"For the PlayStation Generation" - A Look At Jonas Armstrong's Robin Hood (Part 1)
For the first look at Robin Hood on the TV, I thought it'd be best to talk about the show that I could go on about until the cows come home, and have a bath and have tea and go to bed - Tiger Aspect's three-season adaptation for the BBC, starring Jonas Armstrong (Robin Hood), Lucy Griffiths (Marian), Keith Allen (the Sheriff) and Richard Armitage (Guy of Gisbourne). The series, running from 2006 to 2009, saw Robin Hood and his Merry Men updated for the, 'PlayStation generation,' as producer Foz Allen put it. Gone were the feathered caps and tights, Lincoln green and fanfare. Well, those were gone by the time of Robin of Sherwood (1982-84), but this took things a step further; homeland security, domestic terrorism and multiculturalism were all on the table for this exciting new take on the Robin Hood mythology. It's fair to say the show devolved into formula and tradition come its third and final series, leaving behind the modern analogies for clean-cut medieval adventure, but it never lost its passion for camaraderie, truth and adventure.
As with all of these retrospectives, I'll be focussing on both the characters themselves and the world they inhabit; I won't be regurgitating the plot of the show because, if you want that, you could just go to Wikipedia or YouTube and find out all about the show. Instead, what's more interesting, I think, is looking at the characters and how they relate to the previous iterations, from the early ballads to the silver screen. Doubtless I'll talk about this series a lot more in future, but for now, let's take a closer look at five main players in this [once-]brand-new Robin Hood, the staples of modern iterations of the legend - Robin himself, Marian, the Sheriff, Guy of Gisbourne, and Little John.
(There have been a few continuity blips and retcons in this show's time, so for the sake of clarity, let's assume they were all planned!)
Robin of Locksley is the young Earl of Huntingdon and lord of Locksley Village. The series begins in April of 1192, with Robin his and his best friend and manservant, Much, returning to England after five years of fighting in the Third Crusade (1189-1192). He finds Guy of Gisbourne installed in his manor, a lackey of Vaisey, the Sheriff of Nottingham. After reclaiming his title and lands, Robin is forced by the Sheriff to officiate the hanging of peasants from his own village, caught stealing flour. Rather than let them die, Robin rescues them and takes to the forest as an outlaw. This Robin takes his cues from the more recent adaptations of the legend, solidified in particular by Anthony Munday's plays; the concept of Robin as a fallen noble. Douglas Fairbanks, Richard Greene, Sean Connery,and Russell Crowe (and soon Taron Egerton!) are recently returned from the Holy Land, a familiar trope to focus on. Where this series makes its distinction is in the fact that the war has irreparably changed Robin. Instead of a war-hardened hero like Greene, he returns with a new respect for his fellow man and a painful reminder of what is required of him to be a warrior; losing his humanity, even if it's arrow-by-arrow. As he says in the second season finale, he sees the faces of the men he's killed and hears their screams in his sleep (something we see more than once), but he has to forget the horrors he saw otherwise he wouldn't be able to shoot, and help the people who need him. Much, too, goes through the same set of PTSD, this bringing the two friends together, and instilling in them a natural empathy for anyone they come across who also fought in the war (such as a captured and tortured English soldier who returns and destroys landmarks). The Sheriff takes the opportunity to hone in on Robin's distress from battle and proclaiming to the people of Nottingham that Robin has returned deranged, claiming he'd heard stories of camps where men are trained to hate their own country (one of the more clear Iraq War references in the series). Immediately, the series decides to take Robin's traditional backstory of returning to find a broken country, therefore being the voice of reason in the sea of complacency, and turning it into genuine character motivation, where his classic Robin-Hood-y traits are fuelled by his newfound sense of multiculturalism and peacemaking - "Do you know why I went to war? To recover Jerusalem. To recover our Holy Land. [...] But when I got there I met the Muslims, and the Jews, and I saw it was their Holy Land too" - Robin, Season 1, Episode 8.
