Saturday, November 11, 2006

A Good Saturday Night

You want to know my idea of a good saturday night?

1. Hot Chocolate/Instant Coffee. Combined. Oh yes I did.

2. Either the This American Life streaming archives or the Verge of the Fringe Podcast



Missing the Mark: The Embarassment of Robin Hood

First things first: I like Robin Hood. Let’s get this straight from the outset. As the archetypal English folk tale, it has everything a good story should have: outlaw bravery, pretty maidens and plenty of socially-just swashbuckle. The ballads of Robin Hood, whether or not they have any basis in fact, have delighted children and adults alike for centuries. From Errol Flynn to Kevin Costner, his celluloid adventures have enchanted generations of the modern age. Robin Hood is a story that ought to resound through the ages, from its 12th century origins to long into our future. And so it should, barring one small fact. Because for the last two months, the BBC has set out on a dedicated quest to ruin it for it for everybody.

Theoretically, Robin Hood should be impossible to get wrong. Most of the original folk tales contradict each other, but nobody cares, because the main story is too simple for such sniping. He robs from the rich, he gives to the poor. He lives in Sherwood Forest. He shoots arrows. And that’s the story.

Here’s a list of things he would probably not do, all of which can be found being blithely shoehorned into the new BBC series starring the dashingly insipid Jonas Armstrong as Robin Hood, outlaw sociologist.
 Assisting with a miners’ strike.
 Pulling off ‘Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon’ style air-hanging kung-fu.
 Quoting the Koran.

In the old versions of the story, there is a minor subplot to explain why England is so fantastically screwed-up. King Richard is fighting the Crusades; hence King John; hence that nasty, twisted Sheriff. Before he begins his daring deeds, Robin Hood returns to England from the crusades, sees the mess it’s in, and generally sorts it out. Never mentioned again.

The BBC see it differently. Nearly every major plot in this mind-blowingly PC series is dominated by the Crusades. The Crusades are used, with a stunning lack of subtlety, as a wholesale parallel for the War on Terror. [Obligatory disclaimer: I’m a leftie, I hate racism, I hate American foreign policy as much as the programme’s producers and I’m all for every form of tolerance and integration. However…]

While I would happily welcome incisive political undertones in any series in which they would be appropriate, the BBC seems determined to insult its viewers intelligence at every turn. There is absolutely no attempt made to disguise their flagrant pandering to every lefty-media stereotype they can lay their clammy hands on.

The acting is shoddy; but I kept watching. The script is dire; but I kept watching. The plot has more holes in it than an archery board full of arrows; but I kept watching. At some point during the first, or maybe second episode, the Sheriff of Nottingham said the following line: “there are camps in the Holy Land where they can turn a man against his own country”, referring to the Che Guevara tactics of their Topshop Robin Hood. I snorted in derision. And I kept watching.

Here is the point at which I stopped watching. During the episode ‘Turk Flu’, which the BBC would have saved time by simply titling ‘HEY KIDS, DON’T BE ISLAMOPHOBIC’, a new Merry Man joined the clan. A little background information; ‘Djaq’ was an Arabic slave, educated in the medical use of healing herbs, kidnapped by the Western invaders to work for our corrupt, war-mongering government in a metal mine. Enough modern relevance for you yet? Wait. Sorry. Did I say merry man? Of course, ‘Djaq’ was in fact Sofia, a battle-hardened runaway woman fighting the good fight for freedom disguised by a masculine haircut. Point 1: she was visibly, obviously female for the entire length of the programme. Point 2: Why?!

Djaq/Sofia’s story is just one example of the political injustice which the independent BBC feels the need to rail against on Saturday evening family television. Personally, I felt insulted that there was a implicit comparison being made by the Sheriff and his cronies between Robin Hood and British-born tube bombers. However, despite packing in all the Iraq war references that 45 minutes a week will possibly hold, the BBC couldn’t change the fact that their hero was male. Not content to put up with this patriarchy, someone had a brainwave: give Maid Marian a cloak-wearing poor-feeding vigilante alter-ego called ‘The Nightwatchman’. That’s right, kids – in the 12th century, girls could kick butt too! I await with baited breath the day that a lipstick-wearing, sass-talking Maid Marian doll appears on the shelves of Woolworths alongside the Bratz and Karate Barbie. A selection of phrases at the pull of a string: ‘I couldn’t go to war, so I decided to go to war against poverty.’ ‘I will not be told what to do by any man.’ ‘Robin, I’ve changed my name to Bono.’ NB: This does not happen. But it’s not as if Robin Hood doesn’t do anachronisms.

It seems in most cases that salivating correctness in the political sense has been pursued at the cost of any semblance of accuracy when it comes to historical detail. In fact, if the producers of Robin Hood actually employed a historical consultant, he or she should be arrested for failure to report a crime. The characters speak completely modern English apart from the maddeningly clunky refusal to use any contractions. (‘Cause, that’s how they spoke in the olden times, innit.) All the clothes look like something you could buy in Burton. In the Sheriff’s institutionally bigoted court, in 12th century Nottingham, there is a highly-ranked nobleman who appears to ethnically originate from sub-Saharan Africa. There is absolutely no explanation.

Writing this, I almost feel like I owe a series of apologies. I don’t mean to insult any minorities – I feel that this programme has already done that enough. Political correctness is like a tightrope; anyone seen to criticise it risks falling off it themselves. But I am not a Mail reader, I am not an Islamophobe, and unlike this programme’s apparent target demographic, I am not an idiot. At the outset of this series, I felt that the programme chosen to fill Doctor Who’s slot was watchable trash. Everything was wrong, of course, but shutting off my brain it was almost entertaining. The zing of the arrows; the green of the (Hungarian) countryside; the delirious pantomime performance Keith Allen gives as the dastardly Sheriff. But after four more weeks of being beaten incessantly over the head with the blunt stick of right-on Galloway-esque propaganda, it had become unwatchably bad.

Yes, it’s entertainment. Yes, it’s not based on fact. Yes, I’m a petty, snobby, grammar-school student with nothing better to do with his time than pick holes in lowbrow family comedy. But for Christ’s sake, who put this on the air? There will, inevitably, be a second series. The critics mauled it, and the public love it. But for one of the world’s most respected broadcasting organisations, and one of the nation’s best-loved stories, this is just not good enough. Robin Hood is an absolute shambles. If you like paper-thin plotting, Orlando Bloom acting, and scripts a dog could have written in the dark, you’ll love this series. For everyone else, this is an arrow in the eye of the monarch of British television.

Richard O’Brien.