Robin Hood

Saturday, October 6, 2007 by

“We are the spirit of England,” cried the cleanest set of teeth the wrong side of the Renaissance, “and that is this country’s only hope.”

Where once a bit of occasional wealth redistribution and thumping sufficed to occupy the lives of Sherwood Forest’s resident street-talking bumpkins, now it seems nothing less than national salvation is the order of the day. It’s a big step up from the recovery of a side order of gammon. It’s a sharp change in direction from merely running after bullies in black cloaks. It is, in other words, a second series.

Ultimately what let down last year’s resurrection of Robin Hood was its limited scale. It ran out of places to go, both literally (the UK’s largest forest turning out to be frustratingly compact) and thematically.

Every week our heroes found themselves pitted against the machinations of the Sheriff, which was fair enough, but every week they never seemed to learn anything from their escapades, which wasn’t. Characters evolved, but artificially rather than organically. All momentum got frittered away. There was precious little trace of ambition, of storylines exploring grand themes of good and evil or hope and despair. Everything was just of the wrong magnitude.

It meant that what stuck most in the mind were the anachronisms, which made for the worst possible landscape upon which to fashion a follow-up. The 21st century slang, the contemporary mores, the numerous references to partially-topical talking points (“Regime change”, “mass destruction”) – they wouldn’t have mattered so much were they not so distinguished by their prominence, especially in contrast to the programme’s less ubiquitous grasp on medieval scene-setting.

So it’s good that certain changes have been made. Something needed to be done, if only to demonstrate the team behind the series were aware that, well, something needed to be done. Except what appears to have transpired is not a dilution of the problem, but rather an intensification.

On the evidence of this first episode, characters have become even less dimensional and even more prone to acting merely as ciphers. Aside from Robin and Marian, whose relationship is not immune from being reduced to clumsy metaphors, everybody else is a walking plot point. Their very purpose, their very existence in this fictional recreation of the real world of 13th century England, is to move events from A to B to C. Nothing more.

It means the roaring, vituperative, unpredictable monster that is, by legend, the Sheriff of Nottingham appears on screen as little more than the Hooded Claw, wholly occupied with engineering bland strategies of retribution that never work, and from whose failure he draws no heed.

Accordingly his “grand plan” for this series – to kill the King and take over the whole country – got soundly robbed of any dramatic scope and potential. The sequence of him assembling his “Black Knights” for a secret conference felt nowhere near as fearsome as it should. Keith Allen’s performance was more hollow than hair-raising.

The episode’s “very special guest” (a gimmick set to continue throughout the series), the Sheriff’s sister, was equally ineffectual. She did little other than scream dementedly or strut around looking haughty, in an attempt to try and outdo her brother by way of over-the-top scene-stealing. Saturday night drama doesn’t – shouldn’t – always have to major in subtly, but resorting to such devices as having a de facto wicked witch completely fool your hero by dressing up as a peasant, then stringing him up above a pit full of poisonous snakes, felt perilously close to just lazy storytelling.

It’s with Robin’s gang, though, that the main disappointment lay. It’s much the same problem as before. They remain a bunch of people for whom you have neither much time nor respect. By rights, depending on your age, you should either want to be one of them, look forward with knowing expectation to their inevitable arrival in the nick of time, or simply enjoy their swashbuckling antics. Any one of these three remains unlikely, however, so long as they continue to be drawn on screen in ultra-bland strokes, rarely speaking except to agree or disagree with their leader (“You were right all along, Master Robin!”). Worst of the lot is Much, who’s still depicted a bumbling, put-upon ditherer. Despite their respective characters’ history of fighting together in the Crusades, the question remains: why on Earth would Robin want such a person in his band?

Robin and Marian provided the limited strength of this episode, as indeed they did for most of the first series. Their verbal and physical sparring should be the foundation for any number of elaborately constructed plots – or so you feel. Both are competently played, both are plausibly written, and it’s here the real possibility lies for expanding the concerns of the show beyond simply yet another battle/ambush/escape.

There’s no reason why it couldn’t still happen. Something is required, though, to avoid proceedings repeating last year’s habit of settling into a kind of self-obsessed inertia. A subplot, tentatively begun in this episode, involving Robin’s cohort Allan A Dale being bribed to spy on his own side might inject some zest. Maybe the weekly guest stars will help broaden the emotional canvas.

If, however, the ambition of this self-styled “spirit of England” is never going to extend much beyond outlaws exchanging Two Ronnies catchphrases (“So it’s goodnight from me …”, “… And it’s goodnight from him”), then it’s doubtful this second series will get, let alone deserve, a third.


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