This weekend I had the enormous pleasure of attending the latest Hooded Man festival - a fan convention dedicated to the much-loved 80s TV show Robin of Sherwood. Regarded by many, including myself, as the definitive screen version of the Robin Hood legend, the series propelled many of today’s household names to stardom, including its two Robins, Michael Praed and Jason Connery, as well as Ray Winstone and Casualty's Clive Mantle. Thirty-five years after its original transmission, the series remains a shining landmark of television excellence, remembered fondly for its movie-quality production values, a haunting BAFTA-winning soundtrack by Irish folk band Clannad, stellar guest stars, the legendary camaraderie between its eclectic mix of young cast members, and perhaps most notably for Richard 'Kip' Carpenter’s inspired and gritty scripts which introduced elements of sorcery and pagan mythology to the Robin Hood story for the first time, much to the outrage of the country's self-appointed moral guardian Mary Whitehouse.
Saturday’s convention at the Royal Hotel in Weston-super-Mare was the latest in a series of non-profit Hooded Man Events staged under the leadership of the tireless Barnaby Eaton-Jones and his wife Kim and attended by many of the show’s former stars. These included Mark Ryan (perhaps best known to modern audiences as the voice of Bumblebee in the Transformers movie franchise), the ceaselessly entertaining Nickolas Grace (the Sheriff of Nottingham), Valentine Pelka, and gentle giant Little John himself, Clive Mantle, who read excerpts from his award-winning children's adventure novel The Treasure at the Top of the World.
A childhood dream came true for me when I got to participate in a sword-fighting masterclass led by Ryan and Pelka, who played arch-rivals Nasir and Sarak in the show. As a kid I always wanted to be Nasir - the silent and enigmatic Saracen assassin who wielded two scimitars and who, with his studded leather jerkin and ability to wipe out large numbers of opponents single-handed without batting an eyelid, was for me the very epitome of cool. Such was the character's popularity with the viewing public that the inclusion of a Muslim among the Merry Men has become a staple ingredient of subsequent screen versions of the Robin Hood legend, even though Nasir was an entirely original creation of Kip Carpenter at the time. Ryan himself is in real life every bit as exotic as the character he played. An expert swordmaster with a background in British Military Intelligence, armed with a seemingly limitless arsenal of entertaining anecdotes which he deploys at will, and the creator of his own best-selling Tarot deck The Wildwood Tarot, he shares my interest in matters esoteric and his enthusiasm for Robin of Sherwood remains undimmed three decades on.
He and Pelka recreated the classic duel between their characters from the Season Three episode entitled The Sheriff of Nottingham - an episode written by Anthony Horowitz and also notable for an electrifying, and surprisingly camp, guest turn by the late Lewis Collins of Professionals fame, about whom cast members reminisced fondly throughout the weekend.
A pair of boots worn in the series by Maid Marian herself, Judi Trott, fetched £500 at a charity auction. The boots were kindly donated by James Deval, who also provided the event with an outstanding display of original costumes from the show. Designer A.J. Machin of Dragons & Unicorns showcased her own considerable skills in recreating costumes from the series and gave tips on how to make authentic-looking period attire at affordable prices. Check out the Dragons & Unicorns Facebook page and YouTube channel for further examples of A.J's incredible work. The atmosphere throughout the weekend was relaxed and fun, stars mingled freely with the fans and chatted happily throughout. New friendships were made and old ones renewed as fans from all over the UK and all walks of life came together like an extended family, united by the common bond of their love for the show.