Robin hasn't been portrayed as a particularly exclusive character when it comes to other cultures, but it hasn't been something that's been particularly explored, either. If anything, he has a swathe of knowledge collected from his travels to and from the Holy Land, but rarely is this utilised. In this series, it's established that Robin both speaks and reads Arabic, even taking a passage from the Quran as his mantra - "For every man there is a purpose which he sets up in his life; let yours be the doing of all good deeds." When the gang intercepts a group of Muslim slaves, he surprises an antagonistic Djaq by understanding her companion's speech as prayer and not, as she claimed, threats. This multicultural streak gives him a new perspective on the war; while still supporting King Richard, Robin instead wishes he return to his own people, the implication being he doesn't approve of Richard's destruction of Djaq's home. He even actively campaigns for Richard to drop the war and return without claiming Jerusalem, as is his commitment to England and peace. This is a side we hadn't seen in the character before, though Sean Connery's Robin in 1976's Robin and Marian is disillusioned with Richard as a man and as a leader; this turbulent relationship comes at both the end of Richard and Robin's lives, old men having spent ten years at war. Our Robin, when returning to the Holy Land in the final episode of season two, is optimistic Richard is still the trustworthy idol Robin remembers, but we get the impression that, by the time they depart, Robin is unimpressed with Richard's mettle, despite Richard claiming he will honour Robin and his gang by following their example.
In Jonas Armstrong's Robin, we find the character going back to his roots; a fun-loving, adventure-seeking, naive man, though most of this is due to the character's age. Armstrong was 26 when he first played the part, beaten out by Robin of Sherwood's Michael Praed at 22 as the youngest incumbent Robin. As seen in the flashback episode Bad Blood in the third season, Robin had to step up and take responsibility for his village when he was just a child, his passion for justice and kindness instilled in him since that time. As a result, we find Robin as reckless, stubborn but fiercely-loyal leader, letting his heart and his virtue lead him down his life's path. This is in-keeping with the
character's inherit personality, one of doing the right thing despite of the cost, of doing anything to save his friends. He's not without his flaws, though; as a leader, Robin relies too heavily on his gut and not his head, ignoring the advice of his friends at times. He is often too quick to act and too slow to think, and the reverse, when it matters. Both of these are born out of his need to have control, not because he craves or needs it, but because he's looking out for people to the point where he doesn't want to see them in danger. This is reflective of his caring nature, but often the opposite - his immovable disposition to his enemies - gives him tunnel vision. In an early episode, he discovers Gisbourne led an assault on the king's tent in the Holy Land, during which Robin was injured and fell ill; this illness directly led to his release from the army. Robin captures Gisbourne and Djaq is caught by the Sheriff, and instead of assisting the gang in rescuing her, he attempts to torture and beat Guy into a confession, causing a rift in the team. It's only Marian's influence that brings him to his senses, going and assisting the gang in their own scheme of swapping Guy for Djaq. His faith in Richard's abilities and his belief in the future is what causes him to overlook his newfound pacifism and worldliness.
This Robin also looks very different to what has come before. The clue is in the name - Robin Hood - but this version has his hood as part of his tunic, a deliberate allusion to modern hoodies. He also wields a recurved Saracen bow (actually a Hungarian horsebow) picked up on his travels through the Holy Land, rather than the traditional yew longbow (something mimicked by Taron Egerton's Robin coming next month). This Robin owes a lot to the television adaptations that have come before him. The most influential is arguably Michael Praed's Robin of Loxley in Robin of Sherwood; this Robin is in his early twenties, leading a band of rogues roughly the same age (or younger, in Much's case), with a Marian and Gisbourne also in their early twenties (Judi Trott and Lucy Griffiths were both 19 during their respective first seasons). It was a young cast and a modern, revisionist approach to the entire legend, introducing magic, paganism and, most importantly, an Islamic member of the band, something ripped off or borrowed in many adaptations since. Praed's Robin, too, is flawed through his desire to fight back at any cost even when it's not necessary to project such a cost onto himself. His youth is his strength, being fast, a good fighter, a forward-thinker, but naive and stubborn at the expense of his success and relationships. Armstrong's Robin is the same, blindly putting his all into his missions and relationships and sometimes missing the mark, and having to deal with the consequences. Though it's not the most traditional Robin we've ever seen, it certainly was the perfect way to update the character for a modern audience; master archer, fearless fighter, cheeky bastard.
