To mark the release of the crowdfunded Robin of Sherwood audio adventure, it’s time for a look at the history of one of the UK’s finest drama series.
“In the days of the lion spawned of the Devil’s brood, the Hooded Man shall come to the forest. There he will meet Herne the Hunter, Lord of the Trees and be his son and do his bidding. The Powers of Light and Darkness shall be strong within him. And the guilty shall tremble.” – Prophecies of Gildas
“People haven’t changed, I don’t believe, in the last 2,000 years,” said Richard “Kip” Carpenter, speaking to Starlog magazine back in 1991. “We are still a brutal, licentious, greedy animal.”
There have been many attempts to bring the life and legend of Robin Hood to the screen. For many Errol Flynn’s turn as Sherwood Forest’s most famous outlaw remains iconic – it is certainly the reason why all later iterations have, at some point, had to confirm or deny that their version of the hero will wear tights.
If you are of an age to remember British TV in the eighties, however, then it is Kip Carpenter’s Robin of Sherwood that has probably done more to define your image of the Robin Hood myth than anything else. For by taking the quasi-mystical world found in the writings of Gildas and others, adding the reality of post-Norman-conquest Britain and inserting characters whose personalities and problems are still familiar today, Carpenter created a series that brought the Robin Hood story to life in a way that has not been bettered before or since.
Starting with Dick Turpin
Before Robin, Carpenter was a man who had already developed a reputation for bringing semi-mythical figures to the TV screen. In 1979 he had worked with producer Paul Knight to bring the story of England’s most infamous highwayman to ITV. Dick Turpin, staring Richard O’Sullivan, would run for twenty-six episodes over three years, to positive reaction from audiences and critics both at home and abroad.
Even whilst working on Turpin, however, Carpenter’s mind had already started to turn to the idea of bringing Robin Hood to the screen in a more grounded and realistic way. This was in part thanks to his friendship with British actor David Butler, who shared Carpenter’s belief that the myths and legends which continue to form such a firm part of the English psyche were ripe for re-imagining.
“David had always wanted to do Robin Hood,” Carpenter would explain to Starlog, “and I had always wanted to do Dick Turpin.”
In fact both men got their chance, but unlike Carpenter’s Turpin, Butler’s Wolfshead failed to make the cut. Relegated to an unsuccessful release as a Hammer B-Movie, Wolfshead represented an attempt by Butler to take the myth of Robin right back to its roots. Robin was the “wolfshead” of the title (an old English nickname for outlaws whose lives were worth no more than the bounty paid for the head of a dead wolf), but the tale was moved out of Sherwood to Yorkshire, from whence most of the earliest stories of his activities stem. Characters like Marion and Little John were still present, but gone were the likes of the Sheriff of Nottingham and Guy of Gisburne. Instead Robin faced off against the machinations of Robert of Doncaster and the Abbot of St Mary’s, men who had robbed him of his land and killed his mother and sister.
Ultimately Wolfshead failed to win over audiences, but Carpenter sensed the potential. “What it did,” he told Starlog, “was to have a very realistic look at being an outlaw in the 13th century and I wanted to have that element as well as the occult and the humour.”
Finding the money
When Turpin finished Carpenter and Knight thus began to push the idea of bringing their own version of Robin Hood to the screen. It was a tough sell, given that both men were convinced that the only way to do the idea justice – and indeed to avoid the same fate as Wolfshead – was to deliver a series near-cinematic in its production values.
For similar series today, such as Game of Thrones, this concept is almost taken as given. At the time, however, it was a far harder sell, especially within the tightly budgeted realms of British TV. It certainly meant securing financial investment beyond that which initial backers Harlech Television and production company Goldcrest Films could provide. Soon Carpenter found himself in America pitching the series to potential investors as “the Dukes of Hazzard with bows and arrows” and whilst this creative (albeit inaccurate) description failed to convince, a backer was eventually found in the form of US network Showtime, who agreed to contribute a significant portion of the series’ costs. With finance now in place, Robin of Sherwood was officially green-lit.
Subverting The mythology of Robin
Carpenter now set about creating the mix of myth and reality that he had imagined. For the reality, he opted to follow the precedent set by Wolfshead and place Robin in post-Norman-conquest Britain, more particularly in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, encompassing both the end of the reign of Richard the Lionheart and the beginning of the reign of King John.
This was hardly unusual, perhaps representing the era with which Robin Hood is most frequently equated. Where Carpenter broke with tradition, however, was in making both Richard and John part of the establishment against which Robin was destined to fight. In practically every version of the tale both before and since – from Disney’s Robin Hood to Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves – Robin has been a wronged man fighting, either directly or indirectly, against a state corrupted by the influence of the “evil” Prince John. In effect, his enemy is always time, rather than the state – the need to survive (and to help others to do so) until “good” King Richard returns, benevolent monarchy is resumed and Robin gets his royal pardon.
