If you were an inquisitive 11-year-old with an unhealthy interest in swords, sorcery and the darker aspects of English folklore, then there was arguably no better time to be alive than 1984. With the possible exception of 1190. But at least those of us lucky enough to reach adolescence in the era of Fighting Fantasy books and Robin of Sherwood were able to indulge our obsessions without the lingering inconveniences of serfdom or leprosy – and feel free to insert your own jokes about 1980s Teesside here, I’m not listening.
Robin of Sherwood, a lavish televisual update of the Robin Hood legend, was first broadcast in April 1984 and transformed my weekend ramblings around the woods and fields of North Yorkshire into soulful, mystical adventures: carving longstaffs from the dried husk of Giant Hogweed stalks and seeking the solace of Herne the Hunter in the woods on the edge of the new Wimpy estates.
The show, created by Catweazle writer Richard Carpenter, made stars of its young cast: Michael Praed as the youthful Robin, Judi Trott his spirited wife Marion, Clive Mantle a stoic Little John, Ray Winstone a ferocious Will Scarlet, Phil Rose a genial Tuck, Peter Llewellyn-Williams the innocent Much and Mark Ryan the deadly Saracen warrior, Nasir. For Series Three, Jason Connery assumed the role of Robin; and the bands sneering nemeses, the Sheriff of Nottingham and the bumbling Guy of Gisburne, were portrayed with delicious brio throughout by Nickolas Grace and Robert Addie, forming a gloriously fractious double act that crackles with an almost erotic tension.
In 2014, North-Eastern writer Andrew Orton wrote two comprehensive guidebooks to accompany the series. Hooded Man Vol 1 and 2 have now been reissued by Miwk Publishing, so it seemed like an apposite time to catch up with Andrew – especially as Robin of Sherwood itself was been discussed on this website only last month. Our conversation went as follows:
Bob: Oddly, Robin of Sherwood got a mention on the blog only a couple of weeks ago, when Jim Jupp of Ghost Box Records mentioned that the opening notes of the new Belbury Poly album, The Gone Away, were inspired by the show’s theme! Since then, quite a few people have independently told me that they’d already started a full rewatch. Is there something in the air? Does autumn bring out the Robin of Sherwood fans in all of us?
Andrew: It could be that… although I think of it as a Spring programme! It’s being repeated on ITV4, so it could be something to do with that. Do you know, that Ghost Box scene… it’s a fascinating area of music, and it’s one I wish I was more involved with. I know some of it, and what I’ve heard is remarkable. You can hear the influence of Clannad, and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. It’s fascinating how that stuff all gets reinvented, and how these things have spun off to make something new.
The blog is called The Haunted Generation, and it’s very much about that period of British culture and society influencing people in quite a profound way. You clearly appreciate those feelings, but I guess you would have been very young when Robin of Sherwood was first broadcast in 1984 – do you have any memories of it at all?
I haven’t, I’d just turned two when the first series was broadcast. But I had a cousin who was 19 in the early 1990s, and he got his first job in the crisp factory in Peterlee. And used to buy VHS tapes from Woolworths, and lend them to me. And one day he lent me the double box set of Series Two of Robin of Sherwood. I was about ten years old. It was a grainy Video Gems VHS… but it had something. The programme itself, and the writing, shone through – but what I really liked about it was the realism. Putting that realism together with the sword and sorcery side of the show shouldn’t work, but it really does. That grabbed me as a child. It’s a remarkable series.
Yes, and that supernatural aspect isn’t presented in an airy-fairy way. It’s not remotely fey: the presence of magic and Herne the Hunter is presented as an unremarkable fact of everyday life. I found that fascinating and inspiring as a kid, and I still do.
What I’ve always liked about it is that, although the characterisation has a very modern feel, it’s set in a time before modern science, so they had mystical explanations for why things occur… and they become the show‘s explanations for why things occur! So, as you say, it’s about everyday life in a medieval village, with the peasants tilling the fields, and when something odd happens – well, it’s a witch or a wizard or a sorcerer that’s responsible. That’s what their explanation would have been at the time, so that’s what we see in the show.
