Watch out for some sly contemporary jokes, political argument and, of course, derring-do as Robin Hood arrives on the BBC…
Why Robin Hood? It might be a timeless legend, but hasn’t it been done to death, from the wise-cracking swashbuckling of Errol Flynn to the mysticism of Robin of Sherwood and sub-Xena antics of The New Adventures of Robin Hood? So why has the BBC chosen the bandit of Sherwood Forest as its great hope for an autumnal stablemate for Doctor Who?
"I think, broadly speaking, two or three reasons,” says executive producer Foz Allen. "The first is that stealing from the rich and giving to the poor is a universal theme that has recently found a new voice in modern history. There’s a newfound statement of it, kind of a growing sense of awareness of, ‘How do we want our world to work, how do we see that, how do we feed the poor, how do we feed people?’ So you get the sense that the next generation cares about the green issues and global warming in a way that maybe we didn’t before, and they need heroes that reflect that, and Robin Hood is one of those.
"Stealing from the rich is really easy. Giving to the poor is really rather hard and that becomes part of his story.”
The influence of the present day on the story is something Allen stresses. "The first written Robin Hood was in 1420, called The Gest of Robin Hood. And each generation, each medium, has exploited it and taken it for its own particular desire, so there’s the Errol Flynn gung-ho superhero at one end, who maims and kills as he goes. The spiritual Hooded Man version happens in the mid-80s, in the middle of Thatcherite materialism, so they take a very conscious decision to be spiritual about it. Whereas we have Robin returning from the Holy Land, he’s been part of the crusade, he’s part of King Richard’s bodyguards, and he doesn’t really understand why we’re fighting 2000 miles away.”
That sounds a bit politically charged. Tony Blair and George Bush would not approve… "I wouldn’t call it political comment,” Allen laughs. "I’d call it resonance really in the sense that we have boys dying in Basra, and nobody quite understands why, when there are things going wrong in England.
"Robin is an archetype in the sense that he can do whatever he wants to do, but he is clearly an honourable man trying to do good in whatever version. So we’re not doing, let’s call it the ‘John Wayne’ version – you walk in, you shoot everybody down, and the world is a better place. America still seems to get what it wants by marching in there. There are clearly other ways and I suspect the next generation are more interested in those.
"So if he can’t do that, what can he do? And so Robin engages with the Sheriff or the bad guy of the week, trying to stop them without killing them, which makes for great stories, and also makes for, I think, a very modern debate in terms of how you get what you want. Anyway, that would be heavy-handed for a seven o’clock show on a Saturday night! And it’s not meant to be! It’s good rollicking fun with Keith Allen being an arch-baddie as the sheriff.”
The Sheriff’s always been a bit of a domineering figure, from Basil Rathbone’s suave swordsman of 1939 through Nikolas Grace’s calculating De Rainault in Robin of Sherwood, but it was Alan Rickman who really indulged in grand larceny by stealing every scene in Mel Gibson’s Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves. So with cast of relative newcomers set against someone like Keith Allen, isn’t there a risk of a repeat robbery? Producer Allen isn’t worried. "No, no, we chose Keith because he’s got immense charisma, he’s fantastically self-assured and a brilliant actor. In terms of stealing the show, I think there’s this interesting thing that the sheriff and all that lot are baddies obviously, people who have on-going ambitions and desires to improve themselves, and they are just very ruthless. So the Sheriff is involved with Prince John so that when Richard returns there will be a coup and what this ambitious sheriff gets out of it is to be Chancellor of England who controls all the money, so we very much wanted to make these people not be comfortable in their ‘badness’. They want more.”
More for his own sake, or because, like so many politicians, he genuinely believes that it’s in the nation’s interest for someone like him to lead it? "No, he is absolutely self-serving.” Allen insists. "He’s a selfish man who wants power and glory, and there are plenty of those models around. He’s just slightly more ruthless than anybody else, and we’ve made him clever as well – scams and wheezes! He imposes congestion charges to travel in Nottingham!”
