Saturday, 3 March 2012

RIP Richard Carpenter, 1933 - 2012

So farewell then Richard Carpenter, television scriptwriter. Depending on your age and viewing habits you might have happy memories of Catweazle, The Ghosts of Motley Hall, Dick Turpin,Smuggler or Adventurer. For myself, however, his finest show was Robin of Sherwood. Partly this is nostalgia, I was enjoying being a student when it was first shown, but also because Carpenter managed to do something not many have done. He changed the legend.

The original Robin Hood ballads concern an outlaw who fights against Sir Guy of Gisborne, a corrupt monk, the Sheriff of Nottingham and the King. His companions are Little John, Much the miller’s son and Will Scarlet. And that’s about it. No Maid Marion, no Friar Tuck and, most noticeably to us, no stealing from the poor to give to the rich. Oh, and no Richard the Lionheart or Prince John.

Maid Marion, Friar Tuck and the rest were added as time passed. Walter Scott in Ivanhoe transplanted him from the reign of Edwards I to III (where internal evidence from the ballads places him) to the reign of King Richard I. the Victorians added the giving to the poor stuff and decided that he was a displaced nobleman (Robin, Earl of Huntington rather than Robin, yeoman of Locksley). Douglas Fairbanks and, gloriously, Errol Flynn made him a laughing force of benign resistance looking to restore the King and so everything was in place. The Adventures of Robin Hood, starring Richard Greene, was a highly popular TV series in the 1950s.

Then along came Richard Carpenter and Robin of Sherwood in 1984. I can remember the excitement. The series was heavily advertised and Robin was positioned as a rebel, I remember one advert labelling him as a rural guerrilla as opposed to the then popular phrase 'urban guerrilla'.

And it was fun. There was Clannad’s music and high production values and heavy use of location shooting and all was well. It ran for three series, surviving the loss and replacement of it’s lead actor, and was brought down by the financial collapse of Goldcrest Films, who put up the bulk of the money, not by a drop in viewing figures.

To me the most interesting thing about the series is its additions to the Robin Hood stories. Richard Carpenter is on record as stating that he was surprised that, unlike the King Arthur tales, there was no magic in the Robin stories, something he proceeded to correct. A strong celtic mysticism runs through many of the stories. This, however, did not take and subsequent re-tellings have remained firmly rationalist. But something else was, possibly, added. In the first episode the villain has a sidekick, one Nasir (played by Mark Ryan) who, in the original script, was defeated and killed after a swordfight with Robin. The producers, however, were so taken with Mark Ryan’s look and performance that they decided to change the script and have Nasir instead join Robin’s band. Richard Carpenter originally balked at this, but then acquiesced which is why, incidentally, Nasir has hardly any lines in the first series.

Then along comes the Kevin Costner film, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. And what have we here? Robin has a Saracen sidekick. Jump to this century and the BBC’s last version of the series had Djaq (Anjali Jay), a Saracen, albeit a female one this time round.

So it is possible that Richard Carpenter and the makers of Robin of Sherwood have added to the legend just as Walter Scott and various others have over the centuries. And that, I feel, is an achievement to be proud of.

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