...a blog by Richard Flowers

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Day 2104: ROBIN HOOD: Will You Tolerate This?


Daddy Richard has had nothing to write for AGES so it is about time I put him to work again, don't you think? Fortunately, the BBC have come across with a new series for him to review for me! It is called ROBBING HOODIE and the SHERIFF OF NEO-CON.

I THINK that there might be some sort of SUBTEXT!

I wonder what Daddy thinks…

Even before the launch of the official Doctor Who spin off "Torchwood" (thoughtfully trailed at the end of tonight's episode) we get as good as the next "son of Doctor Who" in the form of a Saturday evening fantasy adventure for a family audience. And one that kicked Ant & Dec's Saturday bottom, to boot. Hoorah!

The most striking thing to me was just how heterosexual it was. It's not that Robin's sexuality has even been in any doubt, even the most Timoteé-ified Robin, "Robin of Sherwood", was still a love story between Marion and Robin. Or Robert. But previously it was a much more courtly or even ethereal love and it was generally backgrounded. This Robin, with a hugely male cast and women restricted to "the feisty one" and two "eye candy" roles, seemed much more upfront about being a Boys' Adventure in every sense.

Jonas Armstrong in the lead as Robin of Loxley is a bit pretty. Well, quite a lot pretty if I'm being honest. And cheeky enough to know it too. Within ten minutes he's snogging lustily with the first available damsel. And all of his dialogue with manservant Much (Sam Troughton, yes grandson of that Troughton) was very much two mates coming back from the football and not a hint of Russell T Davis-esque "gay agenda" ambiguity. Even an "I love you" managed not to suggest anything other than manly male bonding.

It was the "They Think It's All Over" of Robin Hoods. Or even given how very, very young most of the cast seem, the "Hollyoaks" of Hoods.

Michael Praed and Jason Connery were quite young when they played the outlaw, but even they seem mature compared to young master Armstrong; he hardly seems old enough to have just returned from a tough five year stint with the Crusades. But then, Will Scarlet and previously unheard of even younger brother Luke Scarlet seem barely out of short trousers.

(And being "previously unheard of" does not bode well for boy Luke's long-term survival if the writers are planning to do something a bit shocking.)

So, Robin gets to be a bit of a young rogue with an obvious eye for the ladies. Robin is a reckless courageous firebrand: if there's any misstep in the script it's at the conclusion, trying to set us up to believe that he would ever go through with letting the boys hang. Given everything about the way he has behaved up to now – his opening rescue of Alan from the Sheriff's men; his repeated tweaking of the Sheriff to his face – he isn't a guy to avoid the direct approach. He would have broken into the castle in the dead of night and tried to fight his way out with them.

Meanwhile Much gets to play a very traditional kind of comedy sidekick: the loveable idiot. We're all a bit used to the Eddie Murphy style of wise-cracking donkey as chief assistant/pain in the butt to the male lead, so the writing of Much's character was one of the most medieval parts of the show. Possibly giving him the catchphrase of "I knew that" was a little unwise for those of us old enough to remember "Goodness Gracious Me" and the anglophile Denis Kapour (pron. Cooper) who would frequently repeat the same words when caught out. But there was still the occasional moment – almost overwhelmed by memories while in the bath, for instance – that suggested that there is or will be more depth to be found here.

For the dark side, the Sheriff as played by Keith Allan is definitely school of Alan Rickman: all cackling, camp and canary killing. The Sheriff is a difficult role: you want to be big enough to make a splash but not so much that you become panto. Nicholas Grace was given a much more interesting, thoughtful, intelligent Sheriff: a political operator. And that was one of the great strengths of Robin of Sherwood – the Sheriff was the guy from the 20th Century, he was the one who could understand and even deconstruct the myth going on around him. All of which made it worse for him when he started to realise that actually the myth was too strong from him to beat it with his cynicism. Conversely, the fantastic Errol Flynn swash-buckler "The Adventures of Robin Hood" does away with the Sheriff altogether, rolling the character up in the dastardly suave of Basil Rathbone's Sir Guy de Gisborne. This new Robin Hood sticks to the traditional, though, so the Sheriff is the "Big Bad" with brooding Sir Guy as henchman / best boy-totty.

It's early days, of course, and beyond Robin, Much and the Sheriff, and a bit of Marion, no one has really been given even a chance to establish a character yet. We have an Alan a Dale acting a bit of a cheeky wideboy and aforementioned Scarlet brothers Will and Luke to make up numbers for the hanging. Gordon Kennedy is credited but his Little John has yet to turn up; expect him in the forest next week if the trailers are to be believed.

With another twelve weeks to go though, it's to be hoped that all of the people involved will be given the opportunity to but some flesh on the bare bones of character that they were allowed to show in episode one.

In many ways this is the exact opposite of the way Doctor Who went – and perhaps deliberately so, to set up the difference from the word go – with Christopher Eccleston's first episode "Rose"* very much concentrating on character, in fact A character: Rose Tyler, almost to the exclusion of plot.

Robin went to the other extreme and was almost a series of action set pieces strung together by the briefest of character sketches. Arrow work, sword work and then confrontation with the sheriff before the big rescue at the end.

