It seems timely to be putting this up given that Ridley Scott's new version of Robin Hood complete with our/their Russell Crowe in not-quite Lincoln green has hit our multiplexes. It's a reminder that like Sherlock Holmes and King Arthur seemingly every generation brings to the table their own interpretation of the legend.
For my generation one of the most prominent would have to be Richard 'Kip' Carpenter's Robin of Sherwood, a highly stylised and considered take which, like those before it borrowed from the Sir Walter Scott template of the post-Crusade England mingled with residual Anglo Saxons versus Normans resentment. Uniquely, it also touched on older traditions, particularly a form of forest mysticism and mythology based around the 'Celtic' shamanistic figure of Herne, with his anointed 'son', Robin, an analogue of the very early linking of Robin-in-the-Hood with a nature deity himself. There are layers to Carpenter's version, giving it a resonance and a depth that I haven't noticed in subsequent versions. Carpenter's approach takes in two bites of the cherry in its versions of Robin the man - the yeomen Robin of Locksley and the nobleman Robin of Huntingdon, and through the inspired use of Herne was able to 'regenerate' one into the other, neatly (and by all accounts happily) replacing one lead actor with another when circumstances demanded.
We start with the best-known and regarded, Michael Praed - young, fine featured, dark-haired and with a dancer's build (Praed came to the role through stage work, notably The Pirates of Penzance), and surrounded by a stripped-down band of 'Merries' - the usual suspects of Little John (Clive Mantle), Maid Marion (Judi Trott - another dancer), Friar Tuck (Paul Rose) and Will Scarlet - Ray Winstone reinventing the once-dandyish role into a temperamental and aggressive fighter not too far removed from the roles that would permeate Winstone's wider career. Peter Llewellyn Jones plays Much the Miller's son (and Robin's half-brother) as a young simpleton, and crucially Sherwood introduces the Saracen Nasir, a late addition which was picked up by the Kevin Coster movie and recent BBC series. Mark Ryan's swordsmanship (coached by Doctor Who's chief stuntman Terry Walsh) made the character of Nasir THE boys' favourite while the girls happily got Praed, but it's the combined and considerable talents of Mantle and Winstone that drive the team through the entire series. Mantle's great, Winstone is a revelation. Praed's good though - quiet, measured, stagey in the right way. Another thing that escaped me at the time was the diversity of accents of the Merry Men - a deliberate detail, it appears, from the excellent 6-part DVD documentary that accompanies the Complete Series release. The idea being that these heroes would represent a unified England against the Norman-haired and named Sherriff and Guy of Gisbourne, ever drawing on his old mates from the Crusades to quell the Sherwood rebels. The latter two antagonists are of course played by Nickolas Grace (a spot of camp with a generous side order of ham, surely the model for Keith Allen's recent version) and Robert Addie (downtrodden, thuggish but strangely sympathetic) who died seemingly not long after the original documentary. Grace turns it on with all of his eye-bulging, vein-popping best while Addie skulks, sulks, and out-rides everybody else on screen. It's a credit to the writing that you can't despise either of them, though they (and the Sherriff's brother Abbot Hugo) are reliably despicable men.
Series One sets the myth anew but touches on the recognisable set pieces - the longstaff duel between Robin and John, the archery contest - this time for a silver arrow of Herne's which reappears as an important totem later in the second series, but is never seen thereafter. The enemies of the Merry Men are variously cast as Normans and their powerful allies (a corrupt and venal Church, Phil Davis' King John) and, as a counterpoint to Herne's influence, spiritual enemies pagan and diabolical. It's a strong opening, and the first year's stories are arguably the strongest, being brave enough to take their time introducing the regulars, dispensing with other contenders (Alan A Dale recast as a rather inept minstrel obsessed with a lass called Mildred), and in the absence of the Sherriff's physical prowess and cunning, giving the heroes a run for their money with other interlopers; Seven Poor Knights From Acre is a particular highlight. The performances are still fresh and in places naïve (Trott starts off a bit wobbly), but everyone is young, credible, absolutely looks the part and the whole design and direction making judicious use of camera filters and handy ruins and standing castles make for a really interesting looking and sounding production. Of course at this stage even the Clannad music isn't overused - an aspect that unfortunately does creep in as the series continues.
For the cost of a couple of tickets to see the Ridley and Russ Show I'd suggest getting The Complete Series instead - or even just the first series. I was happy in this case to discover that the memory mostly doesn't cheat - it really was that good.