In 1066 England was conquered by an invasion from Normandy, and the Anglo-Saxon populace of the country were brought under the thumb of barons and knights from across the English channel. While the Normans and Anglo-Saxons have integrated over the years so now there is little or no distinction between the two, in those early years of conquest the differences were stark. Money and power were in the hands of the Normans, and they did their best to milk their Anglo-Saxon subjects for as much as possible.
According to legend, it was during this time period that a group of men and one woman came together to fight against the oppressors and attempt to redistribute the wealth in a more equitable manner. Robin Hood and his followers stole from the rich and gave to the poor — that's the way the story has come down to us through the ages. Versions of the legend of Robin Hood have appeared as books, comics, cartoons, live action movies, and television shows, but only one that I know of has depicted the struggle as one of rebellion against a conquerer as much as an issue of wealth redistribution.
Robin Of Sherwood ran for three seasons on British television, 1984 through 1986, and was rebroadcast in North America on various public television stations at various times since. In total there were only twenty-four episodes of the show made – two movie-length pilots of 100 minutes each and 22 fifty-minute regular episodes. Now, for the first time ever, all 26 episodes are available as a box set. Robin Of Sherwood: The Complete Collection, distributed by the Acorn Media Group, is a box set of twelve DVDs, two of which contain over seventeen hours of special features.
While the series is noteworthy for its historical accuracy and for the fact that it associates Robin with pre-Christian English mythology, it was also one of the few series where they managed to kill off the main character one season and successfully continue for another year with a new actor and a new Robin Hood. For the first two seasons, Robin of Loxley, aka Robin Hood, was played by Michael Praed, and when he was offered a role in a Broadway production of The Three Musketeers they gave him a hero's death. In the third season they brought Jason Connery in to play Robert of Huntingdon, who stepped forward to assume the mantle of Robin Hood.
They managed this trick easily enough because they had already established that the figure of Robin Hood was a role designated by a figure out of English myth, Herne the Hunter. While the original myth says that on the twelfth day after the Winter Solstice Herne gathered his hunt at an oak tree in Windsor Park in England and rode the sky seeking prey (I don't know if it still stands but there was an oak tree on the grounds of Windsor Castle known as Herne's or The Hunter's Tree), for the television show they've made him into more of a mixture of a few figures from pagan times: the Greenman, the Stag King, and Herne the Hunter. In both the first episode of the series, and the opening episode of the third season, the characters played by Michael Praed and Jason Connery are designated by Herne as his son, and the person to carry on the fight against the Saxons using the name of Robin of the Hood.
As with everything else about the series, the situation was handled neatly and cleanly. It may sound a little contrived on the page, but in the context of what had been established in the previous two episodes it worked. Unfortunately Jason Connery lacked the charisma of Michael Praed and, in spite of doing some fine work, never seemed to capture people's imaginations and the series ended after the third season. If he had been cast as Robin from the beginning Connery would have been a fine choice, but Praed had made the role so much his own that anybody would have paled in comparison.
There's also a noticeable drop-off in the quality of the scripts from the first two seasons to the third. Part of the problem is just how many variations on the theme of keeping out of the clutches of the Sheriff of Nottingham, embarrassing his lackey Sir Guy of Gisbourne, and robbing from the rich to feed the poor can there be? In the first two seasons they were able to draw upon the adventures attributed to Robin Hood in various books, including many of the old favourites like his meeting with Little John, and give them new twists to create interesting episodes, but the scripts seemed to lose direction somewhat in the third season.
Aside from making the outlaws resistance fighters against a conquerer, and utilizing pre-Christian beliefs in the story lines, the show's producers added the element of sorcery to the mix. While an episode involving Devil worshipers was a little over the top, the majority of the time the infusion of sorcery was handled subtlety enough that it gives the program an even greater air of authenticity. The majority of time the sorcery utilized involved things like herbal concoctions to put people to sleep, or rituals that would put one person into another's control — in other words, spells that people of the time period probably would have believed sorcerers capable of producing.
One of my favourite deviations from the way the story is normally told was the way King Richard the First, the Lionhearted, was presented. Most of the time he is some great hero who returns at the end to preside over a happy ending and restore order to the Kingdom that has been abused by his brother John and the evil Sheriff Of Nottingham. In this case, though Richard is given his usual build-up, he is then revealed to be just another Norman who doesn't give a damn about the people of England. He's far more concerned with re-conquering territory in France than doing anything to improve the life of his subjects in England, and will gladly milk them dry in order to finance his wars.
As is usual for a British production the acting ranges from good to superb for the whole series. Aside from the two leads who both do great work, Ray Winstone as Will Scarlet and Nickolas Grace as the Sheriff of Nottingham are both standouts. Ray's Will Scarlet is driven by his desire to rid England of the Normans and has no compunctions about using whatever means necessary to accomplish that end. Yet he is also able to avoid falling into the trap of playing him as merely a one-note, constantly angry character. Will also has a great sense of humour, and shows on occasion the gentler man he could have been had not time and circumstances driven him to violence. As for Nickolas Grace – well sufficient to say he gives Alan Rickman's performance in Kevin Costner's otherwise forgettable Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves as the Sheriff a run for its money. He doesn't quite chew the scenery in the same way that Rickman does (who can?) but he does a great job of being wonderfully nasty and evil.
With the show being as old as it is, and originally made for television, it is only available in full screen mode and stereo sound. Of the advertised seventeen hours of special features, of which a fair amount is made up of fourteen commentary tracks, I found the documentary on the folk group Clannad creating the score for the series the most interesting. However, there are also outtakes, bonus footage, a behind the scenes documentary, four documentaries that look back on the making of the show with former cast and crew, and more than enough other behind the scenes footage to satisfy the most ardent fan,
Robin Of Sherwood: The Complete Collection not only gathers together all the episodes of what is arguably the best adaptation of the Robin Hood myth into one collection, it also gathers together probably all the material related to the show that was ever filmed. Although the suggested retail price of $99.00 (US) might seem high, what you get for the price is more than fair value. If you were a fan of the show in the 1980s, or a fan of the Robin Hood story at all, you should seriously consider buying a copy when it goes on sale July 29.
You can pick up a copy of Robin Of Sherwood: The Complete Collection either directly from Acorn Media or from any online retailer.