More contemporary references? "Oh yes, and that’s half the fun really – it isn’t heavy-handed, but we’re trying to make a family show that isn’t a kids’ show in disguise, with jokes for parents so that they don’t go, ‘Oh we’ll sit and watch the show with the kids because the kids are watching it’. We want them to go, ‘Let’s watch the show, come on everybody!’” As an example, Allen launches into an account of the storyline for one episode, which of course we can’t give away, but which explains how Keith Allen gets to drop an Eric Clapton reference in 12th Century Nottingham. "That will mean nothing to anybody under 25, but everybody over 25 will enjoy a smile and a smirk. If we can make those work for both elements of the audience, everybody should have a fantastic time.”
There are two familiar origin stories for Robin Hood, one where he’s a nobleman, another where he’s a rebellious peasant, both of which Robin of Sherwood cleverly managed to use. For the new series, Allen explains, "It is clear cut in that he is the Earl of Locksley and all that, which was a 17th Century invention, though until then he had always been a nobleman in all the stories. I don’t know about reality, because a bow is a peasant’s weapon, not an aristocratic weapon. We’ve made him an aristo who chooses to give up his house and home in order to make England right because it’s better dramatically, he gives something up.
"I think one of the models we had in a bizarre way was Jamie Oliver!” the executive producer continues. "Jamie Oliver is a public school-educated geeza who has a special skill, he’s fantastic at cooking, he like to be seen as a man of the people, and the work he did at schools and things was to make the world a better place – with better food. He then made the government change the way it operated to feed kids better. You could argue, that’s the modern Robin Hood.”
Despite all the reinventions, we all have firm ideas as to the central parts of the Robin Hood mythology, but Allen explains that they won’t necessarily be playing out all the familiar set pieces. For instance, there’s Robin’s first meeting with Little John, as they clash over a long bridge, which was a surprisingly late addition to the myth… "No, the ‘Staff fight on the bridge’ is a Victorian invention,” Allen comments, "it didn’t exist before the Victorians. Howard Pyle wrote all that, and you go, ‘Do we want to do that? Maybe, maybe not.’ There is a fight between Robin and Little John, but it’s actually about the status of their gang and we’ve done it in a different way, so no, we don’t feel any pressure to do that.
"Here’s a good example,” he continues, "We’re set in 1192, which is the Third Crusade I think, and it’s based around Nottingham Castle. The problem is of course that there is no Nottingham Castle at that time. There was no stone castle until 13-something, and you go, ‘So, do we not have it then?’ and, ‘Do we have a big wooden fort which is what there probably was?’, and you go, ‘No, we want the big stone castley thing, don’t you? Yes!’ So it’s a mix and mash based on pleasure. It does what it says on the tin, with a little twist.”
One of those twists being the reintroduction of a character from early versions of the myth who the Victorians overlooked – Roy. "He hasn’t been in the 20th Century versions, but Roy of Rotherham and David of Doncaster were absolutely key characters from the 1420 version up until the 1790s,” Allen explains, "but for some reason they’ve fallen out of turn. And we rather like Roy, although he’s not Roy of Rotherham, he’s Royston White.
"There are all sorts of bizarre, quirky characters and stories that have been forgotten,” Allen continues. "I sound like I’m doing the Victorians down, they added some great things to the story, not least the Guy of Gisborne, but there are literally hundreds of characters floating around waiting.”
While Roy is in, there’s one notable omission from the familiar cast of characters. "Why not Friar Tuck?” Allen asks rhetorically. "It’s very simple really; we have eight lead characters already. Robin, Marion, Gisborne, the Sheriff, Little John, Much, Will Scarlet, and Alan-A-Dale. Already you struggle to remember all their names, and they’re the gang in the woods, the bulk of them. So what does Tuck do? Does he hang around on the edge of that maybe?”
As for Maid Marian, she’s been re-envisaged for the post-Buffy age. "We’ve changed the way Marion works because we didn’t think demure was a good thing. So she’s now become like Uma Thurman in Kill Bill, she goes out at night and whoops some ass, and then during the day she’s terrible conventional.” It’s the superhero’s secret identity, in a sense.
"Absolutely, and she thinks Robin’s a fool,” Allen explains. "’Why are you fighting this man from the outside? You’re like me, you’re an earl, why aren’t you on the inside?’ So it becomes a bit of a debate about how you make the world better, and then at night she goes and kicks some ass, which is good.
