I don’t know why the BBC’s Robin Hood is so much more tolerable than Merlin; it shouldn’t be. It has the same strange costume ideas, particularly for the women (though some of the things the men wear are mildly hilarious); it views historical accuracy with the same lightness (in part one of the season 3 finale Robin talks about a “wake-up call”, etc. etc.): “this is mainly for kids, and they don’t know anything, so why should we care?”… The first time I tried watching it, I stopped after a scene in which Robin and Much dove into a very modern sewer system – it was so ridiculous I had to shut it off or burst a blood vessel. But I eventually gave it another chance – largely due to the presence of two actors – and, to paraphrase Little John, this, overall, I like.
That’s actually another reason I shouldn’t like it: all the many little catch-phrases. “Not being funny…” “Him I like” “Today is a good day to die” (although that one was given a pretty decent explanation)… I think there were others, but I haven’t seen the show in months, till last night when I watched the first part of that finale, which I hadn’t seen before. (Oh, no wonder; the second series was in 2007, and probably aired here over a year ago.)
The show benefits greatly by being filmed on location in Hungary, with a real castle and real countryside in which real-looking villages can be constructed. The castle is a good-looking thing, the villages look good; again, the sewer system was asinine, but hey, maybe it was built on Roman ruins. The forest is gorgeous, as befits the tales of Robin Hood. The villagers often don’t seem quite right – maybe simply because they’re Hungarian, not stolid British stock, and simply don’t look like they’re from Nottingham – and are pretty much unable to provide small talk unless the producers bring in bit-part actors from the UK. Also, maybe because they’re a tad too clean (as in Merlin). The producers seem to have a good deal more money to spend, and it shows in the use of horses and in the elaborate sets. Sometimes too elaborate; I understand that Will (I think it’s Will) is very clever, but the trap doors and hidden entries and levers and traps are a bit much. Fun, though. Costume is largely awful; they have put Marian in some outfits that I would die rather than be seen at Faire in, sort of in the style of a high school production of Romeo and Juliet with Cyndi Lauper as the costume designer. Much’s costume is, so they said, supposed to reflect his time in the Holy Land: he picked up bits and bobs here and there. Oh…kay… Will’s scarvies … well, maybe it’s a tribute to Pippin Took. The colors are sometimes highly improbable… One thing I can’t argue with is Little John’s coat. That thing is awesome, and I don’t care if it’s accurate. One thing, though: I can’t offhand think of what Robin wears. He’s the hero; he should be more distinctive and memorable than that.
So: they wreak unholy havoc with historical accuracy, and also the Robin Hood legends… but there is a little more wiggle room in those stories, I think, than in the Arthurian myth. Their basis is a series of 15th century ballads, giving a few stories in the outlaw’s career and the gist of the primary characters. The main characters of the show aren’t too bad: Robin and the Sheriff, Guy and Much, Little John and Will Scarlet are roughly who they ought to be. Marian is much more 21st century than she should be, but her father was eccentric and doting and taught her to be that way. Alan a Dale really, really should be a minstrel, and Djaq, of course, is a grafted-on character, the distaff version of Mark Ryan’s Nasir and Morgan Freeman’s Azeem (but slightly logical: her origins make a certain internal sense, and, of course, she’s another strong female character for the girls to look up to and the boys to admire). Overall, no real abuse to the characters. Plus ***spoilers*** Friar Tuck is joining the group soon, I read. Of course, I also read that Jonas Armstrong is leaving: Robin Hood, leaving Robin Hood. You’d think there’d be something in his contract, or at least his conscience, to prevent that… And Marian’s already left. Huh. So… the not doing undue violence to the characters and stories is probably coming to an end… Oh well.
My enjoyment of the show is partly because of the two who are continuing family traditions: Joe Armstrong and Sam Troughton. Those are two huge surnames in my book, and in the SciFi/fantasy film tradition: Joe is the son of my beloved Alun Armstrong, who could have been just in Krull and won my heart, but went on to play dozens of other roles, ranging from sweet country squire to so-doomed evil. Sam is the grandson of the wonderful Patrick Troughton, the second Doctor. I’m fond of the two of them in their own rights, too, thank goodness. I truly enjoy wtching them. If I were still on the Board Which Shall Not Be Named, I could do a whole piece on the Frodo/Sam relationship of Robin and Sam ( ) Troughton’s Much, but I’m not, so I won’t. But he is an occasionally obstreperous Samwise, uncomfortably freed, sort of, from servitude but not quite established into any other role and so continuing in that of servant. And Joe Armstrong’s Alan is one of the first truly self-centered and darn near amoral characters I remember seeing in a show like this. He’s a thief, mostly likeably unrepentant, probably not too bright; fell in with Robin and co mostly by accident, iirc, and hasn’t ever really understood the altruism of the group. His main goal is to look out for number one, above and beyond all else. I’ve lost track of how many times he’s switched sides. That’s pretty unique in this venue.
