Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Robin of Sherwood on Blu-ray

If you’ve not seen or heard of Robin of Sherwood, don’t be dismayed by the fact that this article focuses on material from later in the series. It’s Robin Hood, OK? How lost can you possibly be, and how many spoilers can possibly be revealed? What might be important to know, is that I have no great love for the myth of Robin Hood. There are really only two versions[1] of the story that have ever jazzed me, and one of them is this series, which I’m slowly becoming rather fanatical about. Now this could mean one of two things to you, depending on your feelings about all things Hood. If you are a Hood fan and you haven’t seen this show, then by all means seek it out, and there’s no better way to do that than via Acorn’s recently released Blu-ray sets[2]. If you are not a Hood fan, then, like me, you may very well find Robin of Sherwood to your liking. Read on…   

Few TV series are able to creatively move past replacing their lead actor. Obviously, Doctor Who is the major exception to the rule, going so far as to incorporate the change into the narrative of the story, to the point where it’s not only something people accept, but actively embrace (well, the smart ones do anyway). Robin of Sherwood had been on the air for two seasons when its lead actor, Michael Praed, decided to jump ship to star in a Broadway revival of a musical version of The Three Musketeers, which must have been quite a disaster as it closed after a mere nine performances. Praed picked himself up and moved on to play on Dynasty for a season, while the producers of Robin moved ahead as if the death of peasant-turned-hero Robin of Loxley had always been a part of their masterplan.

Series creator and lead writer Richard Carpenter came up with a wonderful invention by pillaging and altering the Robin Hood myth even further (by this point, he was clearly adept at making it his own). In the history of Hood, there are, apparently, two very different origin stories. Carpenter’s preferred origin – that Robin was a man of the people – is the one he used to introduce and explore Praed’s Robin of Loxley. But with Praed leaving the show, he was forced to kill off his central figure, and he envisioned the mystical Herne the Hunter choosing a new man to don the mantle of Robin Hood. He turned to the other origin story, in which Robin Hood was disgraced nobleman Robert of Huntingdon, who gave up his position in society to fight for the common man. To play Robert, the son of a big screen Robin Hood was chosen: Jason Connery, son of Sean, who’d starred in the lovely, heartfelt Robin and Marian a decade earlier.

Obviously taking over the lead role in a successful series is no small feat, and perhaps for Connery the task was even more daunting given his father’s history (be he a Hood or not!). I’d kind of written off Jason’s Hood in the past, but if I’m being honest, I didn’t really give his episodes a fair shake. With the release of this Blu-ray, I set out to rectify that, and lo and behold I discovered a character that was more enjoyable and interesting than Praed’s take (who, admittedly, felt a little stiff). The thing with Connery’s Hood is that he spends a great deal of time proving his worth, whereas the Praed incarnation, being the original, had it pretty easy.

Clive Mantle as Little John & Ray Winstone as Will Scarlet
The action picks up about a year after the events of the Season Two finale, with the Merry Men[3] having dispersed and moved backwards into simple lives once again. After being bullied into adopting the mantle of Robin Hood by Herne, Robert must round each of them up and convince them to return to dangerous lives of derring-do, which isn’t an easy task. Amongst the trials he must suffer is getting into a massive, epic brawl with Will Scarlet (Ray Winstone). But there’s perhaps no area where Robert has a tougher time than in the wooing of Marian (Judi Trott), who’s devastated by the loss of Robin of Loxley, and doesn’t want to fall in love again, despite the fact that she does indeed take a liking to Robert. Their story plays out over the course of the 13 episode season, and it doesn’t have quite the happy ending one might hope for.

Judi Trott as Marian
Season Three was twice as long as each of the two seasons that preceded it, resulting in Praed and Connery basically getting equal screen time, despite the fact that the former technically played the lead for a longer period of time than the latter. Admittedly, Connery takes a bit of time to fall into the part, but certainly by mid-season he arguably plays it with more zeal than Praed did over his two season stint. His Robin also seems to be having more fun, and as a result, maybe the series is more fun, too. (Granted, these are all semantics – the show is mostly wonderful from start to finish.) What’s perhaps most noteworthy about Connery is that he really doesn’t resemble his famous father at all – not in appearance, and certainly not in sound; you’ll find no Scottish brogue here. This guy is definitely his own dog, and his lineage is quickly forgotten.

Richard O'Brien as Gulnar
So what of the series itself? What makes it so special, and sets it apart from all the other Hoods? For starters, it’s steeped in mysticism, which isn’t something that any Robin Hood before it featured. This adds the element of surprise, because once characters can use magic, anything can happen. Season Three features a wicked sorcerer named Gulnar (played almost ludicrously over the top by Richard O’Brien of Rocky Horror fame), whom Robin makes an enemy of in the opening two-parter, and who comes back to haunt our hero and his allies a couple more times throughout the season. One of the season’s best episodes is called “Cromm Cruac,” in which Gulnar raises a village from the dead, and ensnares Robin and the Merry Men into its seductive gaze. In addition to being one of the most compelling, it’s also one of the most emotional outings of the season. Another great revisionist piece is entitled “The Sheriff of Nottingham,” in which the Sheriff (Nickolas Grace) loses his standing and is put through all manner of indignities. Grace is the ace up the show’s sleeve. Anytime he’s onscreen the show is all the better for it, yet it also knows how to use him and his sidekick, Guy of Gisburne (Robert Addie), sparingly and properly.

