Robin of Sherwood

What a magnificent piece of TV Robin of Sherwood was/is. Rewatching its first two series recently, I was struck by how much it creates its own special atmosphere, its own world. I know this has to be true of every successful TV series, and by being set in a specific historical period, complete with Medieval costumes and crumbling Norman-conquest era castles, Robin of Sherwood certainly has a shortcut to establishing a visual signature that programmes set in modern times don’t have, but the series works its magic in other ways, too. At times, it’s as much mood-piece as it is drama, set in a timeless realm of myth and imagination as much as it is in recognisable English history. And quite appropriately, too, for the retelling of an oft re-told tale, and one which takes the resilience of myth and memory over mortality, and the old ways over the new — its credo is “Nothing is forgotten” — as one of its tenets of belief.

A big chunk of its atmosphere, of course, comes from Clannad’s enchanting soundtrack, which mixes the ancient (folky & medieval-sounding instruments) with the modern (the occasional bit of soft synth). The fact that it reuses a stock set of pieces, rather than (as was the practice with, say, Doctor Who) having a completely original score for each episode, just goes to emphasise this timelessness, as each piece — “Battles” for action sequences, “Strange Land” for mounting tension, “Lady Marian” for romantic bits, and so on — both adds to your anticipation of the particular atmosphere of each scene, and gives the feeling that this is a replaying of an ancient set of mythical, archetypal events. Sometimes a single sound effect does all the work, as with the weird, echoey wolf cry (usually accompanied by a sudden camera zoom) that announces moments of supernatural surprise; and that blurring of the distinction between soundtrack and ambient sound adds to the feeling that this is a magical land we’re in, one as “full of noises, sounds and sweet airs” as the island in Shakespeare’s Tempest. Plus, the music is just a damned good listen on its own.

The show mostly takes place in a quite limited set of characteristic locations, each one with its own distinct feel. There’s the lush leafy greens of the outlaws’ hideouts (it’s never winter in Sherwood, only timeless summer), the heavy stone walls and murky interiors of the Sheriff’s castle, and the muddy peasant messiness of forest-clearing villages. These three settings must make up about 90% of the locations used in Robin of Sherwood, as if this were a three-tiered world, like the various myths (Norse and Christian, for instance) which have three levels or sub-worlds — the Good Place (Heaven), the Bad Place (Hell), and the battleground (Earth) — which their heroes move between, fighting their endless fights.

So much of the dialogue of this series has stuck with me (admittedly, through many viewings over the years). Robin’s counter-curse to the bullying Templar knight: “Evil to him who thinks evil”. His first line to Maid Marian: “You’re like a May morning.” That mad old man in the dungeons: “Feet first — it’s the only way.” And the wonderful comedy of the Sheriff and his sidekick Gisburne (Gisburne: “The halfwit, my lord!” Sherrif: “Which one?”), occasionally joined by the self-satisfied (but cannily fearful of paganism’s powers) Abbot Hugo (“Leviticus? Leviticus!”). You can’t help but love the Sheriff. He’s the ultimate pantomime villain, and Nickolas Grace revels in wringing vitriolic sarcasm from every line (“It’s not a celebration, it’s a wedding!”). (My favourite Sheriff line has to be when he’s driven to mad hallucinations in “The Children of Israel”: “Leeches! See the leeches!” I see them, Nickolas, I see them!)

Most of all I love the way the series took on the supernatural, becoming a sword & sorcery version of the Robin Hood myth, with distinct Hammer Horror flavourings (particularly in the Baron de Belleme and “Seven Swords of Wayland” episodes). Robin of Sherwood takes place in a world where both paganism and Satanism have a real, magical power. (Oddly, Christianity doesn’t. Perhaps, being the established religion, it has enough worldly power not to need it. In the series, it’s seen as the religion of the conquerors, not the peasants and outlaws, a religion of silver crucifixes, gold chalices, heavily be-ringed bishops and gothic churches, not the woods and fields.)

It all comes together to create a timeless world in which the series tells its stories — a world that is part historical, but a good thick slice of myth & fantasy, too. “Nothing is forgotten”, is both the outlaws’ credo and their ultimate defence against the overwhelming might of their oppressors; but it could just as easily refer to the show itself, or the myth it’s retelling — for us, it’s the stories of Robin Hood that will never be forgotten.