Friday, November 14, 2008

robin hood and stuff vol. i (spoilers)

Okay, yes, it’s Richard Armitage’s fault. First he has to be in Spooks so that I watch the show and get addicted, then I start looking up YouTube videos of BBC’s Robin Hood and eventually decide I have to watch the show again, even though I remember when it was on in 2006 and I found it both enjoyable and silly. Like King Arthur and Camelot, another English legend/myth, Robin Hood can (and has) been reinvented to suit the values and audience of the moment. I remember watching the Disney cartoon as a kid (yes, the one where Robin Hood is, quite literally, a fox). Two books I very much liked were Robin McKinley’s Outlaws of Sherwood and Michael Morpurgo’s Robin of Sherwood. I stayed up late watching Robin of Sherwood (ITV, I believe) with my mom on PBS—much as we did with Doctor Who. At the age of fifteen I decided to do my own take, a book called Rhiannon of the Rose, which we’ll talk more about later. So it’s safe to say we have a history.

The BBC show was created, I believe, to fill those Saturday nights when Doctor Who wasn’t on (and while both shows are taking a break, Merlin comes to fill that gap). It’s supposed to be rousing family entertainment, and like those two shows I just mentioned, it has a decidedly British flavor. As the co-creators of the show just said on the DVD extras, it’s supposed to be “layered, complicated, and modern” (because, of course nothing that isn’t modern can be layered). If Robin’s supposed to resemble “a Vietnam vet” and Marian a “modern” woman who likes the perks of chivalry but “doesn’t like being left behind when everyone else is going out,” why set it in 1192 anyway? I think RH does modern well, but starts to push its luck when it gets too modern. It’s facetious of me to just call it a silly show, though of course there’s no comparison between it and Doctor Who, but particularly the first episode is quite well-done. There are definitely diamonds in the rough in the show.

The costumes designed by Frances Tempest rouse bafflement, ire, and grudging admiration from me. Marian’s costumes, obviously, wouldn’t cut it in the real 1192. True enough, the general shape is somewhat period—but the materials are usually textures and colors that wouldn’t exist (surely what Tempest was going for?). Of course I just throw my hands up when she’s shown wearing trousers. Speaking of trousers, quite a lot of the merry men wear them, though they didn’t really exist as such. Interestingly many of the characters wear variations on slops and hose (medieval underwear) which looks almost correct. However, that’s negated when, in “Sheriff Got Your Tongue?” a bunch of the characters wear wife beaters and shorts! Much and Roy wear pantyhose on their heads, everyone wears cravats (see my post-Gladiator rant on this, and Merlin has inherited it), and waistcoats abound. Little John and Guy wear big leather coats whose cut didn’t exist yet either. Still, you have to admire some of the audacity—Robin’s green jerkin is tied with all manner of leather twine and ribbons, and some of Marian’s creations wouldn’t be out of place in Excalibur. I love her Night Watchman costume. Funnily enough, the peasants’ costumes are all basically accurate—though undoubtedly that’s because extras’ costumes are better bought in bulk.

I quite like the first episode, “Will You Tolerate This?” We hit the ground running when Allan a Dale is rescued by Robin and Much (the whole point of Allan was he was a minstrel, but that’s not “cool” enough for today’s audience). When RH borrows from well-worn sources it usually does pretty well; with Robin and Much returning from the Holy Land it’s not a far stretch to compare them to Ivanhoe and Gurth. When we later learn more about Guy it’s similarly not far-fetched to see a bit of Sir Brian du Bois-Guilbert from Ivanhoe in him. I like the portrayal of Robin (as mercurial as time has permitted) very much in this show. He must have been very young indeed when he went to the Crusades, and in some ways he is the most boyish Robin ever—unable to take things seriously and a bit of a ladies’ man. His outrage at injustice and compassion for the weak (very Doctor-ish qualities) are on slow-boil throughout the first episode. As Marian points out, if he cared so much about his villagers why did he go on a Crusade and leave them to the mercy of people like the Sheriff? (I suspect it’s for the reasons that sent Ivanhoe away.) Upon his return he has a scimitar, a “Saracen bow,” (I wondered about the historical accuracy of this, since it’s always been a Welsh longbow that made him such a good archer), speaks Arabic, and makes Much, his bondsman, a free man.

It’s incredible how much of Patrick, Sam Troughton’s grandfather, you can see in him. It’s a wonderful role, suffused with traces of Phillipe in Ladyhawke and his monologues with God as well as the obvious parallel, Sam to Robin’s Frodo. Much, like Sam, is the everyman with whom we identify: he thinks with his stomach, he’s a bit of a priss, quite jealous-minded, and a bit silly at times. But his unflinching loyalty, which leads him to walk to Nottingham on his own to rescue his master in “Sheriff Got Your Tongue?”, is paramount. Marian and Robin appear to have been childhood sweethearts (à la Ivanhoe and Rowena), and she and her father urge Robin to work in the system, “consolidate your position quietly.” On one hand, you wonder if Marian’s character is presented, morally speaking, so opposed to Robin’s just to create conflict and good writing! On the other, surely her constant objections and criticisms of his methods do make sense.

