show was its attempts to move away from the Errol Flynn/Richard Greene Robins of times past in a more (although not totally) realistic depiction of the times. Okay so Michael Praed’s hair has a touch of the Timotei commercial about it, but there’s no Lincoln green here – Robin and his outlaws dress for camouflage. In one memorable scene from the second series, a seemingly empty part of the woods suddenly reveals Robin, Marion and the “merry men” without the aid of any special effects. Will Scarlet got his name from murdering the soldiers who raped his wife. The Sheriff of Nottingham (the wonderful Nickolas Grace) isn’t stupid – he’s actually very cunning, but simply doesn’t have the manpower or the right motivation to go after Robin Hood.

And Guy of Gisburne, while a bit of a tool, is simply a soldier used to fighting on open fields against a massed army, rather than terrorists fighting a guerilla warfare campaign with long-range, armour-piercing weaponry from the trees.

Indeed, the show has a lot of killing. There are plenty of swordfights, but people die at the end of them. Soldiers are shot and killed virtually every episode. Peasants are murdered. And Nasir, the former “hashshashin”, goes to town with his two swords and daggers with gay abandon on many an occasion:

The show itself was made by Goldcrest, normally known for making films, and as a result the entire series is very filmic, frequently using filters on lenses to give scenes blood-stained tinges.

With the marvellous music of Clannad lifting the whole show above other dramas of the times, the show itself was like a collection of movies. However, the show took a little time to find its feet. The core “merry men”, which included a young Ray Winstone as Will Scarlet, worked well, although the acting was occasionally a little iffy. The romance between Marion and Robin actually was that – a beautiful, lyrical romance, thanks to the excellent writing of Richard Carpenter, best known for his work on Catweazle, Dick Turpin and The Adventures of Black Beauty.

But the plots had problems. While the first episode was a wonderful introduction to the show, featuring a terrific guest performance by Anthony Valentine as the devil-worshipping Baron de Belleme, the second was merely a plot explanation for why the merry men took Marion seriously as an outlaw. Subsequent episodes saw Alan-a-Dale arrive – and depart, despite Carpenter’s original intention to include him in the band – and the Knight Templars give the outlaws a pounding. These two lacked the magic of previous episodes: they were slow and didn’t really do much.

Problematically, the Saracen character, Nasir (Mark Ryan), who would go onto become one of the show’s most iconic creations, had been introduced almost on a whim during filming, so he had almost nothing to do during these episodes since he didn’t feature in the original scripts.

However, things began to improve by the final episode when the marvellous John Rhys Davies arrived as King Richard. Vital in the Robin Hood legend – Robin vows he will not wed Marion until the good King Richard returns to rule his country again – Carpenter took the chance to break with tradition and show that Richard wasn’t the great king stories would suggest, but one who made John look almost benevolent.

It ends with the first “death” of the show, with Marion getting shot in the back – only to be healed through the power of a stone circle and Herne the Hunter.

Season two
Season two is where the show really hit its stride. Carpenter embraced the swords-and-sworcery aspects of his creation more fully, with Herne offering a prophecy in The Prophecy and the entire group of merry men unable to fight back against the Sheriff and Gisburne during one of Herne’s festivals in Lord of the Trees, until the spirit of the woods drives the Sheriff and Gisburne temporarily insane. Belleme makes a return from the dead in The Enchantment in his quest for the silver arrow, leading to a direct confrontation between him and Herne.

Probably the show’s most memorable story is the two-part The Swords of Wayland, which sees the devil-worshipping Rula Lenska and her order of nuns trying to put together the eponymous seven swords of Wayland, including Robin’s Albion (“charged with the powers of light and darkness”), to summon the Devil himself.

It would be the most memorable, if it weren’t for the season’s final episode, The Greatest Enemy, which sees Robin Hood die. Yes, actually die. Michael Praed had got himself poached by Dynasty and he wanted to be written out. So Richard Carpenter, seeing an opportunity to take on the second Robin Hood myth, finally gave the Sheriff of Nottingham enough motivation to kill Robin Hood and wrote Michael Praed probably one of the most moving, memorable death scenes in TV history.

Season 3
With Michael Praed gone, a new Robin was needed. Various now famous actors were screen-tested, including future Doctor Who Paul McGann and Men Behaving Badly star Neil Morrissey, but with American funding contingent on his casting, Sean Connery’s son Jason got the job and the spirit of England passed on to Robert, son of the Earl of Huntingdon – Herne’s new son.

The American funding allowed 13 episodes to be made in season three, but with Richard Carpenter unable to write so many, writing duties were largely split with Anthony Horowitz, now best known as the author of the Alex Rider children’s books. After a few initially good episodes by Carpenter that maintained the quality of season two, the show became a more generic action show and the Sheriff became far more of a comedy figure: rather than simply not having the motivation or manpower to get Robin, now he’s just an incompetent.

The magic did continue though: as well as a meeting with the spirit of King Arthur in The Inheritance, season three saw the introduction of Welsh magic to rival Herne’s English magic through Rocky Horror Picture Show star Richard O’Brien’s sorceror Gulnar. Gulnar even invoked the Irish deity Cromm Cruac in one episode.

Gisburne gradually grew more disaffected with the Sheriff, eventually leaving his service to go rogue, a sub-plot revealing that Gisburne and Robert were half-brothers.

The show’s popularity dwindled during this time and by the time of season four, the American funding went and Goldcrest’s struggling finances wouldn’t allow it to go it alone. The planned season four arc, in which Robert would find out about his half-brother and Gisburne would hunt down and rape and/or kill Marion (sorry, my memory’s a bit rusty at this point), never got to happen.

Enduring legacy
But everyone who watched Robin of Sherwood loved it – give or take. Whether it was Clannad’s music, the pagan elements, the sword fighting, the magic, the dialogue, the romance, Nasir and his two swords, or just Michael Praed, there was something about it that endeared itself to everyone, male or female. In my opinion, it’s never been bettered.


  • Rob Buckley

    I’m Rob Buckley, a journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of although you might have heard me on the podcast Lockdown Land or Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I’ve edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for TV producers magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it “web site for urban hedonists” The Tribe. Since going freelance, I've contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network, TV Scoop and The Custard TV.

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