Background: For all of our advances in story telling, including the written word, radio, television, and other technological marvels, the basics of what makes for a good story have not truly changed in the thousands of years we've had the means to communicate them. When you dissect the plots of virtually every current episode of television shows or movies, you'll find a remarkable similarity to a limited number of themes that have circulated repeatedly over the years (admittedly dressed up with better special effects, music, and other factors to make them "look" new). One of the tried and true ideas popular throughout the years have been the adventures of a band of righteous thieves bucking injustices under a plethora of names involving a fictional character named Robin Hood. Having watched scores of fictional accounts centering on the guy over the last 40+ years, I have always liked the idea behind him more than the each of the movies or shows I've watched. One of the best, if not THE best that I've been able to watch was a foreign series from England (appropriately enough, the home of the legend behind the character) that came over on the Showtime premium cable channel years ago, called Robin of Sherwood, the subject of today's review.
Series: Robin of Sherwood: Set 1 was the brainchild of Richard Carpenter, kin to the movie making genius that so many fans have appreciated over the years. No less talented, he set up in the late 1970's and early 80's to revisit the fictional character of Robin Hood from his own childhood dreams, first having spent significant time researching the roots of the legend (which dated back the better part of 1000 years). Paring down all the tacked on silliness that has been associated with the character over the years (most horribly handled in the Kevin Costner flick from the 1990's that managed to "borrow" portions of the ideas from the series but only sparingly to it's discredit), Carpenter had the show shot in the actual forests of England, even going so far as to move the locations to areas where the trees were similar to those native to the time frame of the events. Weaving in bits of myth and history far more carefully than previously done, he and the rest of the creative team managed to instill a realness to the show that surpassed the low budgets with a sense of charm all its own. In doing so, they made a show that is still loved and appreciated over twenty years later as the "real" Robin Hood to a great many people, admittedly due to the way the cast fit so perfectly into their assigned roles.
Led by Michael Praed as Robin of Loxly, a commoner dispossessed of his village by evil practices by the feudal system as a child, the ensemble cast of outlaws began after a brief set up by breaking out of jail together. Unlike the expansive tales of other versions, there were only a small band of followers here, probably as much to do with the budget as anything else but certainly more real in the sense of living in the haunted forests of Sherwood. Robin led Little John, Will Scarlett, Much and others into the safety of the forest while chased by the Sheriff of Nottingham's (Nickolas Grace) thugs, including heavy Sir Guy of Gisburne (Robert Addie) who played the straight arrow but dumb as a stump henchman for the appointed sheriff. As the story progresses, the band is joined by Friar Tuck and Maid Marion, each providing perfect portrayals of the characters as written. Another major difference this time was the emphasis on the pagan god Herne the Hunter; the magic of whom flows through Robin to elevate his skill level with a bow as he seeks justice against the unfair policies of the sheriff and the castle lord Prince John (the sheriff's brother). Herne plays a small but vital role in the series with numerous mythological references as a result.
As one would expect from a weekly series, the episodes all started out using the same basic premise, the sheriff or his brother would come up with a wickedly evil scheme and after nearly catching Robin, the outlaws would foil the plot using the kind of cleverness the woodsmen were known for. This is a bit simplified of course but largely true with the characters remaining true to the roots of their legends and the buffoonery by the bad guys a bit over acted but enjoyable nonetheless. On another positive note, rumors that the soundtrack score by Clannad being replaced due to copyright issues proved to be unfounded as the original pieces all seemed to be intact when I listened to the show (a pleasant change from some of the other older series on DVD). There were only 13 episodes (technically, 11 with two of them being two-parters) to this two season set and while I wished it included the third season (that starred Jason Connery as the hooded thief), it was a nice set compared to the region 2 versions that came out some time ago (splitting the seasons into multiple volumes).
For me, the idea of stealing from the rich and giving to the poor was less appealing than the idea that the band fought against the tyranny of the times; a feudal system where people were essentially owned by the lords that owned the lands, said people not having any rights or access to due process as later developed. The majority of people had no say in what they did for a living, how they lived their lives, or who would represent them; arguably ongoing themes throughout history that forced change upon the powerful. This particular version of the series was a bit heavy on the magic parts for me, obscure magic at that, but the mood and mystery that resulted were substantially better than the fluff versions we've grown accustomed to over the years and as a result, I think a lot of fans are going to be happy with this released version of the series. I'm rating it as Recommended but fans of the series will undoubtedly appreciate being able to obtain a legal version of the first two seasons (the third to come out soon) full of extras and in such good shape to the point where they'll be raving for days on end.