At first this was the image that Robin of Sherwood also seemed to present. The first series frequently sees Robin, played with just the right mix of youthful fire and idealism by Michael Praed, express the belief that the lot of both his men and the poor will improve once King Richard returns.
For the viewer, however, the signs are there from the very start that this may not be the case. The series begins with a flashback to Robin’s youth and his father’s punishment at the hands of England’s Norman aristocracy. His crime is that of being part of a Saxon rebellion against the oppressive feudal laws that Norman rule has ushered in, and the punishment is brutal and severe – not just the death of Robin’s father himself, but also the complete destruction of the village of Loxley from which he hails.
This is no act of an evil Prince – it is the state following its own harsh rules to the letter. The signs are also there in the people that surround him. Will Scarlet, played to perfection by a post-Scum Ray Winstone, is a man who lost his family at the hands of the Norman ruling class and has no illusions about their attitude towards both his race and his class, nor his own personal feelings towards the elite.
“I wanted to present somebody who had actually lost his family as a result of the cruelty and oppression [of the times]”, Carpenter would later explain. “In Northern Ireland, for instance, the reason the conflict goes on and on is because people have lost someone who’s near and dear to them. It isn’t an abstract – it’s a personalised hatred. If you’ve seen your wife and children shot in front of you by either an IRA man or a loyalist, your revenge is personal. It has nothing to do with being a Catholic or a Protestant.”
Any belief – on the part of both Robin and the audience – that Richard is the answer is finally shattered in series one’s finale, The King’s Fool.
The episode sees King Richard, played with a brilliant mix of charisma and intelligence by John Rhys-Davies, return to England. To begin with events play out exactly as one might expect – Richard is travelling anonymously when he his beset by Robin and his men. Having witnessed the charity and nobility of their cause, however, the King reveals his identity. A contrite Robin is pardoned, as are his men (with only Scarlet refusing to leave the forest) and they are soon a fixture at Richard’s court. All too soon, however, it becomes clear that King Richard is just as greedy and manipulative as his brother – it is just that the currency of his greed is glory and power rather than gold. The series ends with a disillusioned Robin returning to the forest once more, now aware that any hope for a better world for the poor begins and ends with himself.
This brutally honest approach to storytelling was what Carpenter believed would make Robin stand out from other takes on the tale, and make it compelling to audiences. “That’s what makes the thing real isn’t it?” he would later say. “You don’t paint everybody as just evil or good. Both elements are in everybody. It’s not their strength’s that are particularly interesting – it’s their weaknesses.”
Carpenter extended this principle on a smaller scale to his cast. The decision to keep Robin’s band of outlaws small was in part to help keep costs down (“If you had 300 extras on Robin’s side, we were gonna have to have 900 Normans for him to fight.”) but also because it allowed each of those outlaws to develop as a character.
“I just wanted to make them more original, and also more contemporary.” Carpenter would tell Starlog in 1990. “It’s no good writing a historical show if it doesn’t strike a chord in a modern audience. Much the Miller’s son was ‘simple,’ not actually mentally defective but slow, so that give him a bit more character. We made Little John fiercely socialist and Will Scarlet a sort of killer, almost a psychopath. Friar Tuck we kept traditional except that as a man God, he had a lot of tolerance for other religions in other forms, which many religions don’t have. But he represents the better side of Christianity.”
Robin’s band of followers was rounded out by the addition of Marion and Nasir. The former, played by Judi Trott, was quickly established as being a permanent member of the group and one who, despite her almost etherial beauty, could hold her own both around the campfire and in a fight. The latter meanwhile, played by Mark Ryan, would add a new element to the Robin Hood myth. One that has now become so established that most people don’t realise it dates back no further than the eighties – the presence of a Saracen in Robin’s band.
Adding this new twist to the tale had never originally been part of Carpenter’s plans. Ryan had only been cast to play a minor role as an evil sidekick, “Edmund the Archer,” in the pilot episode. By the time he arrived on set though the situation had changed, as Ryan himself later related.
“I’d literally just arrived on the set and Ian [Sharp, the director] came up to me and said ‘There’s been a bit of a change. He’s not Edmund the Archer, he’s Nasir the Saracen.’ And I said ‘Okay, fine, that seems reasonable.’”
“And he said, ‘Oh, by the way, how are you with two swords? Can you do a two-handed sword fight?’ I said ‘We’ll find out.’”