I remember seeing Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves in the cinema (I must have been eight or so) and that Robin came home to a destroyed Locksley Manor and a blinded man servant. This Robin comes home to a frightened but fit enough Manor and peasants; Guy of Gisborne has been holding his land, clearly with the intent of stealing it away à la Prince John taking over for King Richard. When the two noblemen meet, they take an instant mutual dislike to each other, both seeking to remain in power over land and title. Of course the audience knows that these two have to be bitter enemies, but I really like how the writers have set them up. Guy accuses Robin of loving war, as he went to the Crusades—he’s seen him fighting, but cannot recall where, an Important Plot Point—and then when Robin says he has lost his taste for blood and questions the motives--“Is it Pope Gregory’s war?”—Guy accuses him of newfound cowardice. We can assume, from later conversations about Guy’s title being little more than that, that jealousy and feelings of inadequacy fuel this scorn. Hey, it’s a lot more interesting than him just being bad with no motive!

The Sheriff of Nottingham, some man called Vasey, tells Robin as Earl of Huntingdon that “hungry men are virtuous.” He must just be pulling this out of his butt, because I can’t think of a single situation where this is true! Finding himself running out of options, Robin makes a very spur-of-the-moment, do-or-die decision to become an outlaw—very different to, say, Bruce Wayne’s decision to become Batman. This is interesting and somewhat more believable for a young man who must now pay the price by not being able to take care of his people directly as their lord. I must say, since the writers/producers want The Bourne Supremacy with horses, the final battle at the gallows is quite impressive. There is certainly a superhero quality with Robin’s archery abilities, but since they can film it with that level of precision, why not? I have to admit the cheery music and Robin’s cheeky, reckless flourish to Marian as he fled quite entertained me.

“Sheriff Got Your Tongue?” has two purposes as I see it. The first is to meld Robin’s allies (Much, Allan a Dale, and Will Scarlett) with the existing band of outlaws subsisting in the forest. The only man of legend in this group is Little John, but very important to this show is the invented Roy. “Sheriff ...?” combines very humorous moments with the sheer grotesquerie of the Sheriff cutting out Locksley Manor’s peasants’ tongues with scissors (I was going to complain that scissors had not yet been invented, but I was wrong). When Robin gives himself up, the merry men have to band together to save his life, thus solidifying the “crew.” I should mention, by the way, Harry Lloyd. I freely admit when I sent in my DWM 2007 survey, my vote for best actor went to Harry Lloyd because he made such an impression as Baines, and I have since heard Steven Moffat was also impressed. In any case, I’ve always had a soft spot for Will Scarlett (see later) and find myself staring at his brilliant green eyes almost as much as at Richard Armitage’s grey-blue ones.

The other purpose of this episode is to establish the relationship between Robin and the Sheriff. The role of the Sheriff has traditionally been a camp one, I guess because there has to be some lightness to outweigh the sheer evil the character has traditionally inherited. I remembered watching the first season before and being rather overwhelmed by the silliness of Keith Allen (and my friend Katie says he is very short) but in these first episodes it hasn’t gotten quite so out of hand. (His costumes are terrible, however. He looks ridiculous when wearing period furs and even worse in his Elton John-inspired robes and flip flops!) While Guy’s role to this point has principally included sneering, eye-rolling, and shouting VERY LOUDLY, the Sheriff seems half motivated by greed and half by utter sadism. When given chance after chance to kill the Sheriff, Robin cannot seem to do it. “I will not change,” announces the Sheriff, and we have the dilemma of all good hero vs villain fights: why doesn’t one just kill the other? Robin’s threat that he may one day kill the Sheriff seems rather pitiful against the Sheriff’s arguments, but at least the writers are acknowledging that Robin Hood’s saga has always been rather episodic and thus lends itself well to TV.

The third episode, “Who Shot the Sheriff?”, is the first one I watched back in 2006, and I remember being excited because it was written by Paul Cornell. Well, I didn’t think at the time it was that great, and in retrospect I don’t think it was that great either. I fear one problem is that the character who shot, or tried to shoot, the Sheriff has been introduced too late in the game for full suspension of belief. Nevertheless, it’s our first introduction to Marian’s moonlighting as the Night Watchman, and an acknowledgment that Robin does enjoy the adulation that comes from being he who robs the rich to feed the poor. It’s not bad at all, just not as superb as I was expecting.

I quite like “Parent Hood” by Mark Wadlow despite the atrocious title for its many various strands. I can just see the pitch at the script meetings: Robin finds a baby in the forest and has to take care of it. But this story is carefully plotted and has many different things going on. I might just have a quick word about ambiguity here—with Much constantly telling Robin how much he loves him, Guy apparently helping the Sheriff paint his toenails, not to mention the smile Guy gives the gang in the teaser of this story, I shudder to go on to see what slash pairings fan girls have come up with. Marian’s attempts to help the downtrodden are severely curtained as the Sheriff derides “how many years now and still a maiden?” He also has her hair cut short as an act of humiliation.