1) Robin Hood and the Sorcerer Pt 1 (April 28, 1984)
2) Robin Hood and the Sorcerer Pt 2 (April 28, 1984)
3) The Witch of Elsdon (May 5, 1984)
4) Seven Poor Knights From Acre (May 12, 1984)
5) Alan A Dale (May 19, 1984)
6) The King's Fool (May 26, 1984)
7) The Prophecy (March 9, 1985)
8) The Children of Israel (March 16, 1985)
9) Lord of the Trees (March 23, 1985)
10) The Enchantment (March 30, 1985)
11) The Swords of Wayland Pt 1 (April 6, 1985)
12) The Swords of Wayland Pt 2 (April 6, 1985)
13) The Greatest Enemy (April 13, 1985)
Picture: Robin of Sherwood: Set 1 was presented in the usual 1.33:1 ratio full frame color as originally shot on film in the forests of England back in the early to mid 1980's. I was never that impressed with the way the show looked on Showtime, always looking washed out and grainy as it was, but this version did appear to be cleaned up a bit more than expected (it might not have been handed over to Criterion for a frame by frame restoration but one wouldn't expect the sales to warrant such an act in the first place). There was some grain and light amounts of video noise on occasion but even on my expansive television set (a far cry from what I watched the show on originally) it looked better. There were some issues with focus looking kind of soft and some of the special effects were purposefully trying to go for an effect that didn't always work but I had to agree with the cover that this was "the definitive retelling of the Robin Hood legend".
Sound: The audio was presented in a 2.0 Dolby Digital as the box cover stated. I didn't hear any separation between the sounds and to the best of my knowledge; it was shot in monaural so I didn't expect they'd remastered the audio track with the original elements (if they even captured it as such). Still, it was relatively clean and the original music by Clannad was thankfully in place. It sounded authentic and the audio elements used to make the show what it became all seemed fitting, if not exactly in brand spanking new form. Television on DVD, especially older shows, are simply not going to sound as good as newer material done properly so this is to be expected but it wasn't bad sounding; just limited by the budget and technology of the time.
Extras: Okay, I've grown so used to bare bone TV on DVD releases of late, especially on older shows (where the cast and crew have often died off, won't contribute without getting an arm and a leg, or have simply moved on) that I don't expect a lot. How many twenty year old shows made on a budget are going to get the kind of treatment that fans demand these days too? Well, this was a surprising exception to the rule for me. Aside from the five disc set, the cast filmographies, the US, textless, & French credit sequences, and obligatory Blooper Reel (which started by showing text to the effect that much of it looked or sounded bad because it was discarded footage), there were some really interesting audio commentaries. Series creator Richard Carpenter (I knew one of those in "NEW" England) and director Ian Sharp started those off in the first episodes, continued in The King's Fools, and then Carpenter was joined by producer Paul Knight for the lengthy The Swords of Wayland episodes. In each, it was clear that they not only remembered much of what took place (adding in lots of anecdotes along the way) but cherished their roles in making a series they really wanted to make. I think the fans will have heard at least some of it before but it was new to me and added some insight to some of the material I was watching. There was also a documentary show from the BBC called The Electric Theatre Show that looked at the opening episodes in a different way. Granted, that footage looked really dated, especially the deleted footage that never aired, but it served as a time capsule of the program from when it was first being shot (before it aired so there was no outside influence to glossy it up). There were also two retrospective documentaries that were shot earlier in the 2000's for what I presume to be the original releases on DVD in region 2; gathering together a lot of footage of the cast and crew with clips to discuss their roles, the show, and the events surrounding the making of the show (lead Michael Praed sure seemed to acknowledge what a mistake it was leaving at the end of season 22).
Final Thoughts: Robin of Sherwood: Set 1 was a lot of fun to watch after all these years, especially in unedited versions that didn't go to commercial break as they used to on the USA Network(?) and lost footage as a result. I only saw a handful of episodes when it aired on Showtime so this was the best way for me to enjoy the show; in the order they were meant to be shown, without cuts, and looking/sounding as nicely as they ever did when broadcast. The extras added in on the fun, with some of the silly humor of the cast (on the dry side admittedly) making it all worth your time to appreciate, even as the larger themes the show tackled are still relevant a thousand years later. Check it out and you'll see what I mean for those of you into British TV shows that don't get too stuffy (now, if only they'd release Blake's Seven...).