Very quickly it became obvious that Ryan had a clear chemistry with the regular cast and – as several of the female crew members discretely pointed out to the showrunners – he was also rather easy on the eye. By the end of filming therefore his death at the hands of Little John, played by Clive Mantle, had been written out and Nasir had become part of Robin’s band of outlaws.
Finding the theme
Ryan also played a key part in how Robin gained one of its most distinctive elements – the evocative and haunting soundtrack contributed by Celtic band Clannad. “We [Clive Mantle, Ray Winstone and Mark Ryan] had been driving around in my car and I was playing Clannad.” Ryan later explained. “We suggested to Paul Knight that Clannad should do the music for the show. That’s how Clannad got the gig, because everyone was listening to ‘Harry’s Game’ in my car!”
Clannad’s music fitted perfectly because it complimented the final element that went into making the show so distinctive – the underlying layer of paganism that ran through the show.
Finding its faith
Even in the eighties, imbuing the series with Pagan and occult themes was a bold move on Carpenter’s part. Not only did it provoke controversy in some of the more conservative quarters of the British press, but it also risked overwhelming the efforts to provide a solid historical grounding to the series if handled badly. Carpenter felt it important though that the series include this otherworldly element, in part because it seemed the best way to give Robin some kind of mentor, but also because the idea of continuity of culture and folk memory was so central to the series.
“We couldn’t use Merlin because Merlin was part of the King Arthur legends.” Carpenter told Starlog. “I cast around for a suitable mythological figure that was Celtic and of the earth, and it seemed to me that the old pre-Christian horned god – ‘Cernunnos,’ the Romans called him, ‘Herne’ we call him – was the ideal figure.”
“Herne as a place name crops up all over England,” he continued. “It’s quite likely that in those days he was very much revered as a spirit of the forest by local people because everybody always paid their dues to the Church and at the same time threw salt over their left shoulder and did all the superstitious things which actually date back to pre-Christian times. I wanted to show that the folk beliefs could go on alongside the existing religion.”
Taken together all these elements – cast, story, music and a sense of the otherworldly – resulted in a series that captured the hearts of critics and viewers alike.
As season two drew to a close, however, cast and crew were faced with a serious problem. Robin Hood himself, Michael Praed, had been offered a lead role in a Broadway musical version of The Musketeers.
“I was placed in an intolerable situation,” he told Starlog in 1988, “and it’s not something that is easy to handle. If you’re an English person and are offered the starring role in a major American stage musical, it’s a very difficult decision. I knew if I turned that down, the opportunity may or may not happen again. It was really hard because we really were – and are – good friends. But I knew I had to go and do the play.”
Carpenter was now faced with a dilemma. Praed had provided sufficient notice of his departure to grant time to engineer a plot solution, but what should that solution be? The obvious answer was to simply recast the role, and a number of auditions were held with that goal in mind. From that process Neil Morrissey emerged as a likely candidate for the role, passing both the acting test and possessing sufficient visual similarity to Praed.
Carpenter, however, soon decided to go down a different, bolder path. “I revived the sixteenth century idea that Robin Hood was the son of the Earl of Huntingdon,” he would later tell SFX Magazine, “And created the idea that Robin Hood was a kind of title – which it probably was anyway.”
It was an inspired decision on Carpenter’s part. It freed him of the need to try and wave away a major cast change and opened up the opportunity for something much more in the gritty spirit of the series – the genuine death of a major character.
An iconic death
That death would come in the final episode of season two, The Greatest Enemy. Beautifully filmed, written and acted, it remains one of the finest episodes of any drama aired on British TV. What begins as a seemingly routine adventure becomes increasingly ominous as the godlike Herne warns Robin that a moment of reckoning is drawing near. Whatever the outcome though, Herne reminds him, light will always find a way to fight against the dark.
“Nothing is forgotten,” Herne proclaims. “Nothing is ever forgotten.”
That reckoning soon comes to pass. Determined to make one final effort to rid himself of the now-too-famous outlaw, the Sheriff of Nottingham (played by the brilliantly evil Nickolas Grace) lures Robin and his men into a trap, forcing the villagers they have so often protected to betray them in order to save their own lives. With most of his men finally captured by Guy of Gisburne (Robert Addie), Robin flees through the forest with Marion and Much. Soon, however, they are cornered by the sheriff in the open on high ground.
Surrounded and running out of arrows, Robin makes a last stand, sacrificing himself so that the woman he loves and the man who he sees as a brother can escape. As Herne predicted though all is not over. As the Sheriff and Gisburne celebrate, and Robin’s captive men mourn his death, they are freed by a mysterious hooded figure – one who disappears before they can discover his true identity.
When season three debuted in 1986 that identity was finally revealed – the aforementioned Earl of Huntingdon, played by Jason Connery, called by Herne to take on the mantle of Robin Hood in the wake of Loxley’s death.
