Reiver

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...










Friday, 8 July 2016

Henry IV

Book reviews generally aren't my forte, but I've just finished reading a new biography of Henry IV by Chris Given-Wilson, professor of Medieval History at the University of Saint Andrews. The book is excellent, if very detailed and extensive and perhaps not for a casual reader, so I thought I would try my hand at a review.


Henry IV is one of those kings that failed to capture the popular imagination. Sandwiched between his flamboyant cousin Richard II and famous son Henry V, he tends to get treated as a mediocre stopgap. His relatively short reign of 14 years was enlivened by the Glyn Dwr revolt and dynamic personalities such as Harry 'Hotspur' and the dashing Prince Hal, but Henry himself remains firmly in the background, a stolid, uninteresting figure of limited ability whose main achievement in life was to father a hero.

Chris Given-Wilson's exhaustive biography of Henry should go a long way to changing this perception. Academic but accessible, Given-Wilson gives a roughly chronological account of the reign and provides detailed analysis of major aspects: the king's household, the duchy of Lancaster, Henry's struggle for solvency, the war at sea, his wars in Wales and Scotland, the problem of heresy (etc). The book is particularly strong on Henry's youth and his military adventures in Lithuania, where he won a great reputation as a crusader. As a young man Henry was a star of European chivalry, a friend and comrade-in-arms to French and Italian princes, showered with praise by the chroniclers of all nations and lusted after by an Italian noblewoman, Lucia Galeazzo: Lucia declared that she 'would have waited all the days of her life' to marry Henry, even if it meant she would 'die but three days after the marriage.' Henry was flattered, but the starstruck Lucia had to make do with marrying the Earl of Kent instead.

Having deposed Richard II and upset the balance of power in England, within a very short time Henry found himself up to his neck in troubles. Wales exploded in revolt under the charismatic Owain Glyn Dwr, the Scots and the French declared war, the duchy of Guyenne was overrun, Ireland was in turmoil, and England itself threatened to dissolve into civil war. Henry's early blunders, such as the oppressive Penal Laws he threw at the Welsh and his execution of Archbishop Scrope, only served to inflame the situation. His efforts to reduce Wales by leading a series of hopeless chevauchées, all driven back by appalling weather, further damaged his reputation. Henry's foolish refusal to discuss terms with Glyn Dwr, when the rebel leader offered them in 1402-3, prolonged the revolt for another ten years and almost led to an independent Welsh state.

The great crisis of Henry's reign came in 1403 when his former ally Hotspur suddenly raised the banner of revolt against him. Had the rebels been joined at this crucial juncture by Glyn Dwr's army, the reign might well have ended in disaster and Henry himself consigned to the list of failed usurpers. In the event Hotspur rose too soon and Henry reacted with a speed his enemies clearly didn't think him capable of. The close-run Battle of Shrewsbury, where Hotspur was killed and Henry triumphed, marked the turning point. From then on, Henry's fortunes improved and he learned from his mistakes. The English strategy in Wales changed from one of chevauchée to economic blockade, while the French alliance with Glyn Dwr was carefully unpicked by skilled diplomacy. At sea the French were repeatedly humiliated by a fleet of merchant-privateers, tacitly encouraged by Henry, until the Privateer War (as it was known) ended with English ships in command of the Channel. When the Percies rose again, Henry again acted swiftly, racing north to smash the northern conspiracy and reduce the Percy castles with artillery: the first King of England to use cannon against rebels on English soil. By the end of his reign, an English army under Henry's son Clarence was marching virtually unopposed across French soil - the first successful invasion of France since the high days of Edward III - and the rival French factions were begging for Henry's friendship. Most importantly, from his point of view, the English overseas possessions of Calais and the duchy of Guyenne were secured for another generation.

Often criticised by his parliaments, at times embarrassed by the invective hurled at him, Henry was careful never to play the role of a wilful tyrant in the Richard II mould: he listened to criticism without suppressing it, engaged with his critics and several times handed over control of his finances. In an age of supremely personal kingship, when the king was still very much the god-figure at the heart of government, Henry took pains to rule with a degree of consent. At the same time he behaved with implacable savagery towards those he deemed traitors. The fate of William Serle, repeatedly hanged and then cut down while still alive in every major town from Pontefract to London until finally cut to pieces at Tyburn, is one hideous example. Serle's excruciating progress from Yorkshire to London followed the same route as the corpse of Richard II, and was meant as a calculated act of political theatre. Yet Henry was also noted for his generosity to paupers, several examples of which are recorded. The man who ordered 'traitors' to be slowly hacked to death in public was the same who granted a starving beggar two rabbits a day from one of his parks instead of one, demonstrating the almost schizophrenic nature of medieval kings: terrible to their foes, gentle to the faithful..

In his conclusion Given-Wilson suggests that Henry's real misfortune was to fall sick just at the moment when he had achieved a measure of security. Only forty-six when he died, Henry might have reasonably expected to live for at least another decade. With all his enemies laid low and his finances - a problem throughout the rein - finally on the mend, he could have turned his considerable natural ability to governing his kingdom instead of merely hanging onto it. Instead his fate was to die of a gruesome lingering sickness which left him horribly disfigured and unable to walk or ride. The security he had achieved after years of struggle was instead exploited to the full by his son, Henry V, known to any history buff as the victor of Agincourt.

I'll leave the last line to the author: 'Unlike his son, Henry IV is not remembered as a great king, but it is not impossible to imagine that, given different circumstances, he could have been.'