Richard Carpenter’s BAFTA award-winning series Robin of Sherwood first aired some 28 years ago in the UK, and while it only ran for three seasons, it remains for many of us who watched it then, and for many more who have seen it since, the pre-eminent version of the Robin Hood legend yet to grace our screens.
There are many reasons why this series has stood the test of time, not least its strong cast and high quality production. The series was shot on location in the most evocative British countryside, using authentic sets and original buildings, and it looks remarkable. Complementing the vision is an award-winning soundtrack by Irish-Celtic musicians Clannad, whose music adds an otherworldly dimension to the series. But in the final verdict, credit lies with Richard Carpenter’s exceptional writing and his creation of an enduring mythic history of England.
In late 2010 the first two seasons were released on Blu-ray in the UK, and last year, thanks to Acorn Media, the Blu-ray edition made its way to the US for the first time. The show has never looked so good, digitally remastered and presented in stunning high definition. Season Three has just been released and while I have little more to add to what I’ve said before about this outstanding series, some of it is worth repeating for those of you who haven’t yet experienced this gem of the small screen.
In retelling the legend of Robin Hood, Richard Carpenter appears to travel the same path taken by J.R.R. Tolkien: both imagine and bring to life a natively English folklore in place of the one that was more or less ground into the dirt in the wake of the Norman invasion in 1066. Robin of Sherwood was the original reboot of the Robin Hood legend and it remains the most influential. The narrative is grounded in a gritty and authentic historical setting, heavy on the social injustice experienced by the occupied Anglo-Saxon peoples. And intertwined with this historical authenticity is a magical pre-Christian mysticism.
In Carpenter’s version of the legend, Herne the Hunter is the spiritual focus of resistance to Norman tyranny, an English god from an older world. At one and the same time Herne is a man and a god: a shaman (just the latest in a long line) possessed by the spirit of the god. He is also the symbolic father of the Hooded Man. In the same way, there’s not been just one Hooded Man, there have been several, one man after the other inheriting the title and becoming the current focus of resistance and defender of the weak. Young Robin of Loxley (Michael Praed) is destined for that role when his father Ailric is killed by the Sheriff. Time and again the Hooded Man rises from amongst the oppressed to resist the cruel and unjust ruling powers.
For the first two seasons, Praed starred as the Hooded Man alongside a very youthful Ray Winstone (Sexy Beast, King Arthur) as the angry Will Scarlet, Clive Mantle as Little John (who we’ve seen more recently in Game of Thrones), Nicholas Grace as the Sheriff of Nottingham, and a wealth of other talent. Praed left the series at the end of Season Two in a blaze of bloody glory in what must be one of the most memorable and moving deaths of the legendary figure (although Sean Connery’s death in Robin and Marian tops them all).
In any one else’s hands, the death of Robin Hood would probably have seen a series about Robin Hood come to an end. But Carpenter found a way to continue with credibility intact: not attempting to replace Praed, but instead replacing Robin. In legend there are two popular depictions of Hood, one a low born rebel, the other high born. Carpenter had established early on that the role of Hood was passed from man to man and with the death of Robin of Loxley, the bow, hood, title and responsibility passed to Robert of Huntingdon (Jason Connery), not a man from amongst the oppressed this time, but a nobleman. With the death of Loxley, Huntington reassembles the Hooded Man’s followers and continues the fight for justice, taking on the Sheriff of Nottingham just when the sheriff thought he’d won.
Jason Connery warmed to the role quickly, and with newcomer Anthony Horowitz joining Carpenter in scriptwriting, new life was breathed into the series with Season Three. Horowitz, who went on to forge a very successful writing career in television and fiction, wrote 5 of the 13 episodes, including two of the most memorable – Cromm Cruac and Adam Bell – but it is the opening episodes, Herne’s Son Parts 1 and 2 in which Robert works to win the trust of Robin’s men, and the closing episodes, The Time of the Wolf, which mark the high points of the season.
And for those who love Clannad’s music, the original soundtrack (in Herne’s Son) is supplemented with one of their most haunting pieces, Caisleán Óir, from their 1985 album Macalla.
For those who have seen this series on TV or DVD, the Blu-ray release has additional appeal for two reasons: the high-definition picture and sound, and the extras. Set 2 holds all 13 episodes of Season Three and more than nine hours of extras, the highlight of which is a 76 minute documentary about the making of this final season. With interviews from the cast, the producers and writers, there’s a wealth of information in this documentary and some answers to questions I’m sure many of us have had about why this outstanding series came to an end before its time.