Wolfshead: Remembering Robin Of Sherwood

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“Nothing’s forgotten.Nothing is ever forgotten.”

Wolf’s head. Herne’s son. Robin i’the Hood. Dramatist Richard “Kit” Carpenter’s interpretation of the classic Robin Hood outlaw legend was a spellbinding mix of rebellion, muck and mysticism, the hero taking up the mantle of Sherwood Forest spirit Herne against Norman oppressors. The hit show ran for three series on ITV from 1984 to 1986, its edginess (black magic! Witches disguised as nuns!) incurring the wrath of TV moral guardian, Mary Whitehouse. No higher recommendation needed…

It was actually Carpenter’s friend David Butler who first attempted to revive the Robin Hood legend in a pilot entitled Wolfshead. Carpenter forged ahead with his own pet project, Dick Turpin: “We just said in a jokey way one day, “Look, whoever gets his project off the deck, the other one can write some episodes.”

Dick Turpin was a great success, while Wolfshead didn’t get commissioned. True to his word, Carpenter and Knight began a fruitful collaboration. It was years later that Carpenter decided to dust off the Sherwood outlaw. “What Wolfshead did was to have a very realistic look at being an outlaw in the 13th century and I wanted to have that element as well as the occult and humour.”

Carpenter was determined that “the past come alive and be significant for the present. People haven’t changed, I believe, in the last 2,000 years. We are still a brutal, licentious, greedy animal.” And that included the “merry men” – “It’s not their strengths that are particularly interesting-it’s their weaknesses.”

The band were reduced the band to a manageable (and iconic) seven (The Magnificent, Blake’s 7, etc – did Firefly fail because there were too many “big damn heroes?). Apart from a couple of expendables in the opener. The band had also to be fairly young. “The whole idea of rebellion, you think of James Dean and of Rebel Without A Cause-it tends to be more idealistic, more reckless, less balanced if you like, more hot blooded, more impetuous. If you have men of 45 acting impulsively, they just look stupid. But if you have very young guys doing it, it’s OK.”

Carpenter wanted the characters to be more original, and strike a chord with modern audiences. “Much (Peter Llewellyn Williams) the miller’s son (Robin’s foster brother) was slow. We made Little John (Clive Mantle) fiercely socialist and Will Scarlet (Ray Winstone) a sort of killer, almost a psychopath. Friar Tuck (Phil Rose) we kept traditional except that as a man of God, he had a lot of tolerance for other religions…he represents a better side of Christianity.

And then of course we created  a completely new character, who isn’t in the original legends, Nasir.” Nasir, the leather clad Saracen of few words who wields double blades slung behind his back, has been ripped off in everything from Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves, to Legolas in Peter Jackson’s The Lord Of The Rings, and another (female) Saracen in the BBC’s most recent Robin hood.

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Nasir didn’t start out that way. He was originally called Edmund, an assassin working for Baron de Belleme (Anthony Valentine), an evil sorcerer, who had Little John under a hex as his strongman. Edmund was to be killed off fighting Robin, however Mark Ryan, who played the character, was so popular on set, especially with the women, that he was written in as a regular, and became Nasir, who recognises a worthy opponent in Robin and joins his band. To avoid learning any Arabic, he  became their laconic man of mystery.

No mention of Robin Of Sherwood can go without acknowledging Nickolas Grace as the Sheriff. He said of the producers approach to him:

We don’t want him to be the classical actor Sheriff of Nottingham’ which they might have been worried about with me being a Royal Shakespeare [trained] actor – that that would be what I would want to do. But I said, ‘I want to see him ripping bones apart when he eats!’ He eats badly, you know. He’s a schoolboy; he’s one of the brats. He’s a Norman. They’ve been brought up as one of the elite. I wanted to be absolutely ruthless, have no scruples at all. As soon as he sees something he wants, he grabs it, takes it. So, as far as he’s concerned, Robin Hood is just a thorn in his side – get rid of him; do anything. That’s what they wanted, and that’s how I wanted to do it.”