I know you have an interest in British folklore, and in that period of medieval history – did that come from watching Robin of Sherwood as a child?
I think so… partly, yeah. It was probably the first of that kind of drama or literature that I really got into. Before Robin of Sherwood, I wasn’t particularly into fantasy – I liked Doctor Who and Transformers. And Lego – I was into building things! And fantasy isn’t a genre that I know a great deal about, beyond the big names – Tolkien, for example. But I think it spoke to my childhood in many ways, because I grew up in the North-East of England in a small town in the country. And so most of my childhood had that clash between this slightly parochial, faded industrial town – my dad worked in a factory for most of his life – and the fact that we’d play in the fields, and in the woods, and be outside all day. We got lost amongst dark trees!
That rural aspect was a big part of my life… that, and the slightly faded glory of an ex-mining community in the North-East. It wasn’t a place on the up. And so we got that sense of rurality that I know you’ve looked at, and that a lot of the Haunted Generation is about. We had odd local characters that felt a bit mystical to us, because we talked about them that way: there was almost a folky aspect to your little, local characters. A thousand years ago, you had a witch at the end of the street, and it was really just an old woman with a mole on her face. But we had characters like that, too!
Yes, and they had often had similar stories attached to them: it was never quite explained why, but we were always aware of people and places that we’d been warned to stay away from.
We had Mad Mel! The story was that he’d killed his wife and shagged his dog. Or possibly the other way round! [Laughs]. You just didn’t talk to him, because he was a bit odd. And there was a guy called Snecker Turnip, a farm labourer who walked up and down the street with wellies that squelched. Bizarre.
There’s something very medieval about all of that…
I never spoke to any of them, but I’m sure they were lovely people who had just been maligned by the local community. By the kids, really. But the legends survived, and were passed down. It’s the same process… ignorance, really.
I think one of the great things about Robin of Sherwood is that the characters are so relatable. Even though they’re medieval, they’re portrayed in a very contemporary fashion: something that’s very obvious when you look at the character of Will Scarlet. In previous adaptations of the story he was often rather effete, but Ray Winstone essentially plays him as a football hooligan. He’s violent man scarred by trauma: we find out in the first episode that his wife has been raped and murdered by mercenaries, and it’s turned him into a complete sociopath.
I think you’re right. It was a very conscious decision on the part of Richard Carpenter and Ray Winstone to depict him as a) a genuine human being, and b) yeah, a football hooligan. That description was actually brought up when they were creating the character. So he’s quite unpleasant at times, he argues with Robin and they have disagreements about who should be the band’s leader. And the other characters are like that, too… with the Sheriff and Gisburne, there’s a quote from Richard Carpenter: he said he wanted them to be “like Tory politicians”. And they are… they shout and argue, and expect to be in command. There’s definitely a modern feel to it all.
The youthful quality of Robin himself really appealed to me as an 11-year-old, watching the series in 1984. It’s easy to forget how young Michael Praed was when he made the series.
Yeah, he was 22. There was a conscious desire to play up their youth… because they’re guerillas. They’re rebels. They’re like Che Guevara, up against the establishment – and that doesn’t really work if you’re 43-year-old Richard Greene! If you want a young, left-wing activist, then why wouldn’t you cast a 22-year-old in that part?
You mentioned Richard Carpenter… what did he bring to the traditional Robin Hood story that was new? Was it that magical, supernatural aspect? He’d written Catweazle, so he clearly had an interest in such things…
I think it was. He’d done other historical shows, too – Dick Turpin was a show that was very keen on depicting the realism of living in the past. But the swords and sorcery aspect was definitely something that he was keen to have in there. He’d had a Robin Hood book as a child, and in my book I speculate as to which one it actually was. He uses a lot of character names from the books by E.C Vivian… the Sheriff’s name “De Rainault” is taken from Vivian’s work. So he was aware of the legend, and of recent re-tellings of it, but none of those stories really had fantasy elements to them.