Most of the hard work was being done by the director and the editor: lots of ramping (that bit where the action suddenly speeds up or slows down), lots of sharp cuts and crash zooms, and lots of fast inter-cutting to flashbacks. Or was that the new episode of "Cracker"? Anyway, it was certainly trying to say this was very 21st Century Television.

Only the sword fight with the affronted father of that buxom wench™ seemed in any way gratuitous. It didn't really advance the plot any, though it gave us the chance to establish Robin's 12th Century Casanova credentials, and that he could swing a sword a bit. Mind you, if he was good enough to fight off half a dozen of the Sheriff's guards at the climax, why didn't he chop dad into mincemeat? Or for that matter, if dad was so handy with a blade, why was he digging pits to dye cloth when he could be up at the castle getting gold for bodyguard work?

And if I'm going to raise quibbles, what was the Earl of Huntingdon doing living in a minor manor house in Nottinghamshire? Robin of Sherwood rather wisely decoupled the two "origin stories" of Robin – dispossessed Saxon noble or lost heir to the Norman Earldom – which came in handy when they needed to recast for series three. Making this Robin an Earl allows him to pull rank on Sir Guy… but the reality is he'd be pulling rank on the Sheriff too. As an earl he'd have extensive lands, not to mention soldiers, of his own and the Sheriff really couldn't afford to treat him with that much contempt, not to mention the fact that it would need the King to outlaw him.

The music was a bit two-dimensional too, a repetitive riff on the main theme, which could have done with some of the depth and variety that Murrey Gold brings to the Doctor Who scores. On the other hand, it sticks in your head a fair while, and that's useful, even if it has a propensity to turn into the BBC's 1980's election night theme that was reused as "Hordes of the Things".

Mind you, I was amused by the bow and arrow woosh-kerthunk noise for the location captions.

Speaking of locations, they've built a rather lovely Loxley and a rather nice Nottingham somewhere in the Hungarian countryside, and I expect we'll be seeing quite a bit more of those as they amortise the cost over the season. The forests felt more autumnal than summery – appropriate for the time of year, of course, but also for the "England fading" vibe that seems to be underlying some of the series ideas.

Now, on that theme, it's just possible that Millennium is right and there may be more to this series than meets the eye: Robin returns from a war in the Middle East where we stand shoulder to shoulder with the super-power (Rome) and at home civil liberties are being threatened or even abandoned in the name of greater security. The Sheriff's men are empowered to enact on-the-spot fines (of a finger) without trial and punishments have been increased and increased to deter, or look tough on, crime.

Do you think they are trying to say something?

Okay, the politics is a little bit on the naïve side but at least the hero is shown to be the liberal – nice free trade plan there, by the way, Robin – and in these days of "24" who knows, the Sheriff could have been played as the good guy with Sir Guy running Robin to ground from Nottingham CTU.

Alex reminds me of the "Mrs Thatcher Dictionary" entry: "Robin Hood – a terrorist". Is Dr John Reid taking notes?

There is a theory I recall that the Robin Hood legend returns again each time the liberal spirit comes under threat: Richard Green starred as Robin Hood (you all know the song) in a series largely made by Americans who had fled to Britain to escape Senator McCarthy. Robin of Sherwood retold the legend at the height of Mrs Thatcher's power, and now we have the War on Terror and another Robin for our times.

(I'm not quite sure where that theory leaves "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves"… other than as a bloated Kevin Costner vehicle stolen by Alan Rickman, naturally.)

Here we have Robin as the "good man of the people" who, despite the uncomfortable way the repeated use of "my peasants" sat on his tongue, never seemed more than a minute away from a rousing chorus of "The Land". Pity he banned songs.

On the whole, very promising but it could have been tauter: some more detail to the characters: if Robin had been more cynical, or war-weary, so that we could believe that he would fold under the Sheriff's pressure, then that ending might have played better; a little more emphasis on plot rather than spectacle: some sense of why these people are doing what they are doing more than just because he's good or he's bad. It may be episode one and everyone may know that Robin has got to come home, find the Sheriff taxing everyone into the ground and turn outlaw, but the challenge is to find a way to make that story exciting rather than putting exciting stunts around a perfunctory retelling that looks like it thinks the story is old.

We'll tune in next week to see how the story grows.

*(To be fair, I got the DVD out and watched "Rose" again and it is still a cracking piece of television: it has great pace, quickly bringing us into Rose's everyday world and then turning it upside down, introducing us slowly to the Doctor through the mystery of his identity as Rose investigates it. Plus there are some killer plastic mannequins. I'm afraid it rather beat poor Robin into the ground. But then Russell T Davies is a certified genius of the screen.)


Will said...

A largely fair summary from Daddy Richard, which saves me writing much the same. It didn't really seem to know what it was doing pacewise, and a Robin Home series that swaps mysticism for action really needs more and better of the latter, but it was still entertaining if more in the mould of the pilot of Bugs than Doctor Who :)

Oh, and Gordon Kennedy *is* there - he's the beardy man in the coda.

Onlinefocus Team said...

A largely fair Summary?


Anywaty, as I'm unlikely to find the time to watch any of this, I'm most grateful to Elephant for explaining what it's like...