Review: Robin of Sherwood – The Knights of the Apocalypse

Robin of Sherwood - Knights of the ApocalypseSo it’s here at last. It may have taken decades, switched medium, needed a Kickstarter campaign to get it going and then switched production company, but Robin of Sherwood – The Knights of the Apocalypse is finally here.

For those who don’t know what Robin of Sherwood is/was, hien? Quoi? C’est incroyable! But here’s my nostalgia-filled remembrance of it to fill you in. In essence, though, it was one of the best UK TV shows of the 1980s giving us the perhaps definitive TV Robin Hood. However, it was cancelled following its third series when the funding ran out.

The feature-length Knights of the Apocalypse was written by the show’s creator, Richard Carpenter, as a continuation of the show, but despite his best efforts, it never got made for TV or a movie. But to raise a bit of cash for charity, Spiteful Puppet Productions (who produce a surprising number of other Robin Hood audio dramas) has managed to get just about all the actors and actresses from the original series to recreate their roles and finally bring Knights of the Apocalypse to life as an audio play. 

Does it capture the original’s strengths and stand as a worthwhile addition to the canon? I’ll let you know after the jump, but here’s a trailer and – ooh! – a news clip.

England in the reign of King John and a dark force is intent on conquest. Only the hooded man can stand against it… The church lies impotent at the mercy of the Pope and the interdict against the kingdom. With the people living in fear and a series of disappearances that threaten the very fabric of noble society, Robin ‘i’ the hood and his band of outlaws must race to rescue the past so that the future may be protected. A journey to Huntingdon and beyond Sherwood will see them battle their most dangerous enemy yet as Herne’s son faces The Knights of the Apocalypse…

Is it any good?
Whether you’re an old-school fan or someone who’s never watched the show, I’d say dial down your expectations a tad and you’re in for a reasonably enjoyable time – provided you like a great big dose of ham to accompany your meal.

So on the plus side, virtually anyone who’s anyone is here. That shouldn’t be an absolute surprise, given that everyone involved reckons Robin of Sherwood was one of the best experiences of their lives and they all stay in touch with each other. But it’s nevertheless impressive that everyone from the big stars – Jason Connery (Robin), Judi Trott (Marion), Nickolas Grace (the Sheriff) and Ray Winstone (Will Scarlet) – all the way down to the supporting cast, including Philip Jackson (Abbot Hugo), Peter Llewellyn Williams (Much) and Michael Craig (the Earl of Huntingdon), are here, too. Michael Praed even cameos at one point and in the director’s chair, there’s none other than Robert Young, one of the show’s most notable directors. And although it was touch and go for a minute, that famous Clannad theme tune is there, too.

There’s a couple of sad omissions, unfortunately, since both Robert Addie (Guy of Gisburne) and John Abineri (Herne the Hunter) have passed on, but Freddie “son of Edward” Fox fills in for Addie while Abineri’s son Daniel takes on his mantle.

Everyone sounds a bit older and a bit rumblier, for sure, but they’re all there and it genuinely sounds like one of the original series’ episodes at times.

We also have a script from Richard Carpenter. If you were expecting this to be the fabled continuation of the mysteries of season three, with Guy of Gisburne and Robert of Huntingdon discovering they’re half-brothers, Marion getting out of that nunnery, etc, you’ll be disappointed, since this is almost a standalone story. True, there are references to Gisburne having been in France for a year, as well as Marion deciding that nunnery wasn’t for her. But this could nevertheless have fit into the show’s third season without much difficulty.

Now it’s fair to say, this isn’t quite Carpenter’s best work, being in many ways a retread of not just the show’s finest two hours, The Swords of Wayland (which Young directed), but also the programme’s more familiar tropes. I suspect this was a deliberate move by Carpenter, in an effort to get funding for the show by providing something familiar, since there’s a secret order of fearsome knights (Seven Poor Knights From Acre), a nunnery/monastery with a dark secret (The Swords of Wayland), as well as a legendary mythic appearance (The Inheritance) and (spoilers) a battle with a figure of great evil that’s ended with the help of one of Herne’s talismans (Robin Hood and the Sorcerer). There’s also a lot of repetition of things that existing viewers would know, although whether that was because it was intended as a standalone of script or was an embellishment by Spiteful Puppet’s writers for a general market, I couldn’t say. 

All the same, despite that lack of anything truly new and the unnatural constant explaining, there’s still a lot to commend in the script. There’s excitement and danger. There’s mysticism. Carpenter’s deep love of history is firmly on display and he managed to come up with an enemy I’d never even heard of – I’d guessed gnostics but it turned out to be (spoilers) these guys. There’s also the medieval griminess of the show, with one of the regulars falling prey to illness from an old wound. Someone even gets killed off… although I won’t say who.