Robin Hood is one of the few real English legends, and traditionally it’s the one doesn’t have magical, mystical elements. So he thought he would put some in, and that would be his new spin on the story. That’s why Herne the Hunter is in there: I think the earliest literary reference to Herne is in Shakespeare, so he’s not a 1000-year character by any means, but he’s in Robin of Sherwood as a shamanistic figure: the Lord of the Trees. And Robin therefore has a reason for his crusade, to work as Herne’s son. It’s what Joseph Campbell would have called the “Hero’s Journey”: Robin is the son of a half-god, half-human figure, and undergoes a Luke Skywalker-style journey, with a mentor!
In fact, that first Robin of Sherwood script virtually is Star Wars: he rescues a princess from a castle, and fights Simon de Bellame – who’s pretty much a mystical Sith… honestly, the parallels are ridiculous. He was drawing on a lot of other things as well, but the Hero’s Journey is definitely in there.
The fantasy elements feel like they fit into a very 1984 zeitgeist, as well. In my mind, my love of Robin of Sherwood is tied inextricably to my love of Fighting Fantasy books. Both came into my life pretty much simultaneously. We tend now to think of the mid-1980s as a very digital, materialistic era, but I remember there being a fair bit of old school, analogue mysticism around.
I suppose we were started to get VHS recorders and things like that, but at the same time I was still going to the library three times a week for Choose Your Own Adventures books, and The Warlock of Firetop Mountain. There was a burgeoning subculture… things like Dungeons and Dragons were coming through, too. Ten years earlier, it would have been slightly geeky, computer-obsessed types that were into all this, but by the mid-80s it was coming into the mainstream. There were films like Excalibur, too… it all kind of legitimised that slightly nerdy outlook! Not to the point where you’d actually tell anyone… [Laughs]. But it was more out in the open.
And it was all interwoven… so there were actually Robin of Sherwood gamebooks, but there was also a computer game version. A very tangled web was woven. I think there are a lot of elements of Raiders of the Lost Ark in Robin of Sherwood, too. They both mix religious elements with real life… and with the adventure side, obviously. I’d love to draw a network diagram of how all these texts interwove, and how they fed off each other. The 1980s was definitely a good time for that kind of thing.
When I was talking with Jim, he was saying that Robin Of Sherwood kind of epitomises the Ghost Box approach to folklore: he had a childhood interest in all kinds of myths and legends and strangeness, but – because we all grew up when we did, in the 1970s and 80s – it came from the medium of TV rather than oral tradition. And we were the first generation to really experience that.
That’s true. Even things like The Stone Tape… it doesn’t have an obvious overlap with Robin of Sherwood, and yet it treats ghosts in the same way. Places in Robin of Sherwood carry echoes of events that happened there previously. And Robin of Sherwood has something that I think is at the core of a lot of folklore: a clash between new technology and the natural order. So the Normans, who rule Britain in the series, are an armoured, militaristic power – they use crossbows, for example. Whereas the Saxons aren’t made up in the same way. They use magic, and traditional longbows. There’s a clash between new technology and old magic throughout the series, and I think that’s something that television depicted a lot during that time.
There are lots of TV shows and books from that ere where an older, stranger Britain bleeds through into the present day, and proves that – for all of our sophisticated modern trappings – we are really no match for these ancient forces. Even something like Penda’s Fen shows its main character being liberated from his 1970s sexual and political repression by this older, Pagan world bleeding through. It delivers him from the social mores that are constraining him.
Definitely. And something that Penda’s Fen and Robin of Sherwood share is that connection to landscape. And I have this when I go walking: I think “I wonder what happened in this field? Was there a Civil War battle, or was someone murdered or buried here?” And Penda’s Fen and Robin of Sherwood both play on that: their landscapes have a history beneath them. And that history is a combination of real events and mystical elements… the Pagan gods, and – in Robin of Sherwood – the power of Herne.