Marian is a character either butchered or elevated by film and television; rarely is there an in-between. The character is [now] essential to Robin Hood lore, and for that reason there's no excuse to forget about her or relegate her to a minor character, especially as she is often the most prominent female presence in any given adaptation. In this case, Marian fills the shoes of tradition while breaking out of the mould of the, 'Maid' to be something of a hero herself and, most importantly, this is independent of Robin. By the time Robin returns from the war, Marian is shown to have been active in Nottingham as the Nightwatchman, a vigilante figure delivering food and medicine to the poor and sick. Betrothed to Robin before he left for the Holy Land, Marian throws out any notion of marrying some lord for money or politics in favour of living her life on her own terms, despite the advances of Gisbourne and the hesitant and cautionary advise of her father, the defrocked sheriff, Edward. Marian is the voice of reason for Robin, reprimanding his head-first approach to challenging the Sheriff and his cohort - "You think you can pick fights with these people and get away with it? You think you can slight them in public? You're a fool." Robin and Marian argue about the best way to fight the poverty and injustices in Nottingham, with Robin claiming she should do more than handing out money as the Nightwatchman, whereas Marian claims it's smarter to do things carefully than to risk her neck every week. Over time, she comes to admire Robin and the gang's spirit and determination, eventually rekindling the romance between the two and leading to her joining the gang in Sherwood for a brief time.
This incarnation is notable in her resistance to the patriarchal world around her; she refuses to be pigeon-holed into being a silent woman in the Court of Nobles, often speaking her mind and putting the Sheriff and Gisbourne (and Robin) in their place. She is in the strain of the Bernadette O'Farrell and Patricia Driscoll Marian from Richard Greene's The Adventures of Robin Hood series (1955-59); this Marian actively led the Merry Men when Robin was away on some mission of Queen Eleanor's, even dressing as him for full effect! Judi Trott, too, in Robin of Sherwood, was a fully-fledged outlaw herself, fighting alongside her husband Robin with longbow and blade. Arguably the most influential Marian in live-action is Olivia de Havilland's portrayal opposite Errol Flynn in 1938's The Adventures of Robin Hood, with a stubborn, worldly view and a no-nonsense attitude, while retaining traditionally, 'feminine' virtues like compassion and grace. This is a benchmark for all that came after her, either being a shadow of this strong and passionate figure, or matching her. Lucy Griffiths' Marian is a fighter, both literally, knocking out her fair share of guards, or politically, challenging her position as a, 'mere woman' and pursuing her goals of independence and knowledge. She also dresses in a modern way (one of her outfits famously being bought from the front rack of Topshop!), sporting trousers in many episodes, not letting the pressures of the time stop her from enjoying her hobbies of riding, yoga (??), and kicking butt. She is a voice of calm for the Merries, being used on more than one occasion to whip Robin into shape. Her reliability as a source of knowledge is unquestioned, trusted by all the gang independent of Robin. She is a highlight in the show for being a figure girls and boys can look up to, being a figure of great intelligence, strength and morality. When it comes to Marian's depiction in other media, emphasis is either put on her perceived loveliness and desirability or her, 'feistiness' (Christ I hate that word; female characters have to be, 'feisty,' they can't just be good, apparently). With this Marian, while she is still very much stuck in her world, she actively makes the most of it, forming a legacy of steadfastness and care.