Joining a cast already infamous within the world of TV for being as close off-camera as they were on it was always going to be a hard ask for Connery. Winstone and Mantle in particular had built up reputations as serious practical jokers and Ryan wasn’t much better. Luckily, however, Connery took it all in his stride and before long he had become part of the team – something that after a couple of shaky early episodes becomes obvious on screen as well.
“Obviously, when he was acting, he was the leader, he was Robin Hood, but amongst his peers, he was our equal.” Ryan told Starlog in 1991. “He wasn’t the star. That helped a lot. He’s one of the nicest guys I ever worked with. If my dad were James Bond, I would be a complete bastard!”
With Connery in the lead role season three would mark something of a departure in tone from the first two seasons. In part this was because the narrative of an Earl’s son forced to step down a class and become an outlaw was a very different tale from that portrayed by Praed. This was perhaps also because Carpenter himself began to step back from direct control. Season three would run to a total of thirteen episodes, as many as the previous two seasons combined, and Carpenter was already working on the outline of a new programme, Artos, which would look to do for King Arthur what Robin of Sherwood had done for Robin Hood.
Ultimately Artos would never make it to screen, but fearing overcommitment Carpenter turned to Anthony Horowitz to share writing duties. Now famous both as an author of children’s novels and as the creator of Foyles War, it took some time for Horowitz to find the series’ voice and some of his earlier episodes represent perhaps the weakest point of the entire series, once he found it though his work matched Carpenter’s own.
Despite this, Robin of Sherwood remained both a popular and critical success and by the end of season three the new faces both in front of and behind the camera had found both their confidence and their voice. As Carpenter began to script a fourth and likely final season, however, disaster struck – Robin of Sherwood was cancelled.
“Had I known a month earlier,” Carpenter would later lament, “we could have tied the whole thing up. But we weren’t told in time, which is why the last episode is so full of untied, unresolved elements. As the patron saint of the film industry, San Andreas, would say, it is not my fault.”
That it wasn’t, for Robin was ultimately a victim of circumstances outside of its control. The early part of the decade had been a profitable one for Goldcrest Films, who contributed a significant portion of the upfront funding for Robin of Sherwood. Films such as Chariots of Fire and Gandhi had both made money and won Oscars, but by the middle of the decade a series of high-cost failures, such as The Mission and Absolute Beginners, would drive the company into bankruptcy.
Their withdrawal left a £5m hole in the financing for Robin that Harlech Television were unable to cover, and which Showtime weren’t prepared to meet as ratings in the US had declined for the third season. With no further backing to be found, production closed down.
At first it seemed that this would only be a temporary setback, with both Carpenter and the cast keen to see it return to the small screen. In 1988 it briefly appeared that finance had been secured, only for it all to fall through as the cast were, literally, preparing to depart for the production site. In 1991 Carpenter tried to revive interest again on the back of the big screen success of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. In 1998 Carpenter also tried and failed to get a film version off the ground.
Indeed as late as 2009, Carpenter was still attempting to revive the series for TV. So great was the affection of the original cast for the production that he was able to approach ITV with a script and a commitment from all of the cast (including Ray Winstone) to participate, but they turned him down.
So what would have happened if season four had been made? Carpenter himself provided some hint when speaking to Starlog. As with Praed’s exit, it seems it would likely not have ended well for the characters the audience had grown to love.
“I think on due reflection what should happen is that Guy of Gisburne should kill Marion, and Robin should kill Guy, and then you either leave it like that, with them still being hunted, or they are actually cornered in an ambush and all of them die. It’s very easy for Marion to put on a wedding dress and marry Robin who becomes the Earl of Huntingdon and lives in a castle and all the Merries are pardoned and become wardens of Sherwood Forest. That’s all very comforting and lovely, but it isn’t life. Life isn’t like that.”
“The whole thing has a built-in tragic theme,” he said. “That you just can’t fight the big boys and win.”
Sadly, Carpenter died in 2012, aged 82. With him likely passed any remaining chance of a return to the screen. In some ways though, it is perhaps fitting that Robin of Sherwood will never have an ending. Just as it is perhaps fitting that it remains a series that has never been repeated on terrestrial television – a sad quirk of the way the actor’s residuals for the series were originally contracted, making it too expensive for ITV or others to rerun.
Instead, like the story of Robin himself, Robin of Sherwood will forever remain a tale without a proper ending, one that lives on in the memories of those who remember it, and in the cultural impact through the addition of the Saracen and a Sheriff who is off his rocker, that it has had on every retelling of the tale since. As Herne himself would say:
“Nothing is forgotten. Nothing is ever forgotten.”
This article first appeared in Cult TV Times