Robert Addie as Guy and Nickolas Grace as the Sheriff
Surely you remember Costner’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves? That movie stole liberally from Sherwood. Alan Rickman’s Sheriff was a pale imitation of Grace’s, and Morgan Freeman’s Azeem was clearly a riff on the Saracen Nasir (Mark Ryan), a character created solely by Carpenter. (I’m sure there are other instances, but boy it’s been a few years since last I viewed it.) Costner’s was a typical, watered-down Hollywood version of something very special that came before it. Ironically, it may have been that very movie that so put me off the Robin Hood myth for the past 20 years. Now, all these years later, the series that inspired it, is providing me loads of entertainment. Go figure.

If you’re anything like me - and certainly you must be, or else you wouldn’t frequent The Rued Morgue - you hate the Bryan Adams song “Everything I Do, I Do It For You” with an unbridled passion. You’ve probably even hurt yourself trying to change the radio station when it’s quietly crept up on you, or maybe you’ve even hurt someone else, desperately escaping from a department store, when you realized exactly what it was that was playing over their sound system. You’ll find no such song in Sherwood. Instead you’ll find a score written and played entirely by Irish band Clannad, who provide a soundtrack that’s nearly a perfect match for the dually heroic and dastardly goings-on. A year after they weren’t used in Prince of Thieves, they scored a modest hit with “I Will Find You” for Michael Mann’s Last of the Mohicans. This is music that stays with you long after episodes are over, and lovingly greets you when you come back to the show a week or two later for more installments.

Finally, there’s the look of it all. In Costner’s flick everything appeared squeaky clean. It looked like a Hollywood production, rather than a slice of history. Not so with Sherwood, and that’s another of its many charms. Its texture is reminiscent of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, which is an odd comparison, sure, but if you’ve seen that movie, you’ll no doubt know what I’m talking about. That grainy, dirty look just so ably defines the Middle Ages, and Sherwood has it and then some. Yet it also, frequently, offers up lush, green forests, misty moors, and gorgeous sunsets and sunrises. This is a show that’s as much about its look and sound as it is its acting, plot and action. Of course, there are some recognizably ‘80s haircuts on display, which I suppose could be a deal breaker for some folks, but if something that minor gets in your way of enjoying this otherwise fantastic series, then poor, poor you. If only somebody could steal from the rich and reward you.

Robin of Sherwood wasn’t really cancelled, but behind the scenes money troubles kept it from moving on to a fourth season, so Season Three was to be its last. It doesn’t end on any massive cliffhanger, however, and while some issues are never resolved, it mostly feels like it comes to a proper “open end.” It covered quite a bit of ground over its three seasons, and too many more years would’ve no doubt found the series repeating itself (there are only so many stories that can be told under the Robin Hood banner, magic or no magic), and as it stands there’s a perfect balance between the two lead actors, so neither man can claim to be the “real” Robin of Sherwood which, I think, is as it should be.

[1] The other version of Robin Hood that I love is, perhaps unsurprisingly, the aforementioned Robin and Marian.
[2] Blu-ray Set 1 contains the first two seasons of the series starring Praed, while Set 2 contains the third season with Connery.
[3] The phrase “Merry Men” is thankfully never used in this series. Above all else, these men aren’t merry much of the time, so it would be a very silly way to refer to them.   

Blu-ray Extras: The real reason to buy these sets is for the High Def upgrade, and this show looks bloody gorgeous in 1080p, but it’s worth mentioning that it was shot on 16mm, so expectations should be kept in check, in that regard. But as an example of period, non-BBC British TV from the ‘80s, you’ll likely find none that looks better than this. It was easy enough to fall into this show’s hypnotic universe via DVD, and now the Blu-ray makes it even more so. (All the screengrabs in this review were taken from the DVD, and not from the Blu-ray, by the way.)

The High Def extras on the two Sherwood sets are minimal, as both sets are comprised of three Blu-rays each, which feature the series proper, and a fourth disc – a DVD – with all of the extras ported over from the previous DVD editions. However, Set One does feature, in High Def, a new, longer (by about 13 minutes) version The Electric Theatre Show documentary which was on the DVD set, as well a photo gallery of “nearly 500” images that runs for 24 minutes. The Blu-ray also features five commentary tracks and four music-only tracks that were available on the DVDs, although those can hardly be considered High Def extras (though I suppose some might consider the music-only tracks presented in a lossless format to be a nice bonus). Set Two also features nine commentaries and three music-only tracks, and another nice 23 minute photo gallery.

Beyond that, the fourth disc, DVD extras presentation is a killer on both sets. Many people put a great deal of work into these sets to bring viewers all sorts of oddball extras (that I’m not going to line list), but the highlight must surely be the exhaustive talking heads and clips documentaries that feature on each set. Between the two sets, over the course of nearly three hours, just about every single person involved in the making of this show – both in front of and behind the camera – is interviewed at length. I don’t think they missed out on anyone, including Praed. And it’s a huge testament to the power of this series that all of these people are so incredibly happy to sit around and talk so enthusiastically some 15 or 20 years on (I’m unsure of when these were recorded actually). Winstone claims the series spoiled him for every acting job he’s had since. There isn’t a single person who has anything even remotely bad to say about working on Robin of Sherwood, and this isn’t a case where anybody has any reason to lie. They’re clearly being genuine and full of good will toward this series that in many cases catapulted its players to fame. These people had a blast making this series, which is reflected in the quality of the series itself.