And I think Richard Carpenter also saw himself as a modern balladeer. He was carrying on the tradition of Robin Hood: every generation took the story, and tweaked it, and added something. So Robin began as a forest robber, then – in the Elizabethan era – he was gentrified and made into a nobleman, because that was the chivalric ideal of the age. The Victorians rediscovered him as a romantic figure, and then he went into pantomime and children’s books… Hollywood did him as a swashbuckler, and Disney as a cute fox… [Laughs] Carpenter knew all of that, and saw himself as a modern re-interpreter of the legend, adding something and giving that to the next generation. And he did. Elements that he added, like Nasir… or to give him his full name, and this is my party trick…
Nasir Malik Kemal Inal Ibrahim Shams ad-Dualla Wattab ibn Mahmud. I learnt that six years ago, and I can’t forget it now! He was carried forward into further productions, and a Saracen character was featured in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, and the BBC’s 2006 Robin Hood series.
So there’s always been a sense of Robin Hood being reinvented using different technology. The story went from an oral tradition, to words in a book, to pictures on a screen, and then has been passed onto the next generation to do something new. It’s fascinating how it evolves. A remarkable process.
Let’s talk about your books specifically – what made you decide to write them in the first place?
In 2003, I was going to set up a website to write articles and essays about Robin of Sherwood… it never happened, but I made some notes. Spin forward to 2011, and the Miwk publishing company had been set up, and were looking for books about archive television. I was aware that there was a Robin of Sherwood community, and was amazed that nobody had ever written a book about the series. So I put a pitch together and got in touch with Miwk. I already knew Matt West, who runs the company, and he snapped it up and we soon had two books on our hands!
The approach to doing it was very piecemeal, really. I had in mind the Doctor Who Handbooks from the early 1990s, as they tried to do a bit more than just describe the episodes. Over the years, that kind of analysis of TV programmes had become a lot more involved and detailed, and it seemed ripe to take that approach with Robin of Sherwood. There’s so much you can write about: the medieval stuff, and the Robin Hood legend, but also TV production itself. And, on top of that, I knew there were things like the Robin of Sherwood comic strips in Look-In… there was no information about those anywhere, online or in print.
They need re-printing somewhere…
They’re getting done! Barnaby Eaton-Jones is doing them… has he announced that anywhere?
Oh, great! If he hasn’t, we’ll scoop him…
I think he has! They’re an odd offshoot, because they’re nothing really to do with Robin of Sherwood. The characters have the same images and names, but the stories are very different. They’re not Richard Carpenter’s version of Robin Hood, but they’re interesting, and worth a read – I really like them.
(NB It has been announced – here! And Barnaby’s Spiteful Puppet company has also reunited the original cast for a series of audio dramas – available here)
So you break down every episode in the book, and detail elements of the show’s production – but also look into aspects of the corresponding history, too. Because the historical elements of Robin of Sherwood are pretty accurate, aren’t they?
They are, although an odd thing happens between Series Two and Three! The first couple of series are set in the late 1190s, but Series Three appears to take place in around 1210-1215… but there’s no obvious gap between them, it just seems to shift! But yeah, a lot of the individual events that take place are based on real history. So, for instance, in the episode ‘The King’s Fool’, when Richard I returns from the Crusades, he holds a council in Nottingham. And that actually happened, he came to Nottingham and sold off a lot of noble titles to whoever had the most money. So various Earls either retained their seats, or were kicked out! A lot of the characters in that episode were based on real people.
A lot of research went into this when the series was being written, and I had to unpick that and find out who all these extras in funny costumes actually were. There’s a really great one: it’s such a minor point, but I was over the moon when I found this out. In that episode, in Series One, there’s the Earl of Warwick… and in Series Three he appears again, but it’s his son who has taken over the title. And he’s wearing the same costume! That attention to detail was something that, once I started to unravel it, did change my view of the series. You get a lot more out of it.
