Wednesday, 13 July 2016
The Hooded Man cometh (again)
After claiming I rarely write reviews, I now find myself writing two in a row. This one is for Robin Hood and the Knights of the Apocalypse, a brand-new audio episode of Robin of Sherwood. For those who don't know, RoS (to use a convenient acronym) was a British TV series back in the 80s that offered a very different take on the legend of Robin Hood. More realistic in some ways - the outlaws were a convincing bunch of roughnecks living inside a damp English forest, a world away from the sun-drenched Californian redwoods of the 1938 Errol Flynn flick - it was also the first screen version of the tale to introduce pagan elements. Unlike the devout Catholic outlaw of the medieval ballads, this Robin served Herne the Hunter, an ancient spirit of the forest, and took on the guise of The Hooded Man in the fight against Norman oppression.
For many Robin of Sherwood is *the* definitive screen version of the tale, and certain elements have influenced almost every version since: for instance, it was the first to introduce the idea of a deadly Saracen warrior among Robin's band of freedom fighters. This notion was picked up - or ripped off, to be unkind - and recycled in Kevin Costner's Prince of Thieves (1991) and the more recent BBC Robin Hood (2006-09). Alan Rickman's notoriously over-the-top turn as the evil Sheriff of Nottingham also owed much to Nickolas Grace's villainous Sheriff in RoS, though for my money Grace's performance was far more subtle and interesting.
So to Robin Hood and the KOTA. Before I go any further, I should acknowledge the huge degree of love and care and effort that went into this project. It was no mean feat on the part of Barnaby Eaton-Jones and his friends at Spiteful Puppet to gather all the surviving cast, raise the money needed to fund the recording (via crowdfunding), as well as hack through the legal jungle simply to persuade ITV (who own the rights to the series) to allow the project to go ahead. Also worth mentioning is that all the money raised from sales of the recording will go to charity.
Now for the difficult bit. I'm a fan of the original show - though nowhere near as devoted or knowledgeable as many fans - and my expectations for the actual quality of the new episode were modest. Granted, Spiteful Puppet were using a leftover script by the show's creator and original screenwriter, the late Richard Carpenter, but after thirty years could they really hope to recapture the magic? Early reviews were extremely positive, bordering on the ecstatic, so my hopes were raised a little.
After listening to KOTA twice, I have to say my reaction is mixed. It's not the car crash I was dreading, far from it, but nor does it come anywhere close to the heights of the first two seasons of RoS. Part of the problem is the awkwardness of fitting a script intended for a feature-length screen film into audio format. The action scenes in particular suffer, though the producers did their best by adding swishing arrows, clanging swords, galloping hoofs etc. None of these studio tricks, impressive as they are - and KOTA is very well produced - can suppress the unintentional comedy of actors describing the action as it happens: "my sword is at your neck," Nasir grimly informs a defeated opponent at one point. Unless he's fighting a blind man, his opponent would presumably know that already.
Such criticism is perhaps unfair, since the only remedy would be to cut out the action scenes altogether. Sadly there are other issues. The script itself is derivative of earlier TV episodes, and at times comes across like an edited highlights package: Robin is once again captured by insane cultists, as he was in The Time of the Wolf, and once again has to fight a manifested demon, as he did in The Swords of Wayland (though to be fair that was Robin of Loxley, rather than his successor Robert of Huntingdon). Some of the dialogue is very clunky by Carpenter's standards, and the banter between the Merries largely falls flat. Little John and Will Scarlet, played by Clive Mantle and Ray Winstone, are given some deeply unfunny jokes to work with, while the clumsy dialogue is not helped by a hefty slice of ham acting. Colin Baker is far too shrill as the villain Gerard de Ridefort, which makes his character come across as a dull, pompous buffoon. Fortunately Anthony Head rescues the situation with a nicely understated performance as the chief villain, Guichard de Montbalm, though even he occasionally breaks into some startling Dr Evil-style peals of maniacal laughter.
Elsewhere the cast suffers from one unavoidable omission. The late Robert Addie, so memorable as the Sheriff's blustering right-hand man Guy of Gisburne, was replaced by Freddie Fox. Fox is by no means bad as Guy, and has a certain sneering menace all of his own, but he sounds nothing at all like Addie. The difference jars, at least to my ears, and it might have been a better idea to omit Guy altogether and invent a new character for Fox. Nickolas Grace as the Sheriff initially sounds uncertain, as though he struggled to re-inhabit a character left behind thirty years ago (he isn't alone in this) but by the end of the episode he's back to his best, coldly informing the wounded Guy that he 'was never any good' and leaving him to bleed.
In case all this negativity sounds depressing or infuriating, I should point out some good bits. Jason Connery is very good as Robert of Huntingdon, and perhaps gives his best performance in the role. Connery's performance in the old series still divides opinion among fans, some of whom maintain he was too young and callow for the part and not a patch on his predecessor, Michael Praed. Now, three decades on, his voice has a deeper timbre and he carries it with more authority. At times he comes across like an exasperated staff officer, curtly snapping orders at the Merries, which makes him less charming but more realistic: Robert is supposed to be a young nobleman turned outlaw in charge of a bunch of unruly wolfsheads, not all of whom welcomed his leadership at first.
Robert's relationship with Marion is kept firmly in the background, perhaps wisely since the slightly unconvincing nature of it was one of the problems of the show. However this undercuts the big dramatic moment at the end of the third season when a heartbroken Marion, thinking Robert was dead, chose to go into a convent. Her decision to come out again and rejoin him in Sherwood is dealt with in just a couple of passing lines, which is a bit of a letdown - at least for those of who enjoy wallowing in melodrama (as I do).
A mention should also go to Mark Ryan as Nasir. The brooding Nasir was given hardly any lines in the original show, but here he is almost chatty and surprisingly engaging. His brief monologue with a bird in a tree, turning to rage when the birds are all frightened away by de Ridefort, is one of the best moments. Phil Rose as Friar Tuck gets a nice scene where he baptises infants in defiance of the Interdict, but otherwise has little to do except a few fat jokes.
Another nice feature is an enlarged role for Michael Craig as Robert's father, the Earl of Huntingdon. At one point the earl is called David, pretty much confirming that he is supposed to be the historical David of Huntingdon (1144-1219), brother to a King of Scotland. This in turn makes Robert an immensely powerful man if he wants to be, not only the heir to an earldom but with a decent claim to the Scottish throne. Disappointingly - at least for a history nerd like me - little is ever made of these connections, or the potentially fascinating narrative arc. As earl, with money and power and soldiers and a king for an ally, Robert would stand a far better chance of defeating injustice and curbing the excesses of King John. Instead he chooses to wander back to Sherwood and spend his days mooning over Marion and listening to some laddish banter. Oh well.
Despite my many criticisms of KOTA, it did leave me wanting more. There is life in this old dog (or wolfshead) yet, and plenty more scope for further adventures. Further audio episodes, provided the demand exists for them, would actually be written for audio and thus remove the problems of retro-fitting a screenplay. I see no reason why a team of able writers, steeped in RoS lore, couldn't produce quality scripts that would do the story justice and bring it to an intelligent conclusion. Now we just need to find an eccentric millionaire or two to fund it...