As a character, the Sheriff of Nottingham is a blank canvas; Robin Hood has his various origin stories, his team of friends and list of enemies, his trials and his triumphs. The Sheriff is... just the Sheriff. His story isn't concrete, his goals aren't set, even his name isn't given in most of the earlier stories and, when it is, it's different each time. In short, the Sheriff is whatever each version of the story requires him to be; the ruthless Peter Finch (1952), the clown Melville Cooper (1938), the simple clerk Matthew Macfayden (2010). Keith Allen's Vaisey, newly appointed sheriff of Nottingham, is a mix of all three. He is ruthless in his methods; he's comic relief in tense moments; he's an underling of Prince John and his penny-pushers; but most of all, he's a schemer, a manipulator, the puppet breaking free of his strings. His motivation is purely political, aiming high and staying there, though not beneath pleasing his master Prince John when required. He craves power for power's sake, rationalising that the world is anyones' for the taking, and he plans to take it all. He surrounds himself with people he can step on and use, effectively grooming Sir Guy of Gisbourne to be both his enforcer and scapegoat. This Sheriff is a political mastermind, fuelled by his desire to control everything that lies beneath his high tower. His confidence doesn't come from his power, but more his comfort with himself as a person - we first meet him trimming his toenails, his feet up on his desk! He's frequently found singing to himself, an almost whimsical figure languishing in the world he has utter control over - until he doesn't. The Sheriff has always been a filler character in as much as he personifies the evil Robin Hood is fighting, with the Sheriff often standing in to take the weight of Robin's blows in the ballads (or being run through!). With extended series, we can get a bit more of a grasp on what makes the Sheriff tick. Alan Wheatley's portrayal against Richard Greene in his series gives us the impression the Sheriff is merely doing a job, fulfilling a public service role and chasing Robin Hood and his outlaw band simply because that's what's required of him. Nickolas Grace's reinvention of the Sheriff in Robin of Sherwood turned the character from being either a simple lackey or master villain into one of everything; the political foil, the comic relief, the camp and pompous society man. If you can show the Sheriff and Gisbourne sharing a bath, you can do anything! Vaisey is certainly a direct knock-on effect of this modern idea of the Sheriff as a plotted, continuing character in an of himself, rather than a mere reactionary governing figure. The Sheriff has personal goals, a family and, as a mentor, an apparent genuine investment in Gisbourne and his success. While a typical baddie in a family show, dressed in black, with his secret society, 'The Black Knights,' traps and strongrooms, this Sheriff is someone we adore seeing on the screen because of Keith Allen's colourful performance, very aware he's portraying a larger-than-life figure.
It's hard to compare him against other sheriffs because of this changeability of the character in respective editions. Even other long-running TV sheriffs, like Alan Wheatley, are products of their time, Wheatley being a very simple bad guy - it was the 1950s, so depth of character in a children's series wasn't a priority. Vaisey is certainly one of the most memorable characters in this version, almost entirely due to Keith Allen's casting. He can be a quiet plotter, a vengeful prosecutor, a cruel hunter. This Sheriff is largely whatever the week's plot requires him to be, but all of these facets are present from episode one; laughing when he hears about Gisbourne being kicked out of Locksley village; humming along to the drum of his executioner; crushing a pet canary in his hand in anger. Vaisey's severe changeability makes him a formidable enemy for Robin and the gang, as we the audience never know what he'll do next, either blind-sighting them or kicking his own men when they're down.