And then the other side is that I’m interested in television production in the 1980s: how they actually made the show and the locations they used… all of that gives you a different view of a TV series. I’m a big fan of actually seeing where programmes were shot, because you get a sense of the space, and how those places were turned into a piece of art, if you like. So the balance between writing about both medieval England and 1980s England was an odd one, as they’re not subjects that naturally go together. But the link between the two was made in Robin of Sherwood, and it was fascinating to draw it all together for the books.
You found some wonderful anecdotes, too. Care to regale us with the plot to kidnap Matthew Kelly?
[Laughs] It was almost a success! They were filming around Alnwick, in Northumberland, and sent the cast there on a train. And they all got drunk and went to a hotel. In the same hotel, for some reason, were the team from Game For A Laugh – they were also filming in Northumberland, and at the time it was co-hosted by Matthew Kelly. So I think the Robin cast got drunk one night and thought; “Let’s kidnap Matthew Kelly, and tie him upside down to the door of Alnwick Castle!”
I don’t know how true this is – I’m sure it’s been embellished – but as I understand the story, they broke into his hotel room and saw him running away through the window and escaping over the fields!
Come on, Matthew Kelly might actually be bigger than Clive Mantle. He’d stand his ground.
That is true, but there was a whole group of Merries to contend with…
True! I think this story is in the book as well, but I had the privilege of spending a bit of time with Ian Ogilvy last year, and he was telling me that – when he appeared on the show – he witnessed a formation attack on the catering truck, with the entire main cast stretching out their arms, “flying” past it, and pelting it with eggs while singing the Dambusters theme…
[Laughs] I think it was a very happy production, and everyone seems to say they laughed for the whole three years. There are all sorts of stories like that, they did all sorts of crazy stuff. When Jason Connery started on the series, he was eating his dinner one night and found a piece of gristle, so he left it on the side of his plate. Somebody nicked it, and for weeks afterwards it would turn up… this horrible bit of mangled old gristle appearing in his meals, or in his cup of tea!
The other great story… sorry, I’m just telling you what’s in the book now! They were doing a Series Three story with Richard O’Brien, who wrote The Rocky Horror Picture Show. And Jeremy Sinden was there, too – and, on a cast night out, was telling them all what he’d watched on television the night before. And he said: “Did anyone see that absolutely terrible film last night? What was it called… The Rocky Horror Picture Show?”
So Jason Connery lent over, and said “Actually, Jeremy… Richard was in it…”
He said “Oh, don’t worry old chap – it’s not your fault… it was probably the bloke who wrote it…”
Lots of TV programmes leave a profound effect on the fans, which is certainly the case with Robin of Sherwood, but it also seems to have had a profound effect on the actors themselves. I’ve rarely heard of actors in other TV shows with such a strong bond as the cast of Robin of Sherwood. They all keep in touch, and meet up regularly, don’t they? It’s really touching.
It is. I’ve been at events with the cast, and they all greet each other as if it’s only been five minutes since the last time they met. They all seem like a nice bunch, and they’ve stayed in touch. These days, I’m friends with some of them on Facebook, and they’ll post pictures when they’ve been to each other’s houses: in fact, just today I saw that Clive Mantle and Michael Praed had been on a trip together to the tithe barn where the Nottingham Great Hall scenes were filmed. They were a good group of people who all got on, I think.
I was at a Robin of Sherwood convention in 2006 where Mark Ryan spoke to us all over a speakerphone from the US, as he was over there doing voiceover work. And he was talking about his interest in the Tarot – he’s produced his own set, the Greenwood Tarot. And all of that came from working on Robin of Sherwood. And at the end of the conversation, I swear he started to get a bit emotional, and as we all shouted goodbye, he said “Herne Protect Us”… and he meant it! It was amazing. Genuinely touching.
