Although it is undoubtedly dated, this digitally remastered version of the people’s champion’s exploits and adventures holds true to the fables many of us have known since childhood. Much of the action centers around the clashes between ‘Robin in the Hood’ (Praed/Connery) and the almost constantly unlucky (not to mention almost constantly sniveling) Sheriff of Nottingham (Grace). Robin relies on his carefully vetted and loyal group of cohorts to rescue him time and again, and he returns the favor on numerous occasions, as well.
Initially it is difficult to get past the video quality of the early ’80s – in the first half of the series, it seems obvious that video editors had only just discovered how to overlay one image with another, or how to combine several at once into a slightly nauseating strobe-image effect used to indicate a dream sequence or magical meddling with perception. And the role that sorcery and witchcraft play in the series comes across as rather ridiculous now, with sheep skulls and pentagrams displayed prominently to indicate “unnatural” magical presences.
Toward the end of season two, a group called Lucifer’s Cauldron (apparently the largest coven in England) attempt to conjure the Son of Morning himself, and his appearance begins as a large lump of blue clay cast in a spotlight, the clay melting and forming into vaguely satanic features as the group of crazed virgins below him chant and sway. Methinks computer generated imagery had not yet been dreamed of.
Fortunately, the visual effects smooth out by the start of the final season. In stark contrast to the stumbling visual effects is the costuming of the series: the leather leggings and proper knee-high boots fit right in with the tree-climbing and dashing swordplay that characterizes the collective storyteller’s perception of the prince of thieves and his cohorts.
Although the musical score was award-winning at the time, Irish group Clannad now sound like the precursor to Loreena McKennitt, with added synthesizers. Those who enjoyed the synthesizer-laden musical efforts of the early ’80s might like this Celtic twist, but it’s pretty distracting initially. Once the musical motifs indicating plot direction (often warning of betrayal, danger, or perhaps an approaching romantic sequence) become familiar, they fade into the background.
When a viewer is ready to take in the synthesized score and early video editing techniques without snickering, this is actually a commendable series in terms of human relationships and early fight-scene undertakings. The actors really put their all into the fight scenes – whether with bow and arrow, longstaff, sword, or whatever else is at hand, there are at least three strident brawls per episode.
The carnage is remarkable, and the old ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ method must be applied to accept that a single sideways swipe of a sword in the hands of one of Robin’s followers would cause enough damage to fell a lightly armored soldier. It is more rewarding to concentrate on the acrobatics of the outlaws, who leap, climb, and whirl about the battleground, until it is time to demonstrate their swiftness as they inevitably disappear into Sherwood Forest.
Emotions run high in the series; Will Scarlet is nearly always furious, the Sheriff and his henchman are just about constantly apoplectic, although Robin is generally cool as a cucumber. The gravity of many situations is tempered by a humorous remark, frequently one of the Sheriff’s making. When maid Marian (Trott) first joins Robin’s gang and the Sheriff’s right hand man, Guy of Gisbourne, wonders whether the band of outlaws will be able to accept her, the Sheriff declares, “One woman and half a dozen men?! It’s a recipe for disaster!”
Later, the Sheriff is poised to marry a nobleman’s 16-year-old daughter in order to gain a sizeable dowry, and Gisbourne asks, “Will there be many guests, my lord?” The Sheriff responds haughtily, “It’s a wedding, Gisbourne. Not a celebration.”
A frightened miller who insists on sleeping surrounded by salt because supposed demons have taken to visiting his village in the dark hours tries to deny that the people need Robin’s help; a snarling Little John sneers alliteratively, “Now listen to me, friend. You can surround yourself with salt, soot, or sausages for all I care.”
Another great moment is the look on Little John’s face after Nasir, the Saracen in the group, introduces himself in his native tongue to a stranger; Nasir interprets John’s interest as curiosity. Nasir repeats his introduction, emphasizing the ‘h’ sound in the back of the throat that is hard for speakers of Arabic languages to master, and Little John just grins, slaps him on the back, and walks away.
Nasir the Saracen (Ryan), who appears early on in the series as a top competitor in the classic bow and arrow shooting contest staged to lure this upstart, Robin in the Hood, away from his forest sanctuary, was not originally written as a recurring character. His calm demeanor, swarthy sex appeal, and proven fighting and tracking capability, however, rendered him a popular newcomer, and show writers decided to keep him around.
A man of few words but possessing two curved swards and lethal fighting technique, his character allows the writers to include some crusade-era cultural references from more than one point of view, and explore his background as a trained assassin now loyal to Robin and his men. Previously, the tradition of Robin Hood held that all the members of the group hailed from the British Isles, but it has become more common now to see an Arab among the group.
For the most part, once the initial group of outlaws solidifies, unified by their desire to help the common people and further social justice rather than simply stealing and slaughtering to further their own survival, the cast of characters remains the same. One huge change is in the casting of Robin himself, however, as in the first half of the series he is played by the dark-haired and lanky Michael Praed (of Dynasty fame) and in the final season, blond, compact Jason Connery (son of a certain famous Bond actor) takes his place.
Judi Trott, the eternally good-natured and sweetly beautiful maid Marian, finds something to love in each of the Robins, as well as her own place in the gang of merry men. With her natural innocence and grace, she tricks more than one nobleman (or King of England) into believing that she’ll submit to their wishes when ultimately she is only loyal to Robin and her forest friends.
Where the original Robin was one of the people, a poor villager seeking a more meaningful life, the new Robin is the son of a nobleman, forsaking a life of ease and allegiance to the established order to take up the mantle of the king of Sherwood and slake his desire to change the lives of the common serfs who worked the land. Perhaps because the new Robin is of the ethereal red-headed Marian’s social class, it is inevitable that they fall for each other. Without a bit of ongoing romance the series would certainly suffer.
There are a prodigious amount of special features included in this set: 17 hours worth according to the box cover. The gist of the approximately four hours of interviews with producers, writers and actors (now 20 years on) is that, looking back, the experience of making this version of Robin Hood was the best time of their lives. In the early ’80s they were all allowed to do their own stunts and wield their own swords, and clearly they all got on extremely well.
The drawling producer goes on at length regarding filming deals and other trivia, and it’s too bad his interview wasn’t omitted, but seeing each of the actors after a couple of decades have passed is rather interesting. Both Robins have aged incredibly well, as has maid Marian. It’s a reminder that the cast were, for the most part, incredibly young at the time of the filming.
The outtakes consist largely of falling down damp hillsides as much of the time not spent filming was wasted waiting for the rain to stop, and there are a fair number of mishaps with shooting longbows, as well. A short interview with one of the members of the Irish band Claddad might be interesting for anyone wondering about the genesis of the vaguely Celtic soundtrack, but overall the value of this collection lies in the wonderful cast and their reenactment of the Robin Hood legend, more so than the extra footage included to expand the size of the box.