Some might wonder why a group of grown adults are spending their weekends going all Cosplay over a 30-year-old TV show and what the heck I’m doing blogging about it on the Phoenix website. Well, bear with me because there's an important point to all this. Quite apart from the fact that embracing your inner child is positive and healthy, Robin of Sherwood happens to be (in my humble opinion) one of the greatest TV programmes of all time and one which still inspires awe and affection in everyone connected with it, particularly the cast and crew. There have been many other versions of Robin Hood since, including Kevin Costner’s Prince of Thieves, the rather woeful BBC adaptation a few years back starring Jonas Armstrong, and the latest Hollywood version, about which the less said the better. But none has come close to matching Robin of Sherwood in either production quality, acclaim or public affection. Nevertheless, Robin Hood is the legend that just won’t die and seems destined to be reinvented periodically for each new generation from now until the end of time. Modern takes on the concept have also abounded - everything from Zorro to The Saint Simon Templar and even cult sci-fi series Blake's 7 can trace their roots back to Robin Hood, as can a multitude of superheroes, particularly the likes of Batman and Green Arrow. The main reason why Robin Hood is one of the most popular and enduring archetypes in the history of this country, and the world, is because of what the character stands for symbolically as a symbol of rebellion against injustice and inequality.
Robin Hood famously robbed from the rich and gave to the poor. He was the original “champion of the underdog” and that’s why he appeals to that part of ourselves which rails against social injustice and oppression. The world today is full of injustice. It’s no wonder so many people are being driven to abject despair. We look around us and what do we see? A country and a world divided, a delusional raving megalomaniac in the White House and the imminent prospect of another one entering Downing Street; bigotry, intolerance and prejudice in multitudinous forms, homeless people sleeping rough in shop doorways, fat cat bankers getting richer while countless people have been plunged into poverty and unemployment by the very financial crises which those same bankers created. More and more people are having to turn to food banks, mental health problems are on the increase as folk succumb to stress, our health service is overstretched and our political system a shambles.
The sick and disabled feel victimised and marginalised, subjected to degrading and inhumane “work capability assessments” and forced to justify the minimal benefits they receive. I myself underwent the horrendous experience of such an assessment during my own stress-related illness a few years back and it’s no exaggeration to say that the entire ordeal severely exacerbated my condition. I know of many people with severely-limiting mental and physical health problems who’ve been declared “fit for work” and stripped of their benefits, leaving them panic-stricken and broke. Many feel there’s nothing we can do to change this; that the system is so hopelessly rigged against us that there’s no hope for improvement. That’s why the symbolism of characters like Robin Hood is so vitally important as a reminder of the importance of carrying on the fight. Robin Hood is a shining beacon of hope, a call to action; a symbol of our moral responsibility to take care of each other. Nothing will change if we do nothing. But if we take a collective stand against injustice, inequality and oppression then sooner or later the sheer volume of our combined voices can and will be heard and make a difference. We need more action on tackling the mental health crisis in this country. We need much greater awareness of the issue, more funding, more understanding and more rigid regulations for holding employers to account. We need to do away with the degrading work capability assessment process and start treating people like human beings.
Let’s be clear on this. I’m not for one moment condoning anarchy or revolution, and I’m certainly not suggesting that we take up bows and arrows and start robbing people. But we can, all of us, make more of an effort to champion the underdog in our everyday lives. We can choose not to walk by on the other side of the street when we see someone in distress or in need of help. We can ensure we don’t look the other way when a co-worker is being shafted. If we haven’t seen our neighbour for a few days, we can make the effort to check they’re all right. When we have a little extra money to spare, we can make a donation to those who have none. We can maintain pressure on our politicians by writing to them and engaging in peaceful protest where necessary. We can make a collective effort to lift each other up - even if it’s just with a laugh or a smile - rather than adopting the all-too-prevalent attitude of “every man for himself” which has had such a corrosive effect on our society. We can all embrace our inner Robin Hood and do our bit, however small, to make the world a better and fairer place.