After about century of live action exposure, Guy of Gisbourne is still a relatively new staple in the Robin Hood legend. Originally a bounty hunter, the Guy of the ballads was tricked by Robin into entering a spontaneous roadside archery contest, whereafter Guy recognises Robin and the two duel; the fight ends in Gisbourne's death, Robin cutting off his head and slashing his face, dressing in his horse-hide and riding into Nottingham, claiming the bounty on his own life. Where the Sheriff personifies the bad guys, Gisbourne is certainly more of a personal enemy for Robin. This typically comes in the form one-upmanship or a power struggle (such as Guy's taking over of Locksley village), or as a romantic rival for Marian's affections. The latter has been use to great extent in live-action, namely with Paul Dickey's lecherous, predatory Gisbourne opposite Douglas Fairbanks (1922), Basil Rathbone's charming but cold suitor against Errol Flynn (1938), or William Marlowe's surprisingly calm, genuine but quietly cruel politician opposite Martin Potter (1975). Richard Armitage's portrayal of Guy is divisive; he's a cruel, selfish career-driven man, fawned over by the fandom for his dark good looks. This causes his romantic connection to Marian to be over-stated, I think, because he is, inherently, not a good person. He impregnated a castle maid and took their baby to the forest, leaving it to die, promising to take it to an abbey. People forget this, instead remembering how he pointed his mascara'd eyes at Marian and professed his affection for her. It should be said that Guy in this series, while well-written and with depth, is a villain, not an anti-hero. True, he has a redemption arc, which is more a truce of necessity between him and Robin (helped with their discovery of sharing a half-brother, Gisbourne's mother, Robin's father), during which we learn more about his own struggles with coping with his own demons, though many are of his own making.
This Gisbourne comes from money, though he has largely had to make his own way in life with the death of both his parents, exiled to France and selling the marriage of his sister Isabella to a ruthless lord. Gisbourne has a chip on his shoulder; carrying the Gisbourne name, though no estate exists anymore called Gisbourne; he allies himself with the Sheriff for the power the Black Knights can offer him; he enjoys the Vaisey's company one week, loathes him the next. Gisbourne clings to an idyllic life, a cut-out of a wife beside him that he hopes will be Marian, whether she likes it or not. His idea of success isn't being loved by the populace; he doesn't care about them, though he resents being made to look a fool in front of them. He doesn't care for Marian's interests, her life, but he wants to pamper her and mould her into the wife he wants (guess how well that goes). He is inherently selfish, with any true friendships he forms at least beginning with some kind of influence over the other party (such as with Thornton, his head-of-house at Locksley, or Lambert, a chemist, working on explosives for him, and later Allan, housing him when kicked out of the gang). He does what he can for the people he considers friends, but if the end goal doesn't serve him, he's happy to throw them under the carriage (medieval metaphors, yay). After Marian leaves him at the altar in the conclusion to season one, this cruel streak comes out in force, burning Marian and Edward's house to the ground and calling her a dog, yet miraculously he decides he still has feelings for her partway through the following season. Gisbourne's biggest trap is chasing himself in his own head, and this is why he's never truly a success.
This Gisbourne, like his respective Robin, owes a lot to the Robin of Sherwood iteration; Robert Addy's Gisbourne (1982-84) is young, baby-faced, and downright cruel; crueler, it has to be said, than Armitage's Gisbourne. He is nothing but an enforcer, attacking Jewish grottos to incite hate riots and murdering indiscriminately for the Sheriff. Armitage's Gisbourne is like Addy's, with more depth. He, too, is indiscriminate, never showing any care for peasants under his watch, let alone ruling them with any real effectiveness. His emotional maturity is neutralised by his selfishness; he has singular, stellar moments of courage, but they are often at the expense of his sincerity - he braves an oncoming force of Black Knights (who believe the Sheriff is dead) to help defend Nottingham, though only because Marian refuses to marry and leave with him. He does it as a display of his affection to Marian, but would happily let everyone else in the town perish. That's the big difference; though brave, willing to die, it's still something he wasn't willing to do, despite Marian's pleas, until she refused to leave. The performance is great, the character fun, but what must be remembered is this character is a villain, and he nails it.
