Note: this is a minor reworking of a review I originally published on rpg.net in August 2003.
“Nothing is forgotten. Nothing’s ever forgotten.”
Robin of Sherwood is, for many people of a certain age, the definitive modern version of the Robin Hood legend. Moody, atmospheric, superbly written and acted, with a haunting soundtrack by Clannad (later released as the album Legend), it was the inspiration for a generation of British fantasy roleplayers. Dave Morris and Oliver Johnson’s RPG Dragon Warriors (Corgi, 1985; Serpent King Games, 2011), for instance, owes much of its atmosphere to the series (or perhaps it was the zeitgeist of the times), and Graham Staplehurst’s Robin Hood: The Role Playing Campaign (ICE, 1987) is Robin of Sherwood with the serial numbers filed off.
The Region 2 DVDs (UK and Europe) were released 2002 in four boxed sets. In 2003, Network Videos released a limited edition (1,500 copies) Region 1 (USA, Canada, Japan) boxed set of 8 DVDs containing all three series. The complete series was re-released on DVD in 2010 and is available from Amazon.co.uk. In 2012 it was re-released in two Blu-Ray sets, one covering the two six-episode Michael Praed seasons, the other covering the 12-episode Jason Connery season.
The first series of Robin of Sherwood sneaked onto British TV screens in 1983. It was something of a “builder”, as the movie moguls say. With the young, handsome Robin of Loxley (Michael Praed) leading his small band of young Saxon outlaws against the nasty Normans to a backdrop of pseudo-Celtic mysticism, pagan deities and beautifully filmed greenwood, it quickly began to capture the imagination of those who saw it – especially those of us who played FRPs.
The show is set, as are most 20th century retellings of the legend, in the reign of
Richard the Lionheart. The first series ends with Richard’s return from captivity after the Crusades (1194); the second is set in the late 1190s, and the third in the reign of King John. No, the characters don’t get any older – don’t ask, or you’ll spoil the magic. And the magic is what makes this series so special, so endearing and so enduring.
For although Robin of Sherwood has its feet firmly rooted in solid medieval history – we see feudal relationships in action, governmental bureaucracy at work, peasants tilling the soil and craftsmen making their wares – its head is in the clouds. There are witches, evil sorcerers, Satanists and mysterious Saracens. Robin himself is the “Hooded Man”, chosen champion of Herne the Hunter, presented as a benign pagan deity of the wildwoods.
To blend such diverse elements together could so easily have gone wrong – you only need look at Costner’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves or, worse, the glam-rock of The New Adventures of Robin Hood to see how badly it can go.
That Robin of Sherwood succeeded is a tribute to the skill of writer, cast and crew. Somehow, despite its fantasy elements, it produced something earthy and captivating. Not history, nor fantasy, but a kind of “mystic history”.
The acting from the young cast – Praed and the outlaws were all in their early-20s when the show was made – is excellent. It has constantly amazed me that their subsequent careers have not made them better known – though, like many British actors, most seem to have concentrated on stage work. Praed himself had a guest role in Dynasty, and a large part in a Brit mini-series, Riders, which was complete tosh. Mark Ryan (Nasir) was a fight arranger for First Knight and King Arthur and was the voice of Bumblebee in the Transformers movies; the late Robert Addie (Guy of Gisburn) was Mordred in Excalibur; Clive Mantle (Little John), became a British TV icon with his role as Dr Mike Barrett in the long-running medical drama Casualty (and its spinoff, Holby City), and recently moved up from Little John to a cameo as Greatjon in the first season of HBO’s Game of Thrones; only Ray Winstone (Will Scarlet) has really made a name for himself, with a string of critically acclaimed British gangster movies and the occasional Hollywood role (Face, Nil by Mouth, Sexy Beast, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and others).
One of the most endearing features of the series is the group dynamics between the outlaws. Because the group is small (seven, including Robin – about the size of the average gaming group), each gets their chance to shine. The characters are wonderfully drawn – Scarlet, the perpetually angry, near-psychotic killer; Little John, the earthy, independent and affable giant; Much, the simpleton who hero-worships Robin; Nasir, the silent, efficient Saracen assassin; Tuck, the gentle, loving monk; Marion, the fragile beauty with a will of steel and the guts to match. Sparks fly as they establish their relationships with each other.
The relationships within the other main group, the three staple baddies – the Sheriff of Nottingham (Nickolas Grace), Guy of Gisburn (Robert Addie) and Abbot Hugo (Philip Jackson) – is also explored: the sour bile between the Sheriff and the Abbot, brothers who between them hold all secular and religious power in Nottingham, yet are constant rivals; the snide, witty bullying of Gisburn by the Sheriff; Gisburn’s sneaky, underhand attempts to get his own back. Much time and energy is spent making these perpetual baddies into three-dimensional villains we love to hate. And just as you start to feel sorry for Gisburn as he endures another round of bullying from the Sheriff, he’ll go off and murder a peasant.
Most of the episodes follow a fairly standard pattern. The outlaws and the Sheriff are, naturally enough, at odds with each other, and there’s invariably a third force to spark the particular story — it might be something the outlaws must deal with (a plea for help, a new baddie), or something the Sheriff or Gisburn must handle (new orders from the King, another baddie or, in one case, the Sheriff’s upcoming nuptials – “Are you trying to be funny, Gisburn? Stop cheering. It’s a wedding, not a celebration.”)
At the risk of being long-winded, I’d like to pick out a handful of episodes of particular note.
