Chris Rogers | Writer on architecture and visual culture
In 1984 the British terrestrial commercial channel ITV launched Robin of Sherwood, writer Richard Carpenter’s revision of an old English legend for a new era. Gritty, shot mostly on location and laced with mysticism, it was explicitly intended to demolish the ‘studio’ imagery and clichéd characterisation of earlier incarnations – especially those of Hollywood – and quickly became a popular success. That the series was an early co-production with an American channel thanks to producers Paul Knight and Sidney Cole is therefore something of an irony. Originally an actor, Carpenter had straddled crime and fantasy in his choice of roles and retained that balance when he turned to scripting; he created The Ghosts of Motley Hall (1976–1978) and Dick Turpin (1979–1982), both well-received and -remembered by the same generation of viewers, before tackling England’s legendary outlaw.
For this new project he took a radical approach, converting the pantomime ‘Robin and his Merrie Men’ into a rural guerrilla group who kill. The hero is now named Robin of Loxley, the Hooded Man, rebellious and accessibly handsome. His lover is the teenage Lady (never ‘Maid’) Marion of Leaford, given agency and a sword. Will Scarlet took that surname after revenging the rape and murder of his wife; Brother (‘Friar’ only in the cast list) Tuck was shrewd rather than bumbling; John Little had his own traumatic past. Yes, the Sheriff of Nottingham and his enforcer Guy of Gisburne were enthusiastic in their villainy rather than effective but were also positioned as foreign noblemen bored with occupying a backward country.
Casting new, young actors in the main helped sell this fresh interpretation and indeed sustain it through three series and a change of lead actor. Although Anthony Horowitz and others took over as writers for most of the final series, a consistent approach was nevertheless maintained through Carpenter acting as showrunner. A high budget assisted the overall effort and ground-breaking music by Irish folk group Clannad, blending traditional and electronic sounds, brought a musical identity strong enough to warrant a commercial release for the soundtrack.
It is the programme’s visual qualities though that stand out. Shooting exclusively on 16mm film for exteriors and interiors alike positioned the episodes alongside prestige period or contemporary dramas of the time; softening the focus helped the audience enter an invented but realistic past where the woodland of Sherwood Forest was naturally prominent. Villages were created with timber, canvass and ‘greens’, inherent production value derived from intelligent use of castles and other heritage venues in Wales, the west country and the north east. The ruined nature of many of these was either exploited or disguised according to need. Where sets were required for better control, effort and funding was expended to mask the fact, as with the Sherriff’s domain at Nottingham castle. In all cases smoke, animals and background artists contributed to the simulation of mediaeval life.
Importantly almost no visual effects were employed, despite frequent injections of the supernatural into the narrative. The technology of the day would not have made this affordable even if it were technically possible, but it was also a deliberate choice to not detract from the essential grounding of the stories in the everyday. The magical appearances of Herne the Hunter and black sorcery of the Baron de Belleme were thus achieved the traditional way, with physical gags, crash zooms, editing and the careful use of lighting and coloured lens filters.
Particularly notable amidst all this is the unacknowledged though evident influence of Victorian painters on the costumes, props and even specific scenes.
This should not surprise as the series' makers were exploring similar ideas and settings as the artists, involving events at the turn of the 13th century and a figure as present in shared cultural memory as King Arthur, the protagonist of England’s origin story (which had itself received equivalent redefinition in John Boorman’s Excalibur three years before and contributes to one episode).
Much British art in the second half of the 19th century was deeply rooted in the nation’s geography and stories, and executed – famously, in the case of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and its circle – with precise attention to nature. The smaller number of painters who cleaved to the Symbolist movement, which flowered briefly at the very end of that century, exchanged this authenticity for depictions of psychological mood with a necessarily looser technique. Both produced what might be called the romance of reality, and the directors, cinematographers and production designers who worked on the series took the same approach.
The result is a series of moments, woven into the language of the programme, that echo the work of those visual pioneers who had come before.
Posted 20 November 2020
The art at the heart of Robin of Sherwood
Marion, in a plain and simple dress that belies her wealth, connotes directness and modesty; John Millais’s Mariana yearns for her lover yet appears imprisoned by fate. Although their trajectories are divergent, they share some traits – wilfulness, desire for another, a background of some privilege – and their depictions employ near-identical colours, setting and mood.
Herne marries Robin and Marian in Sherwood amidst the flowers of spring, connecting each to the other and to the forest. The look is that conjured by John William Waterhouse for his Ophelia, a startingly modern composition whose dreamlike state and French-influenced paint handling anticipates the diffuse focus employed by the series in a medium far in the future.
In raiment green, the outlaw faces the future with true love to one side and sharp steel to the other. In Arthur Hacker’s The Temptation of Sir Percival the eponymous knight finds his own destiny – the seeking of the Holy Grail – clouded by lust as the devil takes the form of a woman. His sword, too, stands ready; here, though, its very shape will be enough to repel this enemy.
Herne appears in the forest, strongly backlit and intimidating, yet this is a mere costume whose stag’s head he often removes to converse with Robin more intimately. The duality of a human form with liminal, dreamlike qualities is caught in Night by Edward Burne-Jones; younger than the original Pre-Raphaelites but allied to the movement, his later work shaded into Symbolism.