Finally, a figure just as old and legendary as Robin Hood himself; his loyal lieutenant, Little John. Gordon Kennedy's incarnation in the series is a rival outlaw leader, capturing Robin and his companions on their first night as outlaws, eventually merging the two groups together when Robin displays his heart by saving John's wife, a villager in Locksley. The quiet John is the natural father-figure of the group, being older than the young ruffians around him. He has a family in Locksley who doesn't know he's alive, and a son he's never met, which is his emotional pull for the first season and beyond. He is a tragic figure, as he carries the blame for his wife and son's misfortune, as well as his perceived shame in letting them go from his life. His saying before a battle is, 'A good day to die,' and as he says to Much, "It is for me." While the core of the band, keeping them together, grounded and in-line, he is fully prepared to die at any time, viewing it as a release of the guilt he feels.
Already, this is a far more detailed John than we have seen before. Little John is an archetype, almost as much as the Sheriff of Nottingham or Maid Marian have become; the tall, strong man, loyal friend and comrade of Robin Hood, second-in-command of the Merry Men. Never before has John had such a detailed and deep story. At most, Clive Mantle's Little John of Robin of Sherwood had a girlfriend, Meg, and openly wept for his fallen friends and their ongoing struggles, but never has he had a family of his own, lost or no. John as a tragic figure has been touched on before; in several novels, including Howard Pyle's 1883 work, John is a runaway servant, abused by his master, and John kills him, fleeing to the safety of Sherwood, where he encounters Robin on a bridge, and the rest is history (or legend!). Archie Duncan's Little John has a similar backstory in Richard Greene's series, though his John is more of a Lennie type, a dim but loveable giant. Kennedy's John is outlawed for unknown reasons, running to the woods, leaving his wife, Alice, to presume his death, pregnant with their son, little John; it's only when Locksley local Will Scarlett tells him that he finds out he has a child.
Little John is typically either a fiercely loyal companion to Robin or a friendly antagonist, arguing about missions or making bets. In this series, he's a bit of everything; he's the first to put Robin in his place if he's out of line; he's the first to comfort in trying times; he's quick to rush to the aid of his friends. He realises these people he's found himself with are his new family - "[My son], I am proud to know. You, I'm stuck with." Again, it's hard to compare him to what's come before. Being archetypical, John is tall and strong and carries a staff; the rest is down to the interpretation. He's certainly the most emotional Little John since Clive Mantle, the strongest since Alan Hale's first, silent iteration (1922, also in 1938 & 1950), and the kindest since Phil Harris's literal bear (1973). He's also probably the member of the gang most staunchly loyal to the people; he forgoes a mission to find the missing Sheriff to deliver food to the poor; he accidentally breaks the arm of a circus performer, taking his place for the day to make money to feed the orphan boys who work for the troupe; he acts as midwife to a friend's daughter in the camp, as well as providing an antidote for a poison sweeping through the town ("I know some things"). While Little John is something different for each generation and each representation, Kennedy's Little John embodies the traits of all - a kind, loyal, emotional, sympathetic figure, with a fiery temper and an even fiercer heart. If the modern Marian is a fighter, an equal in merit to Robin himself, then the modern Little John is raw, not afraid to show his hand when it comes to his friends, his life, and his limits.
I've been writing for about six hours, and honestly I could go on all day. I limited this article to five characters, and I intend to go through each of the Merries, the royals and the conventions, but by god I couldn't do it in one article! Stay tuned for more gushing about this series, as well as looks into other live-action incarnations and how they compare to the legends of old.
What would you like to have discussed? A big movie, an obscure show, a weird knick-knack from a forgotten decade? Let me know in the comments or send a message!
BBC series images care of Far Far Away site at farfarawaysite.com
Screenshot care of Meanwhile, in Rivendell at meanwhileinrivendell.blogspot.com
Patricia Driscoll photo care of Robin Hood Pictures at robinhoodoutlaw.blogspot.com/
Taron Egerton image care of Entertainment Weekly at ew.com