As kids, my brother and I would get periodic gifts from ancient relatives living in various parts of the British Isles. Considering that the only time they met me I was sixteen months old, and my brother was about five, they did a pretty good job of supplying us with books through our early years. If it wasn't for them, I'd have never met Paddington Bear, and life as a child would have been a lot duller without that very English bear from Peru.
However, one of the real treasures was a book they sent my brother called simply The Adventures of Robin Hood It had wonderful colour illustrations, and the first page of each chapter was decorated like an illuminated manuscript. I think it was a reproduction of a book published in the 1880s in Great Britain. Thinking back on it now, it was reminiscent of treatments given the story of King Arthur published during the same period. A very romanticized version of the stories, in spite of living in the woods all the outlaws looked freshly shaved and their clothes were neatly laundered and pressed in the illustrations.
Unlike any of the movie versions where they all live happily ever after, Robin dies at the end of the book. Seeking shelter in a convent (I can't remember why he would have gone to a convent or why they let him in come to think of it – I thought they were for women only) to recover from wounds suffered during a fight, he is betrayed when they bleed him to death. The story ends in true Romantic fashion; Robin, propped up in the arms of Little John, fires an arrow from the window of his cell in the convent and tells his faithful companion to bury him where the arrow's flight ends.
All very beautiful and heroic, but no more realistic than Kevin Costner, Errol Flynn, or any of the other Hollywood types who have taken on the role and tried to tell the story. While Costner may have rubbed some dirt into the faces of his Merry Men, the only real redeeming feature of Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves was Alan Rickman as the Sheriff of Nottingham and some of the best dialogue given a villain in years:
"I'm going to cut out his heart with a spoon."
"Why a spoon cousin?"
"Because it will take longer."
Thankfully the British decided to do what they do best and make a television series based on the stories of Robin Of The Hood called Robin Of Sherwood. After a very successful first series, repeating their success with a second season was complicated by having followed the story too closely first time out and killing off Robin of Locksley. In the first year they had utilized a figure from British mythology, Herne The Hunter, to anoint the original Robin, so they merely utilized the same device for a new Robin — Robert Of Huntington.
It's this series Robin Of Sherwood Set 2 that is now being released by Acorn Media as a five disc box set. All the familiar characters on both sides are on board; Little John, Will Scarlet, Maid Marion, Friar Tuck, Nasir, and Much for the good guys, with the Sheriff of Nottingham, Guy of Gisburne, and King John heading up the forces of evil. But that's where the similarities between Robin Of Sherwood and any of the movie representations ends.
These outlaws don't live in any fancy tree houses in the forest; in fact, like real outlaws they are always on the move. Any permanent camp would be found within short order no matter what secret paths you may or may not employ, so the outlaws live rough. There's no big peasant army ready to fight for King and country, only the seven of them doing their best to help out individuals in trouble, or to prevent any of the Sheriff's or King John's plans from coming to fruition. (Historical note: during the time of Robin Hood, the rightful King of England, Richard I, was off on a Crusade leaving John as regent in his place. John looked for any opportunity to make the arrangement permanent.)
The creators of the series make free use of British myth and folklore in the telling of the story. Herne The Hunter is the leader of the Wild Hunt that consists of giant white dogs with red eyes that ride the winds twelve days after the winter solstice to rid the world of evil. In Robin Of Sherwood they have made him a combination of various benign forest spirits and Herne. It is under his authority that the outlaws act, and he offers them what warnings he can of danger and advice on how to deal with matters outside of human understanding.
In this England, there is still plenty of magic being used, and quite a bit ends up being directed towards Robin and company. In particular, one nasty individual shows up in the first two episodes, and comes back to try and exact revenge for the defeat he suffered at their hands. Gulnar, the evil sorcerer, serves as bookends for the DVD set, as he is in the first two episodes and the last two. He is a great character, thoroughly evil, and highly enjoyable to watch, as he also appears to be barking mad.
The acting is universally great, as you would expect from an English television serial, from Jason Connery (Sean's son) as Robin on down through the whole cast. What I appreciated most though about the series was the atmosphere, from the sword fights, which were very real in their lack of grace and reliance on brute strength as befits the times, to the recreation of the living conditions.
Thatched roofs and dirt floors don't make for the cleanest of living environments and it shows in the clothes and appearance of the majority of the cast. It was the little things like poorer people not wearing shoes, but having their feet wrapped in rags, or Robin's clothes gradually wearing out as the series progresses and the longer he lives in the forest, that helped maintain the realism.
This package will really appeal to those who like special features, as the fifth disc of the set is over an hour and a half of special features, while there is full commentary supplied for every episode by various cast members if you desire. One of the more interesting special features, for me anyway, was a conversation with the group Clannad about how they set about creating the score for the series. There are also the usual making of documentaries, outtakes, and enough behind the scenes footage to keep anybody happy.
The discs have been re-mastered from the original 1985 video, so it's a little grainy at times, but considering the technology back then, it's the best that can be expected. The sound is only Dolby Stereo, but I think that was a wise choice. I've heard older soundtracks forced into 5.1 Surround Sound before, and they can sometimes sound like mush. The sound and picture quality of these discs are just fine for a pleasant evening's television watching.
If you've never seen any of the Robin Of Sherwood series before, you're in for a real treat. These are by far the best adaptations of the Robin Hood story made yet. For those of you who were fans in the first place, Robin Of Sherwood Set 2 gives you the chance to own the final thirteen episodes of the series, with some great special features thrown in as well. What more could you ask for?