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Robin of Sherwood: Set 1

(BBC; US DVD: 7 Jun 2011)

Robin of Sherwood is a British TV production that ran from 1983 to 1986, starring feather-haired Michael Praed as the titular hero and benefiting from a strong supporting cast. Writer/producer Richard Carpenter had worked in British TV for many years before dreaming up the idea of a new retelling of the Robin legend, one with a youthful cast of Merry Men to appeal to a new generation of viewers. Now the show’s first two seasons, 13 episodes in all, have been released on DVD and blu-ray disc in a four-disc set that includes a pristine print transfer and hours of extra features. The blu-ray set, under review here, is beautiful—in all honesty, it’s probably a bit more lavish than the show actually deserves.


This version of the Robin Hood story emphasizes both his local-Saxon-boy-resisting-snooty-Norman roots as well as a recurring strand of magic and the occult. Robin’s father was murdered years earlier by the Normans—ethnic French conquerors of Britain who seized the island after the Battle of Hastings in 1066 and who then installed themselves as its rulers. When Robin’s adopted father is murdered years later by the evil Sheriff of Nottingham (a deliciously evil Nickolas Grace), Robin takes to Sherwood Forest and soon finds himself the unexpected leader of a band that’s part fugitive outlaws, part resistance movement.


So far, so familiar. The occult elements include Herne, the god of the woods who appears as a man with the head and horns of a stag. Herne takes Robin under his protection, declares him his son and urges him to become a symbol of hope for the oppressed. Robin, despite appearing to be better suited as the front man for a Bon Jovi cover band, agrees.


Familiar characters soon appear: Marion and Friar Tuck, Little John and Will Scarlet all join Robin in his efforts to rid the countryside of Norman oppression—or at least to make the oppression a little less oppressive. A simpleton named Much is added for pathos and occasional humor, while Saracen fighter Nasir soon joins the band as well—a break from tradition that predates the Morgan Freeman character Azeem who would appear in Kevin Coster’s Hollywood version of the story eight years later.


The supporting cast is excellent, a colorful, scruffy bunch who supply much-needed grit to offset Praed’s vapid prettiness (one of the bonus documentaries sees writer Carpenter praising Praed for his “wooden” quality.) It’s a shame that the title character should be so bland, but he is, and at least the producers had the sense to surround him with a crew of lively character actors who knew how to carry a scene.


The villains, too, are priceless, and often have the best scenes in the show. Nickolas Grace, fresh from the landmark Brideshead Revisited, gets the best lines and delivers them with relish (“It’s a wedding, Gisburne, not a celebration!”). Robert Addie plays the Sherriff’s right-hand man and chief enforcer, Guy of Gisburne, with a pitch-perfect mix of befuddlement and arrogance, while Anthony Valentine’s uber-villain Simon de Belleme is a recurring baddie who appears unstoppable (think Voldemort to Robin Hood’s Harry Potter).


Despite this promising cast, the show gets off to a shaky start. The acting is generally passable, but the action sequences are laughable, while ham-fisted attempts to inject humor into early episodes often make them feel like a tiresome project aimed at 12-year-olds. However, this shifts abruptly with the fourth episode, “Seven Poor Knights From Acre”, which concerns a group of thoroughly corrupt Knights Templar returning home from the Crusades. Clever use of point-of-view shots and sound effects elevate this episode into something genuinely compelling and adult.


Further episodes continue this trend, despite a few stumbles along the way. Two-parter “The Swords of Wayland”, which opens the second season, introduces more adult themes—Satan worship!—and several effective plot twists, all while keeping the action flowing. Despite these more “mature” themes, it’s worth noting that the overwhelming tone of the series is one of adventure and fun. There is no gore on display and virtually no blood, not withstanding all the swordplay on display. While this might itself be a cause for criticism—the violence is sanitized beyond recognition—concerned parents can probably be assured that the show isn’t going to give their children nightmares.


As mentioned, the print of this series is flawless. The sound is rich as well (the better to enjoy the synth-heavy psuedo-Celt soundtrack by, ugh, Clannad), and there is a detailed, 40-page booklet outlining as much detail about the production and its cast and crew as you could possibly want. But be warned—the book contains spoilers, so don’t read it until you’ve watched the show.


There are tons of other extras as well, including two interesting documentaries on the making of the show that combine for over 100 minutes and focus on the cast and crew’s recollections of time on set. Music-only soundtracks are provided for a handful of episodes, and although it escapes me why anyone would want to watch the show without dialogue but with music, but there you go. There are also commentaries for all of the first season’s episodes, as well as a photo gallery of production stills that lasts over 20 minutes when played in slideshow mode on the screen. Yet another behind-the-scenes documentary featuring series two director Robert Young lasts nearly forty minutes. If this isn’t enough, three further episodes are graced with mini-documentaries, while the original story treament and scripts for the show are presented in pdf format.


Still conscious? Sit back and enjoy 16 minutes of outtakes, which are quite possibly the highlight of all this brouhaha. Taken together, the bonus material tops eight hours, which is roughly 2/3 as long as the series itself.


All this may be more than the casual viewer wants, but it’s an undeniably handsome package for a diverting television show. This seems destined to be the definitive assessment of the first two seasons. Any fans of the Robin Hood legend would do well to get themselves to Sherwood, pronto.

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DAVID MAINE is a novelist and essayist. His books include The Preservationist (2004), Fallen (2005), The Book of Samson (2006), Monster, 1959 (2008) and An Age of Madness (2012). He has contributed to The Washington Post, Publishers Weekly, Esquire.com and NPR.com, among other outlets. He is a lifelong music obsessive whose interests range from rock to folk to hip-hop to international to blues. He currently lives in western Massachusetts, where he works in human services. Catch up with his blog, The Party Never Stops, at davidmaine.blogspot.com, or become his buddy on Facebook (or Twitter or Google+ or whatever you prefer) to keep up with reviews and other developments.


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