Class struggle in the 12th century

Submitted by Anon on 22 October, 2006 - 2:26

Darren Bedford reviews Robin Hood (Saturday BBC1)

The traditional Robin Hood story goes like this. Young Saxon nobleman returns from King Richard’s crusade full of idealism and good-will towards his fellow man. He is outraged at the injustice that Richard’s brother, John, and his henchman like the Sheriff of Nottingham are perpetrating against the downtrodden Saxon peasantry. He becomes an outlaw and leads a “merry band of peasants in various acts of larceny-based wealth redistribution”. It’s a jolly tale, and for all the fuss about how the BBC’s new series has “updated” the legend, what you get when you sit down to watch it is a big slice of convention.

Without the zip-cuts, the slightly anachronistic wisecracks from the (pretty badly acted) characters and the annoying flying arrow effect that announces every location change what you’re left with is a bog-standard, re-telling of the story.

Unfortunately this “Robin Hood” positively struggles on a number of fronts. Lead man Jonas Armstrong still looks like the cheeky sixth former he played in Teachers, but with a fake goatee stuck on. Lucy Griffiths as Maid Marian looks and acts like a bad Rachel Weisz impersonator. Keith Allen as the Sheriff can’t decide if he’s ripping off Alan Rickman’s über-camp, petulant Sheriff from Prince of Thieves or if he’s going for a more of a psychologically unstable sadist characterisation. His performance lands somewhere in between and consequently looks a bit pathetic.

The show’s much hyped action scenes are entertaining, but Robin’s developing idiosyncracy about refusing to kill anyone (a bit of a draw back for the leader of a peasant guerrilla movement in feudal England) gets in the way of a really good fight. Plus, as one reviewer pointed out, Robin is way too good with the bow.

But it might get better. And, it doesn’t pretend to go for earthy, gritty realism anyway. The 12th century is a period that lends itself rather well to that sort of production — the BBC’s 1997 dramatisation of Ivanhoe (which, incidentally, also featured Robin Hood) was a triumph, but a bit of an effort. So perhaps Robin Hood should be given its dues for not being afraid to go for excitement and entertainment over stodgy historical realism.

If nothing else, Robin Hood might get people talking about the themes of the story. The idea of an enlightened and idealistic aristocrat kicking back against the brutality of his own class and magnanimously leading the benighted masses to freedom is one with which Marxists are familiar — Robin Hood is, perhaps, history’s first utopian-socialist. Certain genuinely interesting historical aspects of the story are junked (presumably to make room for the entertainment value) such as the ethno-national element (the haute-nobility and monarchy were French-Norman, and everyone else — from small-time nobles like Robin downwards — was Anglo-Saxon, creating frictions not just between peasant and noble but within the nobility itself). But if Robin Hood’s presence on our screen many get people talking about what is unambiguously a tale of class struggle in Medieval England. If they can conceive of a struggle between exploiters and exploited in 1192, then why not in 2006?

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