Anglophile TV fans have been waiting for this one for a long while: the complete Robin of Sherwood, 26 episodes of what some consider the definitive rendition of the Robin Hood story. Produced for British TV between 1984 and 1986, this is a realistic portrayal of cultural upheaval in the early 13th century, shot entirely on film and on location -- both rarities in British TV at the time -- with a stark nod to earthy nature and with a grim authenticity regarding the short, rough lives of the people of the time.
Unlike the current Robin Hood series that just wrapped its second season on BBC America, there's a dash of mysticism mixed in with the mostly historical realism here: Robin of Loxley, son of a serf, is chosen by Herne, a forest demigod who appears incarnated as an ordinary man (think: pagan medicine man), to be Herne's Son, the Hooded Man, champion of the downtrodden and oppressed. Of which there are many in Nottingham, where the Norman invaders are consolidating their hold on power in the form of the conniving sheriff, Robert de Rainault (Nickolas Grace), and his lieutenant, the all-action, no-brains Guy of Gisbourne (Robert Addie).
Michael Praed's fey Robin is an athletic swordsman, bowman, and fighter, but he's far more compelling as a spiritual counter to the Normans and -- in the most captivating aspect of this production -- their coinvader, the Church. No other retelling of Robin Hood has recast the epic battle he fights as one not merely of the powerless against the powerful or the poor against the rich but of the pagan against the Christian.
And then there's Nasir (Mark Ryan), the Saracen warrior who joins Robin's band of rebels in Sherwood Forest and brings in a hint of the religio-cultural disorder the Crusades in the Middle East at the time introduced to Britain; as a character Nasir was so influential that the Muslim Saracen has become a staple of all subsequent retellings of Robin Hood.
Alas that Praed left the show after 13 episodes, for the overall quality suffers just a little bit when he is replaced by Jason Connery as Robert of Huntingdon, son of an earl whom Herne chooses as the next Hooded Man. A sense of the goofy and the baroque creeps into Connery's 13 episodes, which feel slightly less historical and slightly more fantastic.
Still, that the series managed to incorporate two of the very different theories about who Robin Hood may have been, if he were actually a real person -- was he a serf? was he a nobleman? -- is just another fascinating facet of this intoxicatingly enjoyable show. (Fans of currently hot British actors will want to check out Ray Winstone as the grittiest Will Scarlet ever.)
The extras: In Acorn Media's new boxed set, two of the 10 discs are given over to bonus material (in addition to the 14 commentary tracks, which I've barely begun to crack, on the episode discs). The new retrospectives are great: I always love hearing the people who created something special like this as they look back; featured here are many cast members, creator/writer Richard Carpenter, producer Paul Knight, and Maire Brennan from the Irish band Clannad, which created the show's wonderfully evocative score.
There's also a behind-the-scenes documentary made at the time of the show's production, outtakes, alternate credit sequences (the show was retitled simply Robin Hood when it aired in the U.S., and so we got different titles), and more.
MaryAnn Johanson (email me)
film reviews and TV blogging at FlickFilosopher.com