Monday, March 10, 2008

Feared by the bad, loved by the good, Robin Hood

In 2001, satirical US website The Onion ran an article bemoaning the difficulty American TV execs were having in managing to cater for an increasingly low Lowest Common Denominator amongst their viewership. The intention was humorous, but as with all satire, the joke works best because it's true.

In a TV world where reality shows seem incapable of plumbing a depth beyond their viewers ability to wallow, and where the schedules are packed with presenters in open necked shirts and nice suits whipping up enthusiasm for watching other people move house, put up a conservatory or buy a bloody yoghurt, there's a temptation simply to settle for making whatever crap the public will swallow and allow quality to fall by the wayside.

But this isn't one of those screeds where the author moans his arse off about Celebrity Wanking for Coins. No, this is (yet another) one of those screeds where the author whines like a middle-aged and balding baby about the way TV bastards are stealing all the most fondly-remembered shows from his youth and re-making them in patented and trademarked Chavovision.

Take Robin Hood, for example. Ignoring the black and white version fro
m the 1950s on the grounds that it's both dull and utterly indistinguishable from Ivanhoe, William Tell and that one with Ian Chesterton from Doctor Who, you're left with a choice of three main TV versions.

1. From 1975, starring Avon as the Sheriff of Nottingham, Ford Prefect as Prince John and Diane Keen as Maid Marian. This is the legend of Robin Hood as political thriller and as a result is more often than not set in rooms in castles, rather than Sherwood. Unbelievably to modern eyes, the outlaw gang don't even rob any rich passers-by until more than two thirds of the way through and they're pretty much all dead soon afterwards in any case.

You couldn't mistake this for anything but a big bloody slab of intelligent seventies miserablism, following in the 'faces like well skelped arses' tradition of When the Boat Comes In, Survivors and even supposedly kiddie fare like The Changes. In the Seventies, if the
hero wasn't dead in a ditch by the end of the series then they just kept making more series until he was. No pandering to the audience here, just thoughtful drama filled with pointless death against a backdrop of Kings and Princes manoeuvring for position and in the end neither knowing nor caring that the little people get killed.

And they're not even heroic deaths - no-one even gets poignant last words, for Rutger's sake. Will Scarlet dies early on in a fight, Much gets hanged for something he didn't do, Tuck dies of a mysterious plague and Robin gets poisoned and, like Jack Ford, dies alone at the side of the road. Them's proper deaths, them is and that's yer actual realism, that is.

The 1970s - it truly was a Golden Age.

2. Flit forward ten years and enter Robin of Loxley, played with long haired angst by uber-hunk Michael Praed. Flit forward another couple of years and exit Praed, off in a huff and a puff of self-delusion which led him to believe that stardom inevitably lay ahead. How he must lie awake at night now, sobbing into his pillow as he contemplates a future in which the high spots are starring in the dreadful radio revival of Blakes 7 and reading the updates on - I kid you not - Michael Praed's Chest Hair Moments

Praed - and his replacement for a single season, Jason Connery, as the fortuitously named Robin of Huntingdon - is Robin Hood as Beckenham Arts Labs Hippy Mystic. If they'd had turntables in the thirteenth century, the Merry Men would have been sitting round the camp fire smoking joints the size of baby's arms, listening to the latest Nick
Drake lp and playing Dungeons and Dragons. Which should make this my natural environment*, but unfortunately it's all so mind-numbingly, spirit crushingly earnest and slow that I've never managed to get past the end of the first season. Adding insult to injury, it has Clannad warbling (I assume) about how really, really fantastic trees are and how bushes are God's little cotton wool buds. Plus it wastes John Abineri (fabulous as Marian's guardian in the 1975 production) as Herne the Hunter, a Care in the Community borderline nutter with a penchant for wearing animal horns on his head like some deranged member of the Flintstones' Loyal Order of Water Buffaloes.

Even so, it at least makes an effort to do something new with an old story and if it's occasionally too slow and feels like a throwback to seventies serials, well that's not necessarily a bad thing.

And in complete fairness, I'm told by fans that the series really takes off in the second season when Carpenter gets to grips with the plotting requirements of 50 minute episodes. But for Christ's sake, I've watched Gridlock twice - how much more of my life do you want me to waste?

3. Which leaves the ASBO-wielding danger monkey antics of Jonas Armstrong as Joe Cole as Robin Hoodie himself. Don't get me wrong, I have loads of time for the latest incarnation of Robin Hood. It's silly and stupid in roughly equal parts, doesn't take itself even slightly seriously and can be damn funny, something never achieved by either of the earlier versions, for all their other virtues.

