“Deep in the heart of England,” proclaimed the opening titles, “lives a legend!” Yes, Robin Hood is back, swashbuckling theme tune now accompanied by an MTV fast cut montage of blink and you’ll miss ’em scenes from the show. This year, the show’s producers seem to have abandoned even the faintest pretence at historical veracity, but have lightened the tone and (thankfully) stopped constantly equating the Crusades with the Iraq war and the Sheriff with George W Bush. So far, anyway.
The season opener sees the beginning of what’s obviously some kind of plot arc, as the Sheriff forms a sinister conclave of “Black Knights” to assassinate the King and divide up the kingdom. Keith Allen has progressed to new levels of ham this year, his eye-rolling Sheriff making Alan Rickman’s turn in the role look understated by comparison. At one point he pulled a tooth out of a human skull and grinningly inserted it in his own gap-toothed mouth. That’s a triumph of CG to rival those on Doctor Who!
Richard Armitage’s Guy of Gisburne, meanwhile, is more broody than last year. Wearing the 12th century’s darkest eye-liner, he stalks around Nottingham Castle like a reject from My Chemical Romance. “Beg me”, he snarls at Marian as he threatens to burn down her home. Kinky! And him wearing all that leather too.
Still, plainly, an effort has been made to make the bad guys more bad than last year, and remove those annoying shades of grey in the show’s morality. So are the heroes more heroic? Well, not really. Though Robin, at least, is more incongruously Scouse than before, the director letting Jonas Armstrong’s native accent shine through so that you expect him to rob from the rich and keep it. In point of fact, a bit of thought has gone into the old robbing policy. “We’ll take a tenth of what you have,” demands Robin of an ambushee, “unless you resist, then we’ll take all of it!” Unfortunately, all I could think of was Monty Python‘s highwayman Dennis Moore, scratching his head and saying, “Blimey, this redistribution of wealth is more complicated than I thought.”
Lurking in their new Batcave-like lair, knocked up by Will Scarlett between seasons, the outlaws have disunity within their ranks. Alan A Dale isn’t as rich as he’d like to be, so off he goes to con the denizens of the local bar. Unfortunately he runs into Sir Guy, presumably on his way back from a Fall Out Boy gig, and gets arrested. This leads to a scene of astonishing betrayal as Alan agrees to spy on the outlaws for Guy, a scene whose drama was rather lost on me as I kept being distracted by actor Joe Armstrong’s impressively toned, sweaty body as he hung around in the dungeon. As Guy stalked sound him, black leather glistening, you could have cut the homoeroticism with a knife.
Meanwhile, Robin has to contend with the Sheriff’s equally evil sister, who’s roaming around with a box of deadly snakes that can somehow survive the English climate. The Sheriff wants to drop Robin into a pit full of them, but by the usual quirks of fate, his sister falls in instead. Now, apparently, the Sheriff just wants Robin dead. This would be as opposed to his previous policy of wanting him slightly bruised.
The dialogue has kept its amusing anachronicity to keep up with the other historical errors on the show, though presumably this is intentional. “Get up to speed, Guy,” sneers the Sheriff, employing an expression that’s barely been in use in England for more than twenty years. Later, bizarrely, Little John and Will swing to the rescue while quoting The Two Ronnies. “It’s goodnight from me.” Thunk. “And it’s goodnight from him.” Perhaps future episodes will feature lines like “Don’t have a cow, Marian.”
Still, it’s fun, with an attractive young cast and an obvious effort to be more of a laugh this year. With the writers avoiding belaboured efforts to make the show somehow politically relevant, it has every chance of being a decent, if rather forgettable interpretation of the legend. Though it’s never going to be as good as Robin of Sherwood, it’s miles better than Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.