I know generally, in Robin Hood, Doctor Who, pretty much anything, the weaker episodes tend to be in the middle of the season . Nevertheless, and though I may get flak for this, I think the middle two eps of series 3 are among the best the show has produced. Whee!
One thing I’ve noticed about the programme is that it does seem to encourage a fair number of female writers. I really quite liked Lisa Holdsworth’s offering, “Let the Games Commence.” I know the first series was really pushing the modern reworking of the Crusades by giving us as much exposure to the Saracens as possible (and giving us that Gulf War parallel). While I admired the effort at political correctness, I think they are doing a much better job of bringing the historical in and using it for their own creative storytelling purposes in series 3. For example, while I don’t think there were troupes of gladiators roaming England in the 12th century, there were certainly touring players and acrobats, so the premise of Holdsworth’s story is not as far-fetched as it may immediately appear.
Cooler still: Guy of Gisborne’s sister Isabella, who somehow makes me think of the titular heroine from one of my favorite books as an adolescent, Catherine, Called Birdy. I really expected Isabella, as played by Lara Pulver, to resemble the over-the-top harpy sister of the Sheriff’s. (I didn’t expect her to replace Marian quite so quickly as she did in “Do You Love Me?” but never mind.) I find myself really liking the character, and equally not disliking the Kate character as much as I expected to. Anyway, things looked a bit questionable when Isabella appeared on the scene in her Xena Warrior Princess bodice (as ever, I am of two minds about the costuming in this show). Perhaps, as Guy’s sister, Isabella may have picked up some sword training but does everyone in 12th century England know how to fight? Meanwhile, while he’s been with Prince John’s Royal Guard, Guy has taken the time to have a shampoo. Congrats. The Sheriff is nonplussed: “You’re still alive.” Guy has thrived without “ill-conceived, incompetent input from others.” Guy is certain he will “have no need of you ever again” soon—it’s kind of nice to see him recovering his self-esteem for a bit.
Isabella, it appears, is running away from her fiancé, “all the way from Shrewsbury”—“you know what he’ll do to me?”—when she’s rescued by Robin & co. Robin immediately goes into charmer mode. Not knowing who she is, he volunteers to take her safely back to her home. Unfortunately the outlaws are soon separated by encroaching soldiers bent on snuffing them out. Tuck, Isabella, Kate and Robin end up back together, but are missing Little John. Eventually they all get herded while Guy deploys the “secret weapon” (get your mind out of the gutter). In keeping with the gladiatorial theme, Prince John CAN HAZ LIONZ (apparently from the Holy Land, though it’s not clear). This gives the audience at home a visual thrill, and the writer even qualifies its inherent silliness by having Guy say, “It’s appropriate for supporters of the Coeur de Lion.” Isabella CAN HAZ mustard bombs for some reason, so the outlaws escape.
Little John officially has the world’s softest touch. He intervenes when he thinks a merchant woman is being attacked, when in fact it’s just Bertha of Bath “training my men.” In addition to introducing Isabella, this episode’s presentation of Bertha is another point in its favor. She’s touring her circus and gladiators through England—“where you been?” “Here, mainly,” Little John says sheepishly. Little John’s susceptible heart is further touched when Bertha introduces her “children”—“not by birth.” As the Royal Guard come looking, Bertha says, “we’ll disguise you.” Since Little John is a convincing gladiator anyway, Bertha takes him with her in the circus into Nottingham to make a profit. “The ladies love you,” Bertha croons to shirtless John. In a rather clever twist, the Sheriff summons the theatrical Bertha, with whom he has apparently had dealings with in the past. He not only wants her profits, he wants all her takings. “I could settle the debt with something better than money.” “There is nothing better!” (That’s the Sheriff for you.) Bertha agrees to give the Sheriff a percentage of her earnings and to deliver Little John, dead. Oooh, the slag.