Robin Hood and the Sorcerer was the original double-length pilot episode. Its production is a little shaky, but it manages to assemble the outlaws together and set the tone for all subsequent episodes. Gisburn catches Robin and Much poaching and throws them into the dungeons, where they meet Will Scarlet. During the breakout, Robin catches his first glimpse of the Sheriff’s ward, Lady Marion. Meanwhile Baron Simon de Belleme, a truly nasty individual with mystical powers, comes to visit the Sheriff, bringing with him his charmed “familiar”, John Little, and his bodyguard, the assassin Nasir. De Belleme seeks a virgin to sacrifice, and Marion looks choice. During the subsequent shenanigans Robin assembles his gang, gets adopted by Herne the Hunter and, of course, rescues Marion.
The King’s Fool closes Series 1, when Richard the Lionheart (the wonderful John Rhys Davies – Saleh in Raiders of the Lost Ark, Gimli in LotR) comes to Sherwood to recruit Robin for his wars in France. Robin’s blind faith in the King’s justice and honour is slowly eroded as Richard auctions off royal offices and pardons to the highest bidder – including the Sheriff, the Abbot and Gisburn. Slowly the outlaws desert him and return to Sherwood. Robin is left sadder, but wiser. The nice thing about this episode is that it’s solidly built on real history – the auction of offices at Nottingham really did take place, and much as presented by the show. I do enjoy it when real historical events slip into historical fiction.
The Children of Israel (Series 2) has the Sheriff arranging a massacre of Nottingham’s Jews in order to avoid paying a debt to a moneylender, who happens to be a master of the Kabbalah. Gisburn, finally fed up with the Sheriff’s bullying, falls for the moneylender’s daughter and helps her family escape. Meanwhile Scarlet and Robin have a serious disagreement, which results in Will leaving the outlaws. An interesting episode, which explores racism and faith, and adds a new tension into the relationship between Robin and Will.
Herne’s Son (double episode, Series 3). With Robin of Loxley missing, presumed dead, Herne chooses a new Hooded Man, the Norman nobleman Robert of Huntingdon (Jason Connery – Sean Connery’s son). In order to rescue Lady Marion from an unwilling marriage, he must assemble Loxley’s old gang, which isn’t easy since they’re scattered to the four corners of Britain and have a major distrust of Norman nobles. Cue new round of group dynamics as Robert tries to win the outlaws’ faith and trust. The episode also introduces a new baddie, the sorcerer Gulnar (Richard O’Brien – Rocky Horror Picture Show, Dark City, Dungeons & Dragons) who keeps appearing every now and again for the rest of the series. Though the change in leads was forced on the writer by Praed’s departure for the USA, it was a particularly cool way of blending two strands of the Robin Hood legend – the peasant champion and the disinherited nobleman – into one show.
If all this sounds like the demented ravings of a passionate fan-boy, well, it is. Robin of Sherwood had a profound influence on my gaming, with a mood and atmosphere I still strive for in the games I run. I firmly believe it has a place on the shelf of every fantasy gamer. It does for fantasy games what Firefly later did for science fiction, and for much the same reasons: a small band of characters, each wonderfully drawn, sharp dialogue and an innovative setting.
Extra features on the DVDs include “making of” documentaries, featuring modern interviews with writer, producer and cast members, and commentaries on selected episodes, which are worth listening to for tips on story-telling techniques, and selections of out-takes, which range from the dull to the absolutely hilarious.
Bonus geek trivia: Jeremy Bulloch, who played Edward of Wickham, the outlaws’ main ‘civilian’ ally in Robin of Sherwood, also played Boba Fett in the original Star Wars trilogy.
Gaming Robin of Sherwood
Two official Robin of Sherwood gamebooks, of the choose your own adventure type with simple game mechanics, were published in the 1980s (The King’s Demon, by Graham Staplehurst is pictured above).
If you want to run a roleplaying campaign inspired by the series, you’ll want some setting material and a suitable rules system.
If you’re looking for good setting material aimed at gamers, the two best (in my opinion) are Edwin King’s Lionheart, published by Columbia Games Inc, and Graham Staplehurst’s Robin Hood, published by ICE. Both are out of print but can be found on the second-hand market. Staplehurst wrote at least one of the official RoS game books, and his Robin Hood basically files off the serial numbers (Herne is replaced by the Green Man, for instance). It’s an atmospheric, evocative book – highly recommended.
If you’re looking for historical material, I’d recommend Robert Bartlett’s England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings, 1070-1225 (New Oxford History of England, 2000) for a general overview of the period. JT Appleby’s England Without Richard (G. Bell and Sons, 1965) is a little dated, but offers a detailed year-by-year description of events in England and Normandy from 1189 to 1199.
Then you’ll need to choose a rule system. If you want to go rules light, with plenty of fantasy elements, Dragon Warriors is a good choice. The reprints by Serpent King Games are available on DrivethruRPG in PDF and print on demand. Maelstrom Domesday, by Arion Games, is another good rules-light choice, where magic and the supernatural remains mysterious. FUDGE, by Steffan O’Sullivan is a good rules-light generic system that works will in many situations; you can get it in PDF for free in electronic versions or find a printed version from Grey Ghost Press. FATE, built off the FUDGE engine by Evil Hat Productions, could also work well.
If you’re looking for something crunchier, I’d recommend either HârnMaster 3rd edition (Columbia Games) or Hârnmaster Gold (Keléstia Productions), or Chivalry & Sorcery 5th Edition, by Brittannia Game Designs. I’ll admit bias towards C&S. I was part of the design team for the latest edition; both myself and lead designer Steve Turner are Robin of Sherwood fans as well as keen medievalists, so it’s designed with something of an RoS flavour in mind.