Richard Carpenter’s iconic Robin of Sherwood now on Blu-ray

Robin of SherwoodOver the years we’ve had cause to mention Richard Carpenter’s BAFTA award-winning series Robin of Sherwood on a number of occasions, typically to recall in passing what an outstanding piece of television it is. As it first aired in the UK in the ’80s and we struggle to keep up with new material, there’s been little opportunity for us to write any more about it. Until now,  that is, and the fortuitous arrival of a review copy of Seasons One and Two on Blu-ray. Happy days!

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 to have graced our television screens. 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 (and always), the Hooded Man rises from amongst the oppressed to resist the cruel and unjust ruling powers.

HerneThe series ran for three seasons from 1984 to 1986. For the first two seasons, Michael Praed starred as Robin of Loxley alongside a very youthful Ray Winstone 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. Season Three saw Jason Connery (Sean’s son), playing a nobleman by the name of Robert of Huntingdon, take up the bow and title of the Hooded Man. In case you haven’t seen the series yet I’ll leave the circumstances of the change to your imagination.

Carpenter’s series has been described by some as the definitive retelling of the legend. I wouldn’t call it that, although not because it isn’t the best version of the legend to grace our television screens: I simply don’t believe there can be a definitive version of this legend. When all is said and done, Robin Hood is an archetype, a legendary, semi-mythical character, and isn’t the point in telling the tale of an archetype to retell the tale? Hood is the archetypal rebel with a cause and his story needs to be told and retold by each generation.

On the other hand, rarely has a retelling had as much staying power or influence as Robin of Sherwood. So influential was Carpenter’s version that themes and characters he invented have been adopted by subsequent re-tellings as if they are part of the source legend. A case in point is Carpenter’s addition of a Saracen to the band of merry men. Both Kevin Reynold’ s dire Prince of Thieves and the BBC’s Robin Hood starring Jonas Armstrong poached that one.

Few series from the 80s have stood the test of time so well. The fact that it’s a period piece helps of course as the look is not tarnished by the 80’s very distinctive fashion and style (although Robin and company do have something of the New Romantic about them). And yet, placing the series solely in the context of exceptional 80’s tv doesn’t do it justice as it’s one of a relatively small number of series that deserve to be labelled classic television, both remarkable in their time and standing the test of time. Robin of Sherwood deserves this accolade where so many other series have fallen short of the mark due to a combination of Carpenter’s exceptional writing, perfectly cast actors, and a high quality production. Shot on location in the most evocative of British countryside, using authentic sets and original buildings, the show looks fantastic. And complementing the vision is an award-winning soundtrack by Irish-Celtic musicians Clannad, whose music adds an otherworldly dimension to the series.

I watched the series on TV religiously in the 80s, then on video and then on DVD, and although the original series was shot on film (at considerable expense which was partly why the series met an untimely end after three seasons), the digital transfer of the DVD was a little disappointing (most noticeably in the opening scenes of the very first episode). Late last year in the UK the first two seasons were released on Blu-ray and this year, thanks to Acorn Media, the Blu-ray edition has made its way to the US and beyond. The show has never looked so good, digitally remastered and presented in stunning high definition.

If you haven’t seen this series, you need to experience it on Blu Ray as no other format does better justice to its visual and auditory magic. If you already have the DVD box set, what will you find on the Blu Ray set that wasn’t on the DVD set? Not a lot, except for a stunning high definition picture which brings this exceptional series to life more vividly than ever before. And that is reason enough to watch it on Blu-ray.

What you do get are all 13 episodes of the first two seasons and eight hours of extras – most of which was provided with the DVD box set, but a lot of which has been remastered. Extras include five episode commentaries by series creator Richard Carpenter, director Ian Sharp, and producer Paul Knight; a behind-the-scenes documentary, The Electric Theatre Show, upgraded and expanded from the original series; Nothing’s Forgotten: The Making of Robin of Sherwood (remastered), two documentaries about the making of the first two seasons; new featurettes for three episodes; photo galleries with nearly 500 images in HD; out-takes; PDF material, including Richard Carpenter’s original story treatment, and several scripts (access via a computer using the bonus DVD); and a very nice 40-page booklet with extensive production notes.

As the Hooded Man reminds us time and again, “Nothing is forgotten” and once you’ve experienced this unforgettable series, I’m sure you’ll agree.

Highly recommended.

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