Robin accuses Isabella of being just like her brother, that she led the outlaws into a trap, which she vehemently denies—“do you have any idea what he’s done to me? I could not endure another day [of marriage].” It sounds, ladies and gentlemen, that Isabella’s marriage is every bit the typical one from the period—fortunately for her, she has the opportunity to get out of it, at least for awhile. She plans to seek her brother’s protection. He has “some obligation toward me.” Returning to her brother, she accuses him of lack of loyalty. “I did what was best. . . . He [her suitor] offered a fair price for you.”
Little John’s friend, a sympathetic boy-gladiator-helper, tries to warn him that Bertha has fixed the fight and intends to have him killed. Anarchy breaks out during the fights—“you believed the ancient art of the gladiator was gone”—as the Sheriff demands, “Somebody kill that man!” Little John finds out that Bertha is not the benevolent rescuer of orphans that she led him to believe. He is able to escape with Bertha’s boys, who are neatly sent to an “orphanage near Locksley.” I didn’t think there were orphanages in 1192—hôtelsde Dieu, maybe, but foundlings were mostly left at church doors, weren’t they? Oh well, I’m being too critical.
“What makes you think I would [betray you]?” Isabella asks Robin, to whom she has obviously taken a shine and vice versa. “I hadn’t seen him [Guy] since I was thirteen.” “I’d never turn my back on someone in true need,” Robin says.
“Do You Love Me?” is really quite hilarious, but my first thought upon watching it was, now THAT’s how to start an episode! By this I mean—and I apologize, I AM a rabid Richard Armitage perv—it begins with a shirtless Guy writhing on his bed—no doubt tormented by nightmares as the Furies have come after him for his crimes—yet the mind can invent much more salacious explanations. Ahem. He gets arrested and tossed at the feet of Toby Stephens’ Prince John. Now, I’ve seen Stephens be moody and Byron-esque both as Rochester in the well-made Jane Eyre and as Darcy in Lost in Austen, but the performance that most comes to mind as his inspiration for Prince John is the animated lion in Disney’s Robin Hood!! (Less so the Beast in Will o’the Wisp!) If it’s possible for anyone to enjoy hamming it up more than Keith Allan as the Sheriff, Stephens is doing it. Yet there is a trace of the historical John (or, to be more accurate in my case, the version of the historical John I know through Ivanhoe). The costume is like something you would see a Shakespearean actor wear during a performance of the history plays—medieval filtered through Tudor eyes! Yet he is all the way a moustache-twiddling villain—extremely insecure, silkily vicious, genuinely frustrated over Richard’s beloved status in the people’s eyes (all of this tying back to the historical Richard presented in things like “The Crusade” ep of Doctor Who and The Lion in Winter but I won’t bore you again).
Yet, for all of this historical underpinning, we are easily skirting the edges of homoerotic subtext on teatime TV—“You’d make a fine Sheriff,” PJ oozes. “Does it please you I have such confidence in you?” I really like Timothy Praeger’s dialogue here. “His [the Sheriff’s] blood is a gift I covet. You will kill the Sheriff for me.” (Then I thought they were going to kiss.) THAT’s the way to open an episode, ladies and gentlemen: Toby Stephens being slimy and hilarious, 12th century intrigue, and a whole lotta Armitage-squee. As a writer for Radio Times once noted about RA in Spooks, “the publicist’s job is done.”
Back in the forest where the temperature is a few degrees cooler, Much “can’t actually count!” as he bespies soldiers. Robin rightly interprets PJ’s trying to buy off the nobles as one step closer to civil war. Because there will be gold, Robin & co. decide to stop PJ by cutting off his cash flow. Go for the economic jugular! While making this attempt, however, Katie gets stabbed and falls over. Tragically, no one seems to notice! They are too busy thinking they’ve captured PJ. Of course Much and Allan go running when they finally see that Kate’s taken one for the team. “To leave it in her would kill her,” announces a terse Tuck. Since they’ve had the good fortune to get in their decoy PJ’s physician, Kate is saved. “Neither his supporter nor his apologist.” The physician Benjamin brings in a nice bit of historical stuff that might well be true. PJ is obsessed with finding a subject infected with scrofula so he can cure it and prove he’s the King. (I believe it was Edward I who dragged his wife around Wales so she would give birth to a son in a Welsh castle, hence him being a Prince of Wales.)
