Robin Hood is one of those legendary figures who just keep on giving. The inspiration for every heart-of-gold outlaw tale since the Middle Ages, Robin’s influence has been seen most recently in Joss Whedon’s Firefly and Peter Jackson’s portrayal of Faramir and the Rangers of Gondor in Lord of The Rings. In 1941, Roy Rogers gave us Robin Hood of the Pecos, in 1947 Gene Autry starred as the Robin Hood of Texas. Real life outlaws have also been romanticised à la Hood (Billy The Kid, Jesse James, and John Wesley Harding and Hardin), movie versions of the character abound (played by Douglas Fairbanks, Errol Flynn, Mel Brooks, Patrick Bergin, and Kevin Costner), as do TV series, including the definitive Richard Greene version and the ‘80s retelling that introduced both black magic and fantasy into the legend. Both those series were produced by independent British television companies. Now, the BBC, proud upholder of everything that is great about Britain, has given us a laughable, error-prone Hood for the new millennium.
These new adventures of Robin Hood were filmed in 2006, broadcast in the UK the same year, and debuted on BBC America in March 2007. A second season is already in production, which says more about the strength of the BBC’s marketing than it does about the show’s quality. The plots are facile, the drama absent, and the acting so wooden it often cannot be seen for the trees of Sherwood Forest. Yet I’ve enjoyed every last episode, each so bad it’s rather good.
Perhaps the most killing thing that can be said about Robin Hood is that the eternally unlikable Keith Allen is undeniably the best thing in the show. He takes his Sheriff of Nottingham directly from Alan Rickman’s scenery-chewing rendition in Prince of Thieves, itself lifted from Nickolas Grace in Robin of Sherwood, and adds just a little postmodern manipulative sociopath to the mix.
Would-be Assassin: “I shot the sheriff.”
Sheriff of Nottingham: “No, you shot the deputy.”
The Sheriff’s context, however, is literally meager. England in general and the city of Nottingham appear are alarmingly under-populated. Robin and the Sheriff barely have enough men to form a basketball team each. Hood’s side seems to be able to wander in and out of Nottingham Castle at will, and barely a week passes without at least one prisoner breaking out of the dungeons.
The Sheriff’s second, Guy of Gisborne (Richard Armitage), is suitably brooding and ineffectual, seeking redemption in the “pure heart” of Marian. Lucy Griffiths plays her like Keira Knightley with boobs and a wonderbra. If you remember the mild controversy over posters for King Arthur, when Knightley’s chest was photoshopped up to something approaching a C cup, then you already know everything you need to know about Griffiths’ Maid. Except that she fights like Cameron Diaz in Shrek and is largely inept and always in need of a timely rescue.
Robin and Gisborne take turns rescuing her. Robin repeatedly rescues her from Evil Sir Guy, and Evil Sir Guy rescues her from the Sheriff. Yep. It’s a Lurve Triangle, and all the chemistry is on the hypotenuse. Yet neither man seems able to spot a woman in men’s clothing. Sir Guy is blind to Griffith’s boobage whenever she appears in her overwhelmingly odd “Nightwatchman” guise; Robin too struggles with this secret identity, as well as Saracen “boy” Djaq (Anjali Jay), whose sole disguise is a short haircut.
Such charming naïveté is entangled in Robin Hood’s politics. The backstory to most of the Hood legends casts him as a loyal servant of King Richard the Lionheart, returned home from the Crusades to question the value of the war overseas and its impact at home. Can you think of a parallel with today? Writer and executive producer Dominic Minghella certainly can. Unfortunately, he can’t do anything with it beyond waving an occasional trite banner to say, “Look! It’s like the same as today! Aren’t I clever?” Americans may need to remember this is coming from a British perspective:
Sheriff of Nottingham: “The king needs funds to fight our holy war.”
Robin Hood: “Is it our holy war? Or is it Pope Gregory’s?”
While liberals and right-wingers see Robin Hood as a freedom-loving champion of small government, the Left often reads him as a classic socialist. Minghella, however, appears most interested in the cheap score. He makes a quick anti-war comment, establishing his right-on credentials for the benefit of the Islington classes, but doesn’t pursue broader issues of taxation and social justice. I don’t think I’d trust Minghella to write a shopping list.
Guy of Gisborne: “I understand the king is winning, thanks be to God.”
Robin Hood: “He’s killing more people.”
Gisborne: “Is that not winning?”
Robin: “Show me an argument ever settled with bloodshed, and then I’ll call it winning.”
I’m fairly sure some important arguments have been settled through bloodshed. The only trick Minghella misses here is to add Culture Club to the soundtrack. All together now: “War is stupid, and people are stupid”.
In one episode, Gisborne announces he can “hold and execute outlaws without trial”, while the Sheriff plots to use the spectre of Robin Hood’s “terrorism” as a device to keep the peers and peasants in line. The Sheriff is happy to use torture and conspire to acquire weapons of mass destruction. But none of these ideas or themes is given more than a brief nod, and the idea that the dungeons of Nottingham Castle might double as a medieval Gitmo is plainly risible, given the ease with which Robin and his men regularly break each other out.
Similarly, I wonder how many former coal miners in the UK watched the fifth episode of Robin Hood and laughed (somewhat bitterly) at its Bird Flu referencing title, “Turk Flu”. In the ‘80s, Nottinghamshire had the most productive coal mines in the UK and the best paid and most treacherous miners. The vast majority of Nottinghamshire’s 30,000 miners scabbed from day one of the UK’s watershed miners’ strike of 1984-1985, betraying their 170,000 colleagues and acting as Margaret Thatcher’s own personal strikebreakers.
In “Turk Flu”, Gisborne and the Sheriff of Nottingham are the proud owners of a thriving iron mine, which provides much of their income and “military might”. However, mine workers are dying because of the mine’s poor state of repair and consequently, they announce that they will strike until conditions are improved. Gisborne and Nottingham’s response is a model of Thatcherite industrial relations. Gisborne kills the miners’ leader and Nottingham fires the remainder of the miners, prohibits anyone from helping them in any way, and brings in “blackleg” miners in the form of slaves. It’s possible that Minghella carefully planned this episode in order to scar the Nottingham scabs with dramatic irony. But based on the rest of the series, I think I’m with Boy George.