As above, I like the characters overall. I like and approve of the backgrounds they’ve been given. I like that they’re not slavishly devoted to Robin, to the point of unthinking obedience. He’s young, although a good leader, and while they *do* listen to him most of the time, it’s a nice little dose of realism that they often decide to take their own routes. Little John is cuddly, for a big depressed hairy man. He’s tired of playing dead, of having lost everything. Will has a surprisingly dark side for a character in (as I’ve called it) a show like this, though it’s not surprising given what the character went through. It’s right. Djaq is cute as the dickens, and a healer with a background that justifies it. And it’s also cute to have Will in love with her (Alan too).
Marian is okay. She’s very un-medieval (or whatever period these are supposed to be in), but to a fairly acceptable degree. Her alter ego of the Nightwatchman was … not a horrible idea in theory, I guess, but in practice it was one of the silliest things I’ve ever seen. Dozens of people, including Gisborne and the Sheriff, saw her running around in her very attractive and form-fitting leathers, and all persisted in calling the Nightwatchman “him”. I’m sorry, but the concept that people see what they expect to see only goes so far, and the person scurrying about in the mask – and did I mention the form-fitting leathers? – was very much NOT masculine. I like her relationship with Robin; I like her ambivalence toward Gisborne, revulsion mixed with attraction with a soupçon of “wouldn’t I be more useful taking a bad boy and redeeming him than going to a man who doesn’t *need* me as deeply?” He IS the epitome of dark-and-brooding, straight out of Anne Shirley’s girlhood dreams (only actually bad).
Gisborne himself is my least favorite of the cast, and also of the cast of characters. Richard Armitage is fine (in any sense of the word you choose to think), but … He’s like a blurry copy of Sean Bean. Vaguely similar looks, the same sort of Northern accented deep purr, the same brand of glower, the same effortless air of menace – but he plays Gisborne much more on one note than is SB’s wont. Like the others, he’s a character given reasons for his behavior; it’s rather good that he keeps trying to pull himself up out of the abyss, but doesn’t know how, can’t ever get himself quite up into the light…and then is pulled, or falls, or jumps back down. But dear lord, people, that costume. He almost manages to pull it off, I will give him that.
The Sheriff is … a cartoon. He’s a comic book villain, gleefully black-hearted, so far over-the-top that it’s kind of a joy to watch. Keith Allen must really, really love going to work every day. He’s almost completely absurd – but scary with it. He’s flaming loopy, buggy, utterly barking – but now and then lets it be known that at least a little of it is put on. He’s a force of nature. If they ever do another Roger Rabbit type movie, Keith Allen is a shoo-in.
Also, he bears a freakish resemblance to Billy Joel.
Robin himself, Jonas Armstrong, is well played. Yes, he’s got modernish hair and modern attitudes – but Robin Hood always had comparatively modern attitudes for a medieval noble. He suffers from PTSD, and it’s rather nicely done. He’s not all light with no dark, all nobility with no baseness. I love that in the episode I just watched Much called Robin on his attitude toward him, that they used to be brothers and now Much is treated like a servant – and Robin was shocked. And appalled. He’s definitely not who I would have cast, but he works. He’s good looking without being a pretty boy; he is believable as someone who can shoot to kill at 1000 feet (really?) fills the part well.
Something I like about him, and about the show, is the fidelity to the rich robbed and poor given to theme. The characters mean it (Alan aside), and while the whole Nightwatchman thing was laughable it help to did get the primary points across: the poor are being abused; those in a position to help must help; the latter point is despite the fact that helping is hazardous, and downright dangerous. The characters have a genuine commitment; they’re earnest without being annoying, and have been known to wonder why it is they’re doing this again when faced with ingratitude or betrayal. And their other cause is also as true: saving King Richard. Robin may be disillusioned in a lot of things, but he’s loyal. Nice.
I grew up on Michael Praed as Robin Hood (and Disney’s foxy Robin Hood)… I loved both. (Praed is in my Netflix queue; I have a copy of Disney, somewhere.) Yes, I also have a sneaking fondness for Kevin Costner. The story can take a lot more abuse than Arthur’s – or maybe I’m more invested in Arthurian myth and *I* can’t take as much abuse on the subject. It’s a pity that this incarnation is falling apart (or has fallen apart, I guess) – why is it that the men they hire to play Robin Hood can’t stick out the full run of the series? I don’t get it. I hope they’re at least able to wrap up the storylines in a somewhat intelligible manner.
Well, I can’t wait to see what “my boys” do next.