It’s feeling a bit Richard III as Guy returns to Nottingham and greets the Sheriff. “Our relationship has been a little strained in the past,” says the Sheriff. “The only way we’re going to survive is unity.” Isabella gamely walks in right as Guy is about to murder the Sheriff. “I hope I’m not interrupting anything.”
Benjamin, now allied to Robin more or less, returns to Nottingham as PJ has a banquet, expecting the Sheriff to be dead. “Congratulations, we were ambushed, not you,” says the ever-tactful Benjamin. PJ, in what surely would be something the historical John d’Anjou would do, decides to pit the Sheriff against Gisborne and see which one kills first. “Would you take a life for me?” Back at the party, PJ wants to know, “Did he [Robin Hood] curse us?” “Fulsomely!” replies Benjamin. “Wonderful!” Then PJ has Benjamin arrested.
In Locksley a wedding is going on (the perpetual summer of ’92, ’93, whatever it is, doesn’t bother me as much as it used to). PJ romancing Isabella isn’t nearly as much fun as Gisborne romancing Marian (or trying to) but the misogynist thinks “you make this such good sport!” He’s clearly a ruthless, crazy S.O.B. as he tries to burn the village church to the ground WITH the congregation inside. Isn’t that a BIT graphic for children? (Fortunately the villagers escape!) “I will have love and respect . . . I am benevolent.” Somehow you wonder if it’s Henry, Richard and John’s father, who has twisted John into such a lunatic, that he thinks he can gain the love of the people by murder, and whether or not there are any redeeming features in somehow so insecure. Meanwhile, the Sheriff is doing . . . something . . . while standing by the burning church, allowing Guy the chance to toss a flaming beam at him, to which the Sheriff responds with an arrow. Ha.
The beautiful Isabella is unsinged when she helps Robin & co. to put out the flames on the church, a complete loss. “I judge people by what I find!” She hates her brother, by the way. “That’s one thing we have in common.” “That’s nothing to be proud of, is it? To share hatred?” “You don’t want Prince John to think we cooperated.” Robin takes Isabella’s jewellery, being his smoothie-robber-baron self. “See anything else you want?” she asks (!). She reaches to the garter on her thigh (!) to give him a purse. “Help them to rebuild their church.” “There’s something else I might steal.” Okay, for dramatic purposes Isabella and Robin embarking on their little smoldering romance is pretty satisfying, but it seems waaaay too soon after Marian. Unless it’s all a bid to get revenge?
Tuck, a bit like the Friar in Romeo and Juliet, wants to brew a potion so Kate can look likes she has scrofula and they can get inside the castle to steal gold. Isabella returns, pretending to have been ransacked and robbed. She gives a performance for PJ that he finds irresistible. Guy is at his devotions when the Sheriff attacks. I remember RA saying that Lucas North in Spooks would beat Guy hands down in a fight, and clearly he’s right if Guy allows the Sheriff to get the upper hand! “You represent everything that’s loathsome in a man!” “I thought that’s why you like me!” When the Sheriff stabs Guy in the thigh, I wondered where I had seen that last and recalled it was Styre the Sontaran in “The Two Doctors.” Hmmm. “Humility’s a failing,” the Sheriff shrieks when Guy hesitates to kill him. “You’re the reason Marian is dead!” The fight takes them up to the castle battlements. “You loved me like a father once, I know you did,” says the Sheriff. “Gisborne, don’t trust him. . . . Nothing is what it seems.” With that, Guy apparently stabs the Sheriff, and he expires. (Except not!)
The plot thickens!