Maid Marion (Judi Trott) marries Robin (Michael Praed) at the end of the first series opener and becomes a fully fledged outlaw in the forest with them, wielding a sword and bow as well as any man. The most unusual, and magical aspect to the show, was Herne The hunter, Lord Of The Trees, a “green man” type of pagan spirit secretly worshipped by the local villagers of Loxley, and once served by Robin’s father before he was killed by the Sheriff’s men, ending an earlier attempt at uprising. Herne summons Robin in a dreamlike sequence, bequeathing him with the sword Albion, to use against Norman oppression.

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“We couldn’t use Merlin because Merlin was part of the King Arthur legends. I cast around for a suitable mythological figure that was Celtic and of the earth, and it seemed to me that the old pre-Christian horned god – Cernunnos, the Romans called him, Herne, we called him-was the ideal figure. Herne as a place name crops up all over England. It’s quite likely that in those days, he was very much revered as a spirit of the forest by local people because everybody always pays their dues to the Church and at the same time threw salt over their left shoulder and did all the superstitious things which actually date back to pre-Christian times. I wanted to show that the folk beliefs could go on alongside the existing religion.”

Another striking aspect to the show was the soundtrack by Irish traditional / electronic group Clannad. Robin Hood historian Stephen Knight calls it “somewhat Celtic, distinctly electronic, vaguely hallucinatory.

Robin Of Sherwood ran for two very successful series and a third was in the planning when a snag cropped up. Star Michael Praed had been offered the lead in a Broadway production of The Three Musketeers, a chance he couldn’t pass up. Carpenter decided to split the series along two differing legends. Praed’s peasant Robin of Loxley was killed off after a powerful all out battle, the dying Robin releasing an arrow into the air and asking his loyal band to bury him where it falls. Later, as the grieving band loose flaming arrows in memoriam, a mysterious hooded figure joins their tribute. He is later revealed as Robert of Huntingdon (Jason Connery), the son of a  Saxon nobleman who rebels against   the Norman occupation, and becomes Herne’s new “hooded man” – the new “Robin i’the Hood”. 

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The last episode of the third series has Marion become a novice nun rather than marry Robin and risk widowhood again. Judi Trott didn’t want to be as heavily involved in a fourth series, however, it was cancelled when makers Goldcrest went bankrupt, leaving the fates of the characters in the air. Plans had included the Sheriff’s right hand Sir Guy of Gisbourne (Robert Addie) discover he and Robert of Huntingdon are half-brothers, villain Baron de Belleme would return to cause trouble, and Robin and Marion would eventually marry. Although Carpenter had mixed feelings about that.

I think on due reflection, what should happen is that Guy of Gisbourne should kill Marion, and Robin should kill Guy, and then you either leave it like that, with them still being hunted, or they are actually cornered in an ambush and all of them die. it’s very easy for Marion to put on a wedding dress and marry Robin who becomes the Earl of Huntingdon and lives in a castle and all the merry men are pardoned and become wardens of Sherwood Forest. That’s all very comfortable and lovely, but it isn’t life. Life isn’t like that.”

Richard Carpenter later tried to get a film version off the ground, and for the shows 30th anniversary, Clive Mantle told Jonathan Melville:

We wanted to do a television update and we submitted to ITV, 18 months or two years ago, [the idea of] a two hour special or a couple of specials, [with] all the original team, Ray back, Jason [Connery] and Michael [Praed], and ITV turned us down. We couldn’t believe it, especially with Ray on board. Kip Carpenter had written a fantastic idea and when I heard they’d turned it down, I stood there open mouthed and thought “I think that’s a mistake,”.

Sadly, Richard Carpenter passed away on 26 February 2012 at the age of 82. I’ll leave the last word to Praed’s Robin:

Listen to me… our friends who are killed, they’ll never starve or be tortured or chained in the dark. They’re here with us in Sherwood. They always will be… because they’re free.”

Richard Carpenter quotes from an original article by Abbie Bernstein for Starlog, February 1990.

Update: Bafflegab Productions are getting the original cast – including Jason Connery, Clive Mantle, Judi Trott, Nickolas Grace, Mark Ryan, Phil Rose and Ray Winstone – back together for a one-off audio adventure, The Knights of the Apocalypse (which was written by Kip Carpenter after the series aired).  In tribute to Kip, every penny in profit will go to his favourite charities. You can read all about it here, and see the promo video below.

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Originally posted 2014-02-18 21:36:00. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

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