The Adventures of Robin Hood, The British TV series, 1955 to 1960

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Robin Hood, Robin Hood, riding through the glen.
Robin Hood, Robin Hood, with his band of men.
Feared by the bad, loved by the brave.
Robin Hood, Robin Hood, Robin Hood.
He called the greatest archers to a tavern on the green.
They vowed to help the people of the king.
They handled all the trouble on the English country scene,
And still found plenty of time to sing.
Robin Hood, Robin Hood, riding through the glen.
Robin Hood, Robin Hood, with his band of men.
Feared by the bad, loved by the brave. Robin Hood, Robin Hood, Robin Hood.

Bear with me once again. Another trip down Memory Lane, my Memory Lane, of course. I would have imagined that they would have all run together by now, the recollections of those mid-teen years and growing up at home, those last years of parental protection and cozy comfort before being thrust into the real world. My parents only grudgingly untethered me, the extra length of those apron strings peculiar to an only child. Still, innocent times they were.

Some of these memories were centered around the television. Perhaps a few years later than most of our neighbors, we got that first set in the mid-’50s, and were lucky to catch the last flicker of television’s golden age. My dad loved baseball, and I can see him now, sitting there thoroughly engrossed in the Detroit Tigers, his favorite team. On intermittent Sunday nights there was The Jack Benny Program, and as well, every Sunday night, What’s My Line? Mom would go to bed early, and Dad and I would stay up an extra thirty minutes to watch Sherlock Holmes, the British series with Ronald Howard as the detective.

Concurrent at one time with the Holmes but running years longer, through 1960, there was another British TV series, with a few tie-ins to the Holmes program. The Adventures of Robin Hood starred Richard Greene as the rogue-hero of Sherwood Forest. Greene had a rather undistinguished movie career, perhaps saved from general obscurity by his role as Sir Henry in 1939’s The Hound of the Baskervilles, where, however, he received undeserved top billing over Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. He went into TV in 1950, and with Robin Hood a few years later, he received the fame that had eluded him. His earlier boyish good looks had gained a fleshed-out maturity and since his stiff choreography in the Hound, his acting had grown apace, becoming more relaxed and natural.

Although made at the same time as the Holmes series, Robin Hood was light years more advanced—in its sets, scripts and acting. Sherlock Holmes was decrepitly set-bound with little location filming; there was much stock footage of London sights and many scenes seemed to be shot before a single, hastily erected wall with chair and table. It’s true that Robin Hood frequently began with actors approaching through a forest and ended with a departure through the same forest, but the camera took advantage of filming in Northumberland and East Sussex. Any number of genuine castles and parish churches appeared, and there was an authenticity to sets of Norman corridors, banquet halls, inns and village houses.

While only rarely did Sherlock Holmes touch on any authentic Sir Arthur Conan Doyle mysteries, the Greene sagas were, in their time, almost brilliant in maintaining the tone and atmosphere of the Robin Hood legends. Carefully introduced were Friar Tuck (an appropriately overweight Alexander Gauge with a babyish, almost bland face) and Maid Marian (Bernadette O’Farrell, replaced by a less attractive, less sympathetic Patricia Driscoll the last half of the series).

Archie Duncan first appeared as Little John in the third episode, “Dead or Alive,” and would make the most appearances, third only to Greene and Victor Woolf as Derwent. Like numerous actors in the series, Woolf sometimes appeared as other characters, occasionally as the ambiguous “an outlaw.” Larger than life, deficient in tooth, quick to anger and sometimes slow on the uptake, Little John was just as often the herald of peace and reconciliation among his fellows. As a tie-in with the Sherlock Holmes program, Duncan also played Inspector Lestrade.

Alan Wheatley might be better remembered as a victim in the more recent Doctor Who series but, for me, he will always be Robin’s nemesis, the evil Sheriff of Nottingham. He was there from the first episode, “The Coming of Robin Hood,” when that knight of the Crusades returned home. The sheriff had class somehow, with finely combed hair and a striking goatee, the best dressed of the cast, often in a fine leather tunic with silver accouterments.

He played his role with sinister glee, forever scheming to kill, capture or discredit Robin, his clothes never dirty, his hair never askew whatever the skirmish. He had an exceptional presence on screen that I didn’t wish to accord him—I wanted him to show some speck of decency and fair play, as he did on at least one occasion when he joined Robin against a common evil—and so, not surprising, he was my favorite character in the series.

The scripts had an unexpected range. It’s true that many of the plots centered either on the sheriff’s always futile attempts to capture the forest rogue or on Robin’s fight for the downtrodden peasants, his infiltration of this castle or that caravan and his constant disguises—an ambassador, a knight, a minstrel, even royalty.

Aside from the expected examples of the vicious abuse of the Saxons by the Normans, there was Robin’s men stealing grain, for only the best of intentions, from a storage house; Friar Tuck changing the text of a morality play to force a killer to confess; the men of Sherwood masquerading as acrobats; Robin unwittingly handing over the future King Arthur, a boy of eleven, to an impostor mother; a priest, an excellent swordsman, who couldn’t control his bursts of anger. In one of my favorite tales, Robin deceived a zealous angler about the secrecy of a nearby fishing hole by blindfolding him and leading him around and around in a circle to convey a trek through a tortuous forest. “Duck!” Robin said. “Look out for the limb!”—and whacked him on the side of the head with a small branch.

What most invigorates me and challenges my curiosity—and inspired this writing—is the presence of famous stars. Sometimes I struggled to identify them. In some instances, the actors were obscure at the time, or would later acquire some degree of recognition, even become famous; in other cases, they were on the downward slopes of their careers. Time changes the appearance, makeup and costumes disguise it. The voice usually remains a giveaway.

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