Sunday, 17 June 2012

The Adventures of Robin Hood 1.1-4 (1955)

A few years ago I watched the Michael Eaton BBC/HBO telefilm Fellow Traveller. At times langorously reflective but at others nailbitingly pensive, it starred Ron Silver as Asa Kaufmann, a blacklisted Hollywood writer working in 1950s Britain on a film adventure series for television, patently Sapphire Films‘s The Adventures of Robin Hood (1955-1960). I’d not seen very much of The Adventures of Robin Hood itself, bar catching the odd episode on satellite channel Bravo in its ITC back catalogue phase, but watched the first four episodes last night. All were written or co-written by Eric Heath, a pseudonym for Ring Lardner Jr., one of the ‘Hollywood Ten’ sacked from their studio positions in 1947 following their refusal to confirm or deny their present or sometime membership of the Communist Party before the House (of Representatives) Un-American Activities Committee.

Richard Greene is a reliable Robin, somewhat heavy-set by the standards of Flynn, Praed, Connery (J.) or Armstrong, but this physical solidity is used to underscore his moral integrity. Found sick by a pilgrim at the gates of Jerusalem, and nursed back to health before returning to Nottinghamshire to claim his estate, this knight back from the dead is sick of killing, but finds himself in an England where he is told by an ailing old retainer that the law has been reduced to the rule kill or be killed. Robin’s enemies are killed only when they attack, or die when their own plans turn against them. The centre of villainy is the Sheriff of Nottingham, played with calculated coldness by Alan Wheatley, but more often than not Robin and his outlaw band fight his faceless, helmeted soldiers. Presumably they can be discounted as collaborators, who have surrendered their humanity to become automata in the service of the Norman lords, or adopted their materialist value system.

Robin is egalitarian: he wants to wait his turn when told he can jump the queue and see the Sheriff, after first having been told to wait in line by a jobsworth clerk who thinks returning soldiers expect preferential treatment, which must have elicited nods of identification from many viewers. He abandons his aristocratic identity when among the outlaws in Sherwood and claims no automatic authority. On robbing the moneylender Herbert of Doncaster, Robin and his aide of the first two episodes, Alfie Bass as Edgar, carefully go through Herbert's accounts to return excessive interest payments to poor villagers. Robin rises to succeed Will Scathlock as leader of the Sherwood outlaws on grounds of intelligence and the inspiration of his redistributivist, compassionate message. It is not for nothing that at Scathlock's death Robin breaks the outlaw chief's sword and places the stump of the blade and its hilt on his chest as a funeral cross, and Robin's friar's outfit in 'Friar Tuck' is perhaps not just a disguise.

The world of the Sapphire Robin Hood is on first acquaintance a masculine one, where women are motherly figures or else sycophantic adornments. This changes with the third episode, which includes a brief glance of Marion and establishes that she has turned down all proposals of marriage, most of them from the Sheriff, as well as introduces the semi-regular character of Joan, barmaid at the Blue Boar Inn where the enforcers of the regime loosen their tongues. The first female guest star in the episode is the Countess of Bedford, who exists to demonstrate aristocratic decadence and the racialism of her husband the Earl of Bedford, who disparages his wife (who resists his caresses) as a ‘Latin’. While attempting to co-opt Little John's physical vigour in the service of his own feeble sexuality, the Earl justifies his treatment of Little John as a chattel by boasting of Norman intellectual superiority to Saxon stock, in a scene with echoes of the American slave market as well as the racial policies of the Third Reich. Strong stuff, perhaps, for a series broadcast by a US network as well as by ITV in the UK, even if it was innocuously placed in early-evening children‘s/family viewing. Uncomplicated stories of good and evil they may be, as The Times remembered on Richard Greene's death, but it is these political notes which sound the series’ moral chorus.

There is fun recognising actors in guest roles. Leo McKern appears in two different parts in two consecutive episodes, one a rapacious but self-satisfied Norman lord who has stolen Robin's estate, the other the cruel but bumbling moneylender Herbert. This is nothing given the doubling-up by other performers within the same episodes, with some actors appearing among the outlaws and the Sheriff’s men almost simultaneously. Leslie Phillips appears in the fourth episode, ‘Friar Tuck’, as the curiously-named Sir William of Malmesbury - approximately anticipating the 'Geoffrey of Monmouth' of the latterday BBC/Shine Merlin. Phillips makes the most of his role as a young member of the foppish ruling elite whose passion for his intended bride, Mildred, runs less deep than hers for her blacksmith lover. The intended bride herself is introduced in jerkin and hose and knocks Robin out with a bottle, mistaking her protector Friar Tuck's satisfaction with his credentials.

Robin awakes to find Mildred changing into feminine attire, represented first by the camera focusing on her hose-clad hips as she removes the jerkin, and then her calf being revealed from beneath her stocking as a frilled petticoat falls to cover it. Richard Greene's face expresses the alarm of a serious adolescent who doesn't want to acknowledge the existence of that, and he pretends to be asleep. Sadly with her masculine outfit goes Mildred's assertiveness and she has some particularly fragile dialogue. Nevertheless after nearly fifty-seven years the first few episodes of The Adventures of Robin Hood remain spirited entertainment on their own terms as well as capsules of the preoccupations of North Atlantic popular culture in the 1950s.


  1. Here via your Eric Sykes link on LJ, but I wondered if you'd ever come across Adam Thorpe's "Hodd" - a revisionist take on the Robin legend with particular emphasis on the narrator's feelings of guilt that he helped to elevate a thoroughly nasty piece of work into a folk hero?

    1. No, I'd not come across it - I've just skimmed M. John Harrison's review at The Guardian, and it looks very much worth looking up.