I was outraged last year when I learned of plans by Kirklees Council to bulldoze “Robin Hood’s Grave” to make way for a new industrial estate. Folklore suggests that the outlaw died at Kirklees Priory in West Yorkshire and was buried at the spot where his last arrow landed. Of course, nobody knows for certain whether the site in question is really the final resting place of Robin Hood - or if the famous outlaw even existed or not - but that’s not the point. What matters is what the character represents as a powerful symbol of resistance against oppression and inequality - a symbol which has seldom been more badly needed than it is at present. To bulldoze his symbolic grave for yet another ugly business park would be to ride roughshod over everything the character stood for. That’s why I was among the thousands who signed a petition objecting against the proposals and calling on the council to instead capitalise upon this fabulous piece of national folklore to boost tourism in the area. Against all odds, the rebellion against Kirklees Council was successful and the plans were quashed at a public inquiry last summer - a testimony to what can be achieved when people come together and take a collective stand in support of a cause about which they feel passionately. The spirit of Sherwood was alive and well in that protest and the campaign's success should give heart to all those fighting their own battles against a frequently cruel and faceless system which treats people as mere numbers. This was a day when David took on Goliath and won. It was a victory for the ordinary man against the financially-motivated machinations of a political elite. That's the reason why this fight was so important. It was about so much more than just the fate of a parcel of land. It was about the importance of Robin Hood as a symbol of hope and freedom.
Symbolism and metaphor can be every bit as important as factual history in terms of the emotional response it stirs within our subconscious and its ability to generate profound internal change. Our ancestors understood this and that's why they encoded so many of their moral lessons in the form of fables and parables designed to resonate with our inner knowing. Nowadays too many so-called experts are quick to dismiss mythology as "pseudo-history", ignoring its very real psychological importance. The ancient Greeks regarded myth-making as a science, and they were right. We must never underestimate the power of archetypes and their ability to serve as positive models or templates to help us to reinvent ourselves for the better. Above all else, Robin Hood is a symbol of hope - a symbol of hope in a world gone mad - and Robin of Sherwood captured the spirit of that concept to sweet perfection.
Even when Michael Praed's Robin of Loxley was shot down and killed by the Sheriff of Nottingham's men in the climactic finale of the show's second season, the legend of Robin Hood refused to die. A new Robin - Robert of Huntingdon, played by Jason Connery - stepped up to take over the role of the "Hooded Man", rising like a phoenix from the ashes of his executed predecessor to steer the show through its third and final season. The snarling Sheriff's victory was short-lived and the fight against injustice continued unabated. Hope was the ultimate victor.
As Clive Mantle pointed out in discussing his award-winning novel, The Treasure At The Top of the World (the first entry in his series The Adventures of Freddie Malone), increasing numbers of young people are turning to books, film and television in search of heroes due to the alarming dearth of worthy role models in the real world. Heroes are important because they teach us values such as honesty, strength, courage, decency and morality - qualities that appear to be in short supply when we look at the behaviour of many of today's politicians and so-called celebrities. Iconic characters like Robin Hood and King Arthur, who embody noble characteristics, can serve as templates for us to model ourselves on as we strive to become the best possible version of ourselves. This is a theme at the very heart of our mission at Phoenix Coaching & Therapy where we make strong use of archetypes and storytelling as therapeutic tools to produce deep and lasting change work. It was a subject also covered by Mark Ryan in his Hooded Man presentation on The Greenwood Tarot, which touched on the importance of archetypes within the field of human psychology.
There’s a powerful moment in the opening episode of Robin of Sherwood when forest god Herne the Hunter, played by the late John Abineri, tasks an initially reluctant Robin (Michael Praed) with taking up the mantle of the “Hooded Man” and becoming the people’s champion. In Richard Carpenter’s wonderful script, Herne delivers the stirring soliloquy: “The blinded, the maimed, the men locked in the stinking dark, all wait for you. Children with swollen bellies - crouching in ditches - wait. The poor, the dispossessed. All are waiting. You are their hope.”
Those words lit a fire inside me when I was at my lowest ebb and hopefully they can inspire you too. Don’t wait for somebody else to be the people’s champion. Don’t adopt the attitude that it’s someone else’s job. Embrace your own Hooded Man - unleash your inner phoenix - and do it now. Be the change you want to see in the world. Even if we change the planet just one person at a time, we will get there eventually. And that’s got to be better than doing nothing.