But there's no denying it's dumb as a Nicole Richie reality tv show. Hmm, there's a thought. Now that I think about it, Nicole and her skank drunk driver pal Paris would fit into Hoodie with barely a ripple. Short on personality and totally, completely, utterly bizarrely dressed, they're popular only because their total cluelessness and maddeningly illogical behaviour appeals to some broken part of people's minds.

Hoodie
's the same. It actually aspires to a quality level which for most shows would be viewed as dramatic failure, and then positively revels in its own inanity.

For most TV series, the really eye-gougingly bad writing is reserved for the 100 page kid friendly novelisations** with bright photo covers and relatively complex plots boiled down to three or four straight-forward set pieces. Hoodie starts at that low, low point, so I shudder to think what the wafer thin novelisations actually consist of:

"Parent Hood by Mandy Archer

Chapter 1


Robin tried to kill a bad man but he escaped.

The bad man poisoned Marian with some poison he had that was poisonous. She was dead.

But Robin kissed Marian even though that would be minging because he loved her and she came back to life. They will probably have a baby now.

The End.

PS I kissed my gerbil but it was still dead and a bit smelly and mum said to put it back in the bucket, you stupid girl."
It's as entertaining as anything on television nowadays but Jesus suffering Christ on a big shiny bike, it's a show for the ADD Generation. Compared to the 1975 story it's a whole new world of stupid, and coating that stupidity in a thin layer of wink-wink, nudge-nudge knowingness doesn't make it any less daft. Being me and given that I like it, I've managed to read all sorts of meaning into it (actually, I'm no different in that respect to those who add layers of meaning to New Who, so perhaps I should be more charitable to those sorry souls) and invest it with a depth which almost certainly doesn't exist, but for the casual viewer it's pitched at exactly the right level of pig-brained imbecility.

There's a scene in the first series that perfectly sums the show up. Robin and his anti-social gang are standing about outside a village which has been walled up by the evil Sheriff, who is determined to starve the villagers into giving him the information he wants. Undaunted, the Merry crew push bread and fruit through the points of their arrows and fire them sight unseen over the walls to the unsuspecting but grateful villagers. But what if one of the arrows had thudded not into a handy cart, but into a less handy child's head?

There's an easy fix for the writer and director - have the outlaws stand on a nearby hill and fire downwards so that they can see where the arrows are going, but obviously no-one actually gives a monkey's and we're left with a rain of arrows battering down amongst what should be a terrified populace.

But they're not terrified, as it turns out, because they don't give a monkey's either. You can see it in their eyes, a desperate desire to be somewhere else, far away.

On the set of the 1975 production perhaps, with Robert Banks Stewart's words echoing in their ears and Trevor Griffiths as Little John firing an arrow into the air - "wherever this arrows falls, there shall Robin lie".

Now that's quality.

* Except for the D&D bit. Ridiculous game.
** Doctor Who is generally the exception to this rule.

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14 Comments:

Blogger SAF said...

Hahah, can I just say...

"for Rutger's sake."

Brilliant.

I'll laugh about that one for ages. :)

I actually have fond memories of the Praed Robin Of Sherwood, what with Ray Winstone and his yobbish Will Scarlet and all. But that said, I'm not sure I'm in a hurry to revisit it and have all those fond memories unravel. :)

5:19 pm  
Blogger Stuart Douglas said...

I'm actually pretty certain that I'd enjoy the later Robin of Sherwoods (Robins of Sherwood?) but, as with SDtar Cops, there always seems ot be something better to watch.

At heart though I love the Robin Hood story, even the dumb as two bricks Hoodie version - I was going to mention the John Nettles radio series but that would have been overkill I think.

7:15 pm  
Blogger Scott Liddell said...

Bravo.

Although I thought the top joke was "Celebrity Wanking for Coins", shows you where my level is. I'd probably watch that*



* if it was girls n' that...

7:24 pm  
Blogger Stuart Douglas said...

Sadly, I can't take credit for that really - it's a phrase I've heard used though I've no idea who actually thought it up.

7:29 pm  
Blogger Scott Liddell said...

As it happens:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/theguide/columnists/story/0,,2004785,00.html

7:55 pm  
Blogger Stuart Douglas said...

There you go - so perfectly was I channeling Charlie Boy that I subconciously pinched a TV show from his column. Dman I'm good :-)

7:59 pm  
Blogger MediumRob said...