The DVD packaging describes Guy as a “bully,” and that is a fairly accurate description—he seems to let the soldiers do all the dirty work and he just condones everything the Sheriff orders. I’ve tried hard to justify his actions in this story and find it difficult to dredge up any sympathy. “He has another side,” Annie, a castle serving maid, tells the imprisoned Roy. Annie has had Guy’s baby but apparently he left it to die in the woods! Now, this begs the question: did he have good intentions to take the baby to the Abbey like he promised and then had second thoughts, or did he mean to kill the baby and faltered at the last moment? Am I grasping at straws?

I do believe, however, I’ve uncovered a predisposition for feeling about this character the way that I do. Back to Rhiannon of the Rose. The whole handwritten manuscript is sitting in a box in my house, minus one chapter I could never get onto paper. I’ve just never had time to type it up, though it would make a decent young adult novel, with an overhaul—it is heavily modelled on Catherine, Called Birdy and Ivanhoe. Anyway, the title character loves and is loved by Will Scarlett. But, he being an outlaw and she being a lady in a manor house, she is given in marriage to Guy of Gisborne. Now, being me, naturally I illustrated much of RotR as I wrote it. There’s one illustration of Rhiannon and Guy, and the scary thing is, he looks like just like Richard Armitage—down to the eyeliner he may or may not have been wearing (“Guyliner” as I’ve heard it dubbed). This was 1999—can you explain this??

Back to the episode. It’s ever-so-daring for this episode to kill off Roy, who’s only been in three stories. For Robin to quote the Qu’ran is also daring but believable (however, did he read it in Greek, for who would have translated it into English?). There are some wonderfully written scenes between Robin and Marian, not least of which is when she has to dress his wound and when everyone thinks the baby is theirs. (Dressing a wound is a classic device to get someone to take off his shirt—nevertheless, Marian uses it as an excuse to wound, as Robin has wounded her by asking why she hasn’t married.)

This will sound stupid and possibly offensive, but “Turk Flu” really seems like it was written by a woman. Indeed, it was written by Debbie Oates, and while parts of it make me cringe, parts of it also make me squirm in delight. One thing RH hasn’t been too keen on is following the legend at face value—so far no Prince John, Friar Tuck, or stave battle with Little John at the ford. The Sheriff’s Fair and the archery tournament to win the silver arrow at last brings thing into context, but on screen, what a sad little affair it is. Meanwhile Guy is being a jerk and killing miners—just a prelude to surprising the Night Watchman and wounding “him.” It’s nice to see that Marian kicks his ass before fleeing. The next twist is something I love—Marian has barely had a chance to get home when the very man who wounded her comes to invite her to the Fair. My first question was: is he blind?! My second question is: is he schizophrenic? Because he’s charming and awkward and sweet. When she hesitates, he says, “You’re ashamed of your hair. I’ve already thought of that.” He gives her a present (though as far as I can tell she doesn’t wear it later). Her dad, meanwhile, has figured out her secret identity. “I don’t know you at all.”

Somehow I have trouble believing Nottingham is going to go to the trouble of importing slaves from the Holy Land, and I just don’t know if what Much says about Christians not being able to enslave other Christians holds water. But it gives the writer the excuse to bring in Djaq, whose costume is the nadir. While I’m happy to have her around (God knows we needed another woman in the cast), is everybody blind? Is Will walking in on her in a Mulan moment really necessary? Admittedly, I don’t know much about medieval Palestine, but would her fellow prisoners have really endured an unveiled woman dressed as a boy? I find it very peculiar that she’s played by an Bangalora actress. Nevertheless, there’s precedent—of a sort. Robin Hood Prince of Thieves’ comrade-in-arms was Morgan Freeman as the Moor Azeem.

Back at the Fair, Marian manages to prevent Guy putting the moves on her and getting killed by a misguided, vengeful boy. Not a bad day.

One of the extras on this disc was Hood Academy, where the actors got sent off to special camp in Hungary to learn to fight and ride. When it’s a bunch of good-looking, virile men doing aerobics and archery how could I not enjoy it?! I was surprised that so many of them were worried about the horseback riding. Since I’ve been fortunate enough to ride since I was five or so, I don’t consider it with any trepidation (though no poncy English-style riding for me, bah! Western-style!). On the other hand, though, I’m rubbish at archery and I can imagine that while a Lord of the Rings-like camaraderie must have developed among the actors, no doubt there must have been some friendly competition as well. I feel disturbingly titillated by watching them all try to hit a target! I feel a bit bad for Lucy Griffiths—on one hand it might be nice to have all that male attention, but on the other, it would be a bit intimidating to have to be as good as the blokes.

That’s part one of series one. If I write this much about all the stories this is going to take forever. Probably until January when series three comes on. I’m sorry, I’m entertained by this!


AnnikaD said...

I most send you a note I was here and read I love RA very much and this version of Robin Hood is rely good I have by it on DVD and I can not be enough to watch at it.

Great Greeting to you
Annika in Sweden

Le Mc said...

Glad you enjoyed, Annika! Out of curiosity, how did you find the blog? I get very few visitors.

I'll be reviewing more episodes as time goes on (I haven't seen season 2 at all, so that'll be a treat) so there will be more RA! :-)