Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Robin Hood (BBC TV 2006)

In 2006 it seemed the BBC could do no wrong as their programmes regularly beat all independent UK companies in the ratings wars. One particular jewel in their crown was the revised and award winning Doctor Who. So, as that series came to the end of its season, the BBC looked around for a similar vehicle with which to replace it. They chose the story of Robin Hood, perhaps not out of any great passion or knowledge of the legend, but more as a well known hero they could base a popular programme around.
Indeed, the early episodes did suffer a little through lack of a clear direction. Characters had been swapped around for no apparent reason: Instead of Much being caught poaching at the start, it was now a none musical Alan A ' Dale; instead of Will Scarlet being the previous leader of a gang of outlaws, it was now Little John; instead of John being Robin's second in command (or accompanying him on the Crusades), it was now Much. These changes often side lined certain key characters and deleted rather than replaced certain tales from the legend. For example, there was no meeting on the bridge with Little John, and no Friar Tuck at all on the grounds that a stout Tuck was no longer politically correct. Other issues which drew criticism during the early episodes included Maid Marian's seemingly super powered hair grips, and Robin Hood's two-at-a-time trick arrows. But if the series got off to a slightly uneven start, it very soon established high standards and incorporated new ideas which those who follow will have to take into account.
Filmed largely outdoors in Hungary as the season passed, and using an excellent and largely unknown young cast, the series had a gritty "realistic" quality. Jonas Armstrong (Robin Hood) proved capable of the heroic approach of Flynn and Fairbanks (back flipping from balconies or sweeping Marian up on horseback), whilst also displaying those tearful emotions not associated with the hero in the past, as when Marian rejects him or was mortally wounded. Lucy Griffiths (Maid Marian) admirably portrayed those tougher aspects of the role we've seen before in Patricia Driscoll and Uma Thurman, whilst also taking on the series’ one great new innovation, her secret identity as the Night Watchman. It will be interesting to see in future years if subsequent film makers include Marian's Night Watchman alter ego.
Special mention must also be made of Keith Allen, certainly the most villainous Sheriff of Nottingham to date. Allen’s experience and screen presence was often the satellite around which the younger cast revolved and developed their craft as he gave a classic interpretation of the role. Also, Sam Troughton as the ever loyal and ever complaining Much whose affection for his master Robin rivals that of Marian. Troughton's performance proved that making Much Robin's second in command rather than John was quite inspired, providing as it does a platform for exploring the emotions and humour in close male friendship. Anjali Rose as Djaq was not only the Saracen outlaw for the series (an idea first used in 1984's Robin of Sherwood), but became Robin Hood's first full time girl outlaw. (An idea flirted with periodically over the decades). Djaq proved an especially important character when dealing with such issues as the Crusades at a time when a real life war raged in Iraq. Other actors like Harry Lloyd and Joe Armstrong drew a huge following with teenage audiences, establishing their respective characters in a manner well placed for future development in series two.
The final episodes of this BBC version of Robin Hood reached a particularly thrilling climax. Probably the equal of any interpretation of Robin Hood there has ever been. Those who were somewhat dubious at the very start (and the series certainly had its critics), would be well advised to look again. It thoroughly deserved its ultimate success. Highly recommended.

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