Shiny Shelf

Robin of Sherwood: Series Three Part One DVD

By Jim Smith on 24 November 2002

Watched today Robin of Sherwood strikes you as too good to be an ongoing British television drama series. It has production values and fine acting; scripts that blend wit and issues with a sense of style, and an appreciation of myth. The characters have distinct voices that never descend into clich?. It’s ongoing plot can surprise you. It’s like something by that Whedon chap.

The third season of Robin of Sherwood is generally agreed to be the weakest of the three series produced, and it’s with reluctance and a few caveats that I acquiesce to that viewpoint. Those caveats are biggies though, and we’ll come to them presently. The third season is itself the length of the previous two put together, and while I’ve not the slightest hesitation in decreeing that all of the show’s worst episodes are contained within it, a fair few of its best are also present. It’s the law of averages, albeit with the mathematics assisted by two simple, sad facts. First of those is that the show’s original lead, Michael Praed, departed at the end of season two – Robin Hood dying in a hail of arrows in The Greatest Enemy – and was replaced by the far less charismatic and impressive Jason Connery who stars in all these episodes.

Connery’s not all bad though, far from it. Indeed his biggest crime is to not be Praed, whose remarkable performance was a key factor in the show’s initial success. Connery is more than a match for the Costners of this world however, and unlike Costner he’s assisted half of the time by the aforementioned top-notch screenplays. This brings us to our second sad fact – not all of the season’s thirteen episodes were written by series creator/resident genius Richard Carpenter.

The opening two-parter Herne’s Son is Carpenter’s work though, it’s some of his best in fact, and it’s one of the episodes which most clearly foregrounds the season’s most interesting aspect. Connery isn’t playing Robin Hood; Robin Hood is dead, Connery is playing a Norman noble who – called by the same pagan powers that called Robin Hood – assumes his mantle and takes his place. Herne’s Son is, like all of Carpenter’s scripts for the third season, about a man who is pretending to be Robin Hood because the people of Sherwood need Robin Hood to exist.

As the episode begins Robin has been dead for a year, the rebellion he started in Herne’s name crushed and his closest followers are scattered across England. Robert, heir to the Earl of Huntingdon (Connery) falls for Marion after having met her at a diplomatic function hosted by his father. When she is captured by Welsh Baron Owen of Clun (a raucous Oliver Cotton) Robert becomes determined to rescue her, and assembles a group of the only people who care about her – her late husband’s men – to do so.

It’s basically a mediaeval re-make of The Dirty Dozen, albeit one that’s astonishingly stylishly directed. Robert Young also shot The Swords of Wayland and The Greatest Enemy, both held in higher regard by the series’ hardcore fans, but this is his best work. The bleached photography, multiple exposures and sepia filters create something unusual even within the series’ own unique visual aesthetic.

All the regular actors are present and correct (with the exception of Ray Winstone’s Will Scarlet, who is held back for a storming, booze-sozzled entrance in part two) with Nickolas Grace’s Sheriff, Robert Addie’s Guy and Philip Jackson’s Abbot Hugo still delighting in their victory over the outlaws and taking their ever present bitchiness to unprecedented levels. Also featuring are Michael Craig and George Baker as the fathers of Robert and Marion respectively – both doing their bit to add dignity to the occasion – and Richard O’Brien as cackling sorcerer Gulnar, who seems to be doing his best to ensure that the episodes have no dignity at all. Fortunately he fails.

The second half brings Scarlet back into the fold and climaxes with a full-on assault on Owen’s castle on the Welsh borders. All in all it’s a cracking two hours of television, full of some of the best sword fights ever put on TV; if it leaves some of its concerns unresolved and ends a little abruptly (and it does) it’s because it flows almost seamlessly into the immediate follow up The Power of Albion, which is fortunately nearly as good. Combined with the preceding two-parter and the season two finale The Greatest Enemy, Albion makes an awesome three hour narrative, full up to the brim with human emotions and about not just the ramifications of grief, but also the need for heroes and the importance of accepting your responsibilities. Thus Robert must accept his place in the rebellion just as Robin had to accept his own death; and the need of the oppressed for a champion who will defend them against their masters is reiterated.

After this the season stalls somewhat with two non-Carpenter scripted episodes, The Inheritance (which is pretty decent but ultimately inconsequential, although it has a cracking pre-credits sequence) and The Sheriff of Nottingham (which is probably the single worst episode of the entire three years). Both come from the pen of Anthony Horowitz and neither of them deals with the series’ main themes. The Sheriff of Nottingham in particularly is tediously directed, a pace-free and characterless affair. Both are also (and this may sound odd but it’s crucial) from towards the end of the series’ production block. The characters’ relationships don’t follow on at all from the immediately prior episode (in dire contrast to the previous run) and Robert and Marion are now clearly a couple rather than unwilling allies. Much even refers to the events of Rutterkin, an episode included in the second Season Three box set (due early next year) and always placed well after Sheriff in any repeat run. To compound matters the events of Herne’s Son are said to have taken place two years before. These details are minor but revealing. There’s no way these episodes should be placed here in the ongoing plot. Their presence jarred in 1986, and it jars now. They’re fillers, yes, and they diverge from Carpenter’s concerns to an enormous extent, but they’d be more bearable and less obtrusive if they were in the latter part of the season where they belong. Their positioning here robs the series of its scripted coherence and it’s a shame that this DVD release – the definitive re-issuing of the series – couldn’t have re-ordered the episodes into a sequence which made more sense. Character continuity is the only kind of continuity that really matters and it’s been thrown away here.

This awkwardness is never more apparent than when moving onto the final episode in the box, The Cross of St Ciricus. This is a brilliant, incisive look at questions of rivalry and faith from Carpenter, and one laced with black humour and clever revelations connected to the ongoing story. It’s a showcase for Ray Winstone’s Scarlet and Robert Addie gets to add levels to Gisburne that earlier episodes didn’t even hint at. It clearly takes place shortly after Albion too, with Robert and Marion unsure of one another and John deeply resentful of Robert’s class and status. It is also, crucially, once again about how Robert isn’t actually Robin Hood and is a real demonstration of how this series could, should (and to be fair usually was) done. It’s quite scary too.

The extras on offer here include more of the epic ‘making of’ that’s run across the previous volumes, and other assorted bits of production ephemera, but in this instance they really are just added value. Four of these six episodes don’t need a support act.

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