"She’s not Maid Marion, she’s just Marion,” Allen adds. "The reason she was s maid before – a ward of the crown and all that kind of stuff – was to stop her running away into the woods and shagging Robin! Well, we don’t believe that in the modern world, because if a boy and a girl fancy each other, they slip away and do it, so how do we stop her running away and living in the woods with the boys? Well, you give her a different attitude to Robin, and we gave her a new character, her Dad Edward, who’s the old Sheriff of Nottingham. So Keith Allen fears the influence of the old sheriff, and he says very clearly, ‘You keep your mouth shut or you’ll be hurt’.” In other words, the Sheriff is using Marian as a weapon to stop his influential predecessor speaking out against him. "Exactly. But what it means in terms of storytelling for us is that she can’t run into the woods and live with Robin. So it’s a sort of win-win, suddenly we get story out of function.”
As to what sort of stories we can look forward to, Allen says, "It’s primarily Robin versus the Sheriff. It’s a format show and that’s going to happen every week. We like that, it’s a good thing, but the Sheriff brings in people to help him. He brings in slave traders, or pawnbrokers or psycho killers!” And while each episode is stand-alone, after the opening two-parter brings Robin’s band together, there’s also a slight serial element. "Yeas they do have to happen in that order, for various reasons. There is small level of serial hand-over, particularly in the Marion and Robin and Gisborne romance.”
Meet the Merry Men
Oops, forget we said that, because, as Foz Allen forcefully points out, "We’ve banned ‘Merry Men’! Merry Men, don’t exist!
"These guys are criminals; they’re criminals who have been forced to live in the woods and part of Robin’s journey is to convince them to work with him rather than just mug him. They’re not dirty and grisly and anywhere near reality, but the idea is a believable look. We’ve got quite a sexy crowd so don’t want to make them too grubby. But they look as id they can hold their own in a fight and they’re all rather skilled swordsmen and indeed horse riders.”
So, who are Robin’s band in this version? "Gordon Kennedy’s playing Little John,” Allen explains, "and is a fearsome looking guy, I really wouldn’t like to meet him down a dark alley, so to speak.”
Then there’s Robin’s manservant, Much, played by former Doctor Who Patrick Troughton’s grandson, Sam, who’s not entirely happy about his master’s decision to head for the woods. "They return from the Holy Land and Robin has made him a free man and is going to give him a lodge. But when Robin gives up his house, he also gives up Much’s house. He’s been fighting for two years and wanted to be able to put his feet up.”
But still he goes along with Robin? It’s a little bit like Sam Gamgee’s loyalty to Frodo, it seems. "I would say that Much is a servant,” Allen comments, "but he’s forever going, "What are we going to eat? I’m hungry! I want to go and have a sleep. Oh, I’d love a bath.” So they’re being chased by rabid dogs and they’re at the top of a hill breathing heavily and he says, ‘I’d love some cheese!’ So he’s his own character, over and above any servant role.”
And then there’s Will Scarlet and Alan-a-Dale… but as you’ve probably guessed by now, you needn’t fear that the latter’s going to burst into a song. "Allan-a-Dale has no lute whatsoever, it’s a lute-free zone.
"Allan is absolutely your ducky-divey, ‘I’ve got a scam,’ whereas Will Scarlet is the absolutely earnest ramrod. He’s 21 and he wants the world to be right. he’s earnest, proper, caring.” The sort of student politician who knows his Marx and has plans for the revolution, in effect? "Less Marx and more Greenpeace, he’s be out there campaigning for the polar bears,” Allen comments.
"With the exception of Allan, who is absolutely the type of career ducky-divey career criminal,” he concludes, "these are all people who have been forced out of house and home by the Sheriff’s injustices. So Little John couldn’t feed his family, and found it easier to bash travelling bishops on the head with sticks than it was to grow potatoes and all that sort of stuff.
"The way we’ve played it is, this has left families behind who are scarred. Little John has a boy called Little Littlejohn who he hasn’t seen because he’s been forced to go into the woods, so they become almost dead men.”
So there’s a serious overtone to the band? "Yes. There are a lot of single parent families in Britain and their stories are always told as really rather grim and soapy, but there are other ways of telling them. It’s a family show and in the middle of the show you’ve got to have some families.”