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The Adventures of Robin Hood, 1.1-4 (1955)

June 17th, 2012 (02:05 am)

A few years ago I watched the reflective Michael Eaton BBC/HBO telefilm Fellow Traveller, starring 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, bar catching the odd episode on satellite channel Bravo in its ITC back catalogue phase, but watched the first four episodes tonight. 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 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 - and they are often faceless, helmeted soldiers who by collaborating have either surrendered their humanity to become automata in the service of the Norman lords, or adopted their materialist value system - or die when their own plans turn against them. 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 preferential treatment, rising to succeed Will Scathlock 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 as a ‘Latin’ and 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, and this is nothing given the doubling-up by other performers within the same episode, 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 feet being washed from under a petticoat. 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 Adventures of Robin Hood remains spirited entertainment on its own terms as well as a capsule of 1950s concerns.

ETA: A slightly amended and illustrated version of this review now appears at The St James's Evening Post

Also posted at http://sir-guinglain.dreamwidth.org/518403.html.


(Deleted comment)
Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: June 17th, 2012 05:12 pm (UTC)

Fascinating - as if you were the keeper of the relics of an underground cult...

Posted by: Ian Potter (Ian Potter)
Posted at: June 17th, 2012 06:41 pm (UTC)

As if to prove your point, Jason, I'd love to know what you hold re. Nettlefold/Walton Studios and Foxwarren in that period!
Ian Potter

(Deleted comment)
Posted by: Ian Potter (Ian Potter)
Posted at: June 17th, 2012 07:11 pm (UTC)

Thanks Jason,
I might drop them a line about the behind the scenes stills. Have just been talking to Matthew elsewhere about some of that stuff. I think what Sapphire Films did in Walton may actually be one of the most interesting behind the scenes stories in UK TV (one third of the story keeps being told, usually drawing on the same sources but it strikes me there's a lot more that tends to go undiscussed that's just as interesting).

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: June 17th, 2012 10:57 pm (UTC)

I wonder why... the departure of Hannah Weinstein from the UK in the 1960s might be a factor, as well as her dying before large numbers of people became interested in the development of television series drama. The rise of the British contingent among the writers of Robin Hood as it progresses is noticeable, with Louis Marks and Leon Griffiths both writing a good few of the later episodes.

(Deleted comment)
Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: June 17th, 2012 06:50 pm (UTC)

Have you seen Ian Potter's comment, Jason?