Without wanting to be repetitive, you need to watch season two of Robin of Sherwood. Season one is pretty much Richard Carpenter trying to do all the old Robin Hood legends (eg Alan a Dale); season two is when he lets the swords and sorcery gloves off. Plus, bar the aforementioned exception Robin Hood of the 70s, how many Robin Hoods end up getting killed at the hands of the Sheriff?

You could probably write great tracts on how the show was an attempt to invest a show with a genuine English (well, Saxon) character, with references to Herne the Hunter (cf most of the map of Kent), Wayland the Smithy (cf ancient Saxon legends plus Sarah Sutton fav The Moon Stallion), plus giving Robin a sword from Wayland called "Albion" of all things. So it's worth watching for the subtext, at least. Clannad get a bit repetitive though.

9:05 pm  
Blogger Scott Liddell said...

Its amazing the ads that GMail can throw up. You surely can't ignore this:

http://www.thevintagetheatre.com/robinhood.html

Donald Pleasance as Prince John, what's not to like...

9:09 pm  
Blogger Stuart Douglas said...

Scott: "You surely can't ignore this"

That's the one from the 50s which is 'both dull and utterly indistinguishable from Ivanhoe', according to one reknowned commentator :)

9:17 pm  
Blogger Stuart Douglas said...

Rob: "Without wanting to be repetitive, you need to watch season two of Robin of Sherwood"

Hmm, shades of Ace of Wands here :( Though to be fair I;ve now decided I was bit unfair towards AoW (still a terrible theme tune, mind). Oddly I found listening to the series 2 audios was better than watching series 3 - two better actors in the supporting roles helped and confirmed my first thought that bad acting buggered up Ace of Wands, not poor writing.

Rob: "Sarah Sutton fav The Moon Stallion"

I;ve got that sitting beside the dvd player waiting to be watched.

Rob: "So it's worth watching for the subtext, at least."

You're the third or fourth person to tell me that but there's so much great stuff out there that I suspect it might be a few years before I get round to watching the merely good :) Though Ray Winstone is always worth watching and Julie is away to see Westlife (of all dreadful bands) tonight so I've got nothing better to do.

Hmmmm, maybe just the first couple of episodes then...

9:23 pm  
Blogger MediumRob said...

Ray Winstone's great and it's nice to have Will Scarlet named after the colour of blood - he killed the mercenaries who raped his wife - rather than his fashion choices. It's also nice that his character is the one who actually knows how to fight, given that he was in the army, while Robin - even with his magic sword - is pants at the beginning until Scarlet gives him some training.

If you just want a taster from season two, tune in to The Enchantment (for Anthony "Meres" Valentine), The Swords of Wayland or just the Greatest Enemy (or is that Final Enemy?) - you can forgive any of the others for any degree of tattness if you watch that. The Prophecy (first episode) isn't great and is more for continuity, while Children of Israel is more of an issues piece, since it's to do with the status of Jews at the time.

As for Ace of Wands, I think this week's/last week's Torchwood episode reveals how vulnerable PJ Hammond's otherwise wonderful writing is with respect to the other cogs in the production process. Give him a Shaun O'Riordan and a David McCallum: magic. Give him John Barrowman and whatever hack just graduated from the last BBC Cardiff director's course: terminal tedium.

9:31 pm  
Blogger SK said...

Can't believe that noone else has pointed out that the 80s version also wins on the vital 'aesthetic quality of Marion' criterion.

Oh, was that the tone?

9:23 am  
Blogger Stuart Douglas said...

Rob: "As for Ace of Wands, I think this week's/last week's Torchwood episode reveals how vulnerable PJ Hammond's otherwise wonderful writing is with respect to the other cogs in the production process."

I thought his script last year was one of the better ones, but 90% of the rest of the series was such rubbish that I haven't bothered watching any of this year's and actually forgot that the Hammond' episode was on.

But it's hard to disagree that even a Robert Holmes script would struggle to shine if given to John One Note Barrowman to mangle.

I am going to watch series 2 of RoS though - the weight of recommendation is too big to be ignored!

9:46 am  
Blogger Stuart Douglas said...

SK: "Can't believe that noone else has pointed out that the 80s version also wins on the vital 'aesthetic quality of Marion' criterion."

A skinny ginger* with a face the colour of putty? She's left stumbling in the wake of Diane Keen's statuesque beauty and Lucy Griffiths broken nosed cuteness!

* Pronounced with a hard G :)

9:50 am  

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