Surprisingly in this day and age of lean storytelling, there’s also a lot of the show’s trademark cameraderie and hijinks for no other reason than it’s fun and builds the characters. All the characters (both goodies and baddies) get something to do that exemplifies them in some way, too – except for Much, of course. If you’re a fan, that’s all lovely and wonderful stuff, and reminds you of just why you used to watch the show back in the day – and it does all that by coming across like a proper episode, rather than so much fan fiction.

Where it falls apart a bit is in the production. One of Robin of Sherwood‘s most important qualities, one that in fact was the cause of its ultimate downfall, was its filmic look. Everything was shot on location, everything looked brilliant – everything was hugely expensive.

Unfortunately, with just an audio suite and a Kickstarter budget at his disposal, Young doesn’t have much to really work with to recreate anything close to that. Nothing sounds like it’s been recorded in some great castle or out in the middle of a forest, and most effects do sound canned. The theme tune may be Clannad’s, but the incidental music is only Clannad-esque instead, although it’s actually a pretty decent facsimile and at least it isn’t the repetition of the same old stings that the show started to suffer from after a few episodes.

Knights of the Apocalypse also has to deal with the slight problem of how to capture Robin of Sherwood‘s visual elements in a non-visual medium. Largely, the writers make it work, but there’s many a Bowmans moment in which people in a fight tell each other what they’re doing, sometimes in the form of a poem or saying.

More problematic is the variability of the acting. Despite the change of medium, most of the cast are as good as they ever were (or better in some cases). But Winstone’s gone a bit downhill and has lost his youthful fire (there’s even a slightly odd reference in the script to how he can’t do what he used to do when he was younger). The guest incidental actors are a bit am dram. And then we get to the horror of Colin Baker and Anthony Head.

Now, Colin Baker used to be a great audio actor. When he started in the Big Finish Doctor Who audio productions, his performances genuinely redeemed his Doctor and it stopped being possible to argue that ‘Sixie’ had been a mistake. Now, after getting on for two decades of near single-take work (“That’s perfect – it’s a wrap!”), he’s let his standards slip a bit. He’s a bad guy in this, he knows it and he wants you to know it, too. 

But he’s still not Anthony Head. Head can be a gloriously subtle actor, as anyone who watched VR5 can testify. He can also be a great audio performer, too, as anyone who listened to Cabin Pressure can testify. Trouble is, he can also beat Colin Baker in a ham-eating competition with one hand tied behind his back, as anyone who’s listened to Bleak Expectations will know.

And whether through choice or never having watched Robin of Sherwood (too busy doing Gold Blend ads at the time, probably), he’s gone for an evil Mr Benevolent rather than an ambiguous Oliver Sampson in his interpretation of head baddie Guichard de Montbalm. When he’s going for it full-blooded, it’s a toe-curling performance that unfortunately, robs the story of any real drama when he’s around. 

Robin of Sherwood – The Knights of the Apocalypse is a really commendable effort to deliver something that’s probably as close to a new episode of Robin of Sherwood as we could hope to get. Although it’s neither truly innovative nor interested in moving the series narrative along much, if you loved the show, it will evoke a fond nostalgia and delight as you hear the original cast back in action. You just have to keep in mind that it’s limited both by medium and by budget – and by some of the cast having perhaps too much fun.

Download: £10
Double CD: £14
Double CD + behind-the-scenes DVD: £25

Jason Connery (Robert of Huntingdon)
Judi Trott (Lady Marion)
Clive Mantle (Little John)
Ray Winstone (Will Scarlet)
Nickolas Grace (the Sheriff of Nottingham)
Mark Ryan (Nasir)
Phil Rose (Friar Tuck)
Peter Llewellyn Williams (Much the Miller’s Son)
Freddie Fox (Sir Guy of Gisburne)
Philip Jackson (Abbot Hugo)
Daniel Abineri (Herne the Hunter)
Michael Craig (the Earl of Huntingdon)
Barnaby Eaton-Jones (Camville)
Anthony Head (Guichard de Montbalm)
Colin Baker (Gerard de Ridefort)
Terry Molloy (Prior/ Old Prisoner/ Priest)
Lisa Bowerman (Serving Maiden)
Michael Praed (Spectral Voice)
All other roles: Sophie Jones, Gary Andrews, Ian Kubiak, Kate Young, Cliff Chapman, Ben Perkins, William KV Browne, Nathan Drake, Rob Brunwin, Robert Barton-Ancliffe, Iain Meadows and Jonathan Allen.

Writer: Richard ‘Kip’ Carpenter (with thanks to John Dorney, Barnaby Eaton-Jones and Iain Meadows)
Director: Robert Young