And you told me about Mark’s autobiography… he’s had an interesting life! [Laughs] And given some of the action-packed things he’s got up to… you wouldn’t necessarily think they’d match with that Pagan aesthetic. But it’s absolutely part of his character. And the others too… they seem to love the series, and love talking about it. Sometimes you go to other conventions, and you know the actors are doing their tenth convention of the year and they’ve seen it all before. But my sense is that Robin Of Sherwood is the happiest convention on the circuit… it feels like a reunion every time. It’s a very unusual way of a TV show surviving. When finished in 1986, I don’t think any of them particularly wanted to stop. They would have kept going if possible. It’s a band of Merry Men.
When you research and write about something in such detail, it can actually put you off your subject a little bit. Do you still love Robin of Sherwood?
I do love it, but the other side is that I haven’t watched it for quite a while! Actually, I watched the first story last month, but it was the first time I’d seen it for a few years. Because I’d seen it in such detail, I just needed a bit of distance from it. But when I was writing the book, the Blu-rays came out… and they reinvigorated my interest, too. It looked so fresh and new. It’s funny, you did an interview recently with Matthew Holness and I noticed he talked about how much he liked shooting on film, rather than digital. It really struck me how much the use of film contributed to the feel of Robin of Sherwood, particularly when I saw the new prints. Film has got a character that lets you connect with a show in a certain way, which I don’t think digital always has.
So I did have to step away from the show, mainly because I was doing other things, but I’ve started to come back to it now, and I think I’m going to watch the rest of the series!
I’m doing the same. I’m just about to start the Jason Connery era.
Which order are you watching them in, Bob? This is important.
I’ve actually discovered today that I’ve done them in the wrong order. I watched them in the order in which they’re presented on the Blu-rays, but as I did so I became convinced that I’d watched the two-parter, ‘The Swords of Wayland’, over Easter Weekend in 1985… mid-way through Series Two. But on the Blu-rays it goes at the end of Series One.
The problem was the original broadcast, rather than the Blu-rays! They were broadcast out of order back in 1985. But the Blu-rays actually put them back into the intended production order. ‘The Swords of Wayland’ was the first episode of Series Two made, but it was put out over Easter. If you’ve got a story about the Devil being resurrected, why wouldn’t you put that out over Easter? [Laughs]
Yes, filmed in an actual church as well…
There was hell on! Literally. So ‘The Enchantment’ would have been Michael Praed’s penultimate episode, but ‘The Swords of Wayland’ was broadcast between that and his final story. So in ‘The Enchantment’ they throw ahead to that final episode, and how ‘The Greatest Enemy’ is coming… but then you have to wait two weeks for it.
And Series Three is a bit of a mess… I devoted an entire chapter of the book to this subject! Jason Connery didn’t shoot his debut episodes first, they wanted to give him time to get into the part. Which is fair enough. Now Clive Mantle had just come offstage from doing Of Mice And Men and he’d had his hair cut short, so they gave him a wig – and he spends those episodes standing behind people with his hand covering his hair! And then they recorded Jason Connery’s episode, ‘Herne’s Son’, third… and Clive Mantle has shorter hair in that, so it looks like he’s had a haircut between series. And then the rest of the season is shuffled out of order, too!
Basically, my advice is to use the order I recommend in the book. It’s on Page 249. [Laughs]
You must be delighted that the books are back in print again, are you? They keep coming back and getting reiussed.
I don’t know how many reprints we’ve had now, but they’ve been through a couple of editions! When the first of the new audio plays came out, we did a revised version of Volume 2, but even that was three years ago now. And there still seems to be a demand for the books! I think that says more about the series than it does about my writing… [Laughs] But yeah, they’ve had a very good response, and I’m pleased they’re still going.
Nothing is forgotten, Andrew. Nothing is ever forgotten. Hooded Man Vol 1 is available here:
And Vol 2 here: