It’s 12th century England, Sherwood to be exact, and the wicked King John (Forbes Collins) is ruling with an iron fist. The Sheriff of Nottingham (Tony Robinson) sees to it that the good peasants of Worksop are kept repressed, with the aid of his men Gary and Graeme (Mark Billingham and David Lloyd). One day a woman named Marian walks into town and has a bad encounter with the sheriff; she decides to fight back against everything he stands for. Soon she rallies together a band of men who swear by oath to stand for justice and protect the people of Worksop from the king and his Norman army.
Maid Marian and Her Merry Men was a breath of fresh air when it landed at the BBC in 1989; it broke away from many of the popular children’s shows that were airing at the time. In the years since its debut it’s managed to become one of those series that’s impossible to forget about, certainly there was nothing else quite like it on UK television, which is unless you start to take into account some of the UK’s more irreverent comedy shows that were targeted toward an adult audience. Maid Marian and Her Merry Men was the brainchild of Tony Robinson, who of course by then was already famed for his wonderful turn as the oft’ hapless Baldrick, from Richard Curtis’s Blackadder. With his interesting brand of humour, not unlike that seen in Monty Python and the aforementioned Blackadder he seemed to cotton on to the idea of making a TV show for kids and adults alike, or at least that’s what ended up happening. And that’s why the series did work so well upon its debut – everybody loved it, I know my parents sat down and watched it and laughed along with several gags that easily went over any child’s head. Not that the series was ever adult in content; it just had that appeal, a way of getting through in subtle ways and seeing to it that there would be something of value to anyone of any age.
The real genius however was that Robinson totally rewrote the fable books; he took a legendary figure whose stories had been passed down throughout the generations and turned him into an idiot, while the very woman whom he had always protected turned out to be a natural born, fearless leader. This role reversal did wonders for the show’s popularity, not least of which I’m sure was providing a solid role model in the form of Kate Lonergan for its many young female viewers. With Marian formulating the plans that left Robin (a very funny Wayne Morris) to skulk about, run away from trouble, fumble around without a clue and generally just worry about whether or not his hair and threads looked nice. Little Ron (a substitute for John) really is “Little” , while two slightly different creations Barrington and Rabies were used for musical interludes, coolness and stupidity. But of course elsewhere things stayed relatively the same: The Sheriff of Nottingham is evil as always, except that Tony Robinson brings to the role such a relishing quality that he steels just about every scene he’s in (The Holy Hot Water Bottle tale being hilariously delivered to name but one); he savours all the best lines and delivers them with unashamed glee, which indeed removes him from anything he had done in the past. By his side are Gary and Graeme, who just happen to be useless, while King John (a girning Forbes Collins) constantly nags at his men to do their jobs properly, lest they receive a quick head lopping.
In addition to this the series is absolutely riddled with anachronisms and contemporary gestures. In many ways it’s just simple storytelling: Marian and her band of merry men must thwart the evil sheriff’s plans time and again, but what makes the plans from both sides so compelling is that they just happen to be completely ludicrous, not to mention practically impossible. In comparison then the series can be placed alongside the likes of Monty Python and the Holy Grail for its occasional surrealism and modern day references, or even the English translation of the cult Japanese series Monkey!, though of course the series gets to expand its ideas far greater. Immediately it’s the scoring which gives it that edge, and as he explains in the commentary Tony Robinson wanted to provide the kind of music that was appealing to kids at the time. And so each episode features at least one song which goes into detail about why things such as Pancake Day can be so fun. But underscoring the series is an eclectic mixture of pop, light rock, rap and reggae, which has no qualms about disregarding the fact that at best we’d have had lutes during such a period in history. If we move to other areas of entertainment we’ll see that several episodes rest on a gag that involves a new invention of some kind: one in particular has the sheriff invent a game called “John” so that the king may be remembered by all and attain fame throughout the land, only for the payoff to centre on a peasant named Snooker (Robin Chandler). References to raffle licenses, martial arts (the sheriff having a black belt in sword fighting), darts, hot water bottles and many, many more constantly keeps the series creative. Funnily enough only one other series would challenge this kind of storytelling and pull it off successfully, and that was The Adventures of Brisco County Jr, which was a U.S. production and is due to see a release soon. But the point is, that Maid Marian and Her Merry Men was and still is a very astute series. In fact when watching this fifteen years later not only does it bring back fond memories, but it also has a completely new meaning, because now I can appreciate far more of its jokes and satirical stances and understand totally where Robinson was coming from.
The six episodes that make up the first series are mainly about getting the gang together. Although the pilot episode “How the Band Got Together” sets up the tale quickly, it in fact takes several episodes before they’re ready to fight together, with Marian training them in the arts of thievery and archery, never actually seeing them hone their skills. As the individual plot lines remain different so as to challenge our heroes the basic arc is that they’re developing as a group, until it reaches the point where we know that they’ll always triumph, even if for the most part they have no idea what they’re doing. Our antagonists are fleshed out enough so that they’re instantly definable and it’s nice to see that they get moments where they can try and prove themselves against popular, contrary belief. The first series of Maid Marian and Her Merry Men just takes off nicely; its jokes hit the mark, the cast is lively and the storylines are bonkers – I hope that the subsequent series are not too far behind, because there are some real belters to come and I for one can’t wait to see The Crystal Maze spoof again.
#1 How the Band Got Together
For many years the peasant village of Worksop has been the victim of the ruthless King John and his right hand man, the Sheriff of Nottingham. One day a young woman named Marian passes through the town seeking to find a new home for her tadpole Edwina when she runs into a bridge guardian called Little Ron. After getting past him she meets a tailor named Robin, who is making a pair of underpants for the king; soon she persuades both he and Little Ron to join her when she sees how poorly the sheriff treats the kind people of the village. Shortly she is joined by Barrington and Rabies, and together they form a new band of heroes, whose mission is to steal from the rich and give to the poor.
#2 Robert the Incredible Chicken
During their last encounter, Robin, Marian and Little Ron managed to escape from the king’s castle, leaving both he and the sheriff tied to a feathery torture device. Enraged by this the king vows revenge on Robin, who is now also dubbed “Hood”. King John orders the sheriff and his men to capture Robin, but they’re soon in for a fright when during training one of his arrows narrowly misses the sheriff’s head. The sheriff presumes Robin to be an ace archer and informs the king of his unsuccessful mission. The King then comes up with a plan; staging an archery contest he hopes to lure Robin out of hiding, but Marian tells Robin he mustn’t. Going against her orders Robin cunningly goes in disguise…
#3 A Game Called John
It’s Pancake Day, yes it’s Pancake Day and everybody is happy – all but King John that is. He’s concerned that his subjects don’t recognise him, which he fears means that he won’t be remembered as a famous ruler. The sheriff suddenly has an idea that just may help give the king a name for himself; he should invent something, a game perhaps. The king entrusts this task to the sheriff, while back at Worksop Robin is designing some new costumes.
#4 The Miracle of St. Charlene
King John is angered when his wealthy uncle dies, leaving him just a tatty old water bottle in his will. The king tells the sheriff to go into town and sell the bottle for fifty gold pieces, but unfortunately the only people in town are peasants whose only currency is mud – but very good mud. Meanwhile Marian and her band are trying to cross a river when they decide to build a bridge.
#5 The Sharp End of a Cow
It seems that the sheriff can’t do anything right these days. King John is getting really fed up of him constantly failing to capture the gang of thieves and informs him that he’s sacked. Marian and her merry men have become heroes in their village and Robin has thought up a brilliant plan that will make it easier for them to evade capture in future. Meanwhile a disgruntled sheriff goes undercover as Marian. Can he infiltrate the gang’s base and fool the likes of Rabies?
#6 The Whiteish Knight
King John has received a postcard from his brother Richard who is currently crusading in Beirut, but informs him that he’s soon to visit his castle for tea. Meanwhile a mysterious knight in white armour (well, more a creamy-beigy colour) is spotted travelling near Worksop on a white steed.
Eureka Video has released series one on two DVD5 discs. Each disc contains three episodes, with disc 1 also housing all of the bonus materials. The discs are stored in a standard amaray case, with the added bonus being an exclusive mini-comic written by Tony Robinson.
You can tell that a little care has gone into the disc as Eureka provide some nice little menus, complete with the series’ charming score playing in the background. Selecting certain options brings up a CG animation (if a little crude) of an arrow being fired. An all round nice job.
Maid Marian and Her Merry Men is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. Considering that the series is just over fifteen years old now and was undoubtedly shot on tape it looks pretty good. There’s a slight softness in places and there’s a deliberate amount of diffusion filtering which I presume is meant to help capture a certain fairytale quality. Colours are pleasant and detail is fine, but Eureka has added a little Edge Enhancement, and there is some aliasing to boot. Otherwise this does look pretty good, all things taken into account.
For sound we get an original English DD2.0 track, and there’s little to say other than it has solid clarity all round. There are no issues with dialogue and the show’s songs come through bassy enough.
Good news is that optional English subtitles have been included, and these translate everything well, including the theme song.
Most of the bonus material on this collection is pretty light, consisting of an original BBC trailer for the first series, a Lute Karaoke for the main theme song and a fun quiz written specially by Tony Robinson. Curiously we have a feature titled “How the Germans Saw Maid Marian & Her Merry Men”, which has two short scenes dubbed in German. It’s not very interesting.
The biggest extra comes in the form of an audio commentary for the first episode, featuring Tony Robinson. He’s certainly an honest fellow and is all too eager to point out the things he wished he could have done differently. But he talks about the series as a learning process and gives us some good insights into what it was like working behind the scenes, having to get through make-up ordeals and how the inspiration behind it came about. He fires off a couple of light swear words, which is fine, but worth mentioning if you do not want your kids to hear it. He also talks about putting in some adult issues, which he felt too many shows were trying to avoid at the time. A shame he couldn't do more episodes, but it is fine for what we get.
I’m often sceptical when it comes to revisiting the shows of my childhood, and while I saw some repeats of this series just a couple of years ago I wasn’t quite sure if it would stand up as a whole. I’m very happy to say that Maid Marian and Her Merry Men is still our finest, home grown children’s television series; totally deserving of its several awards. It’s a perfectly innocent (to a point) slice of entertainment that the whole family can enjoy. Hopefully fans and a new generation of kids can find entertainment in the wonderful cast who put their hearts and souls into playing these legendary figures, along with some highly witty scripts from Mr. Robinson.
Eureka has put out a decent disc; Some cast commentaries or interviews would have been a blessing, and I’m sure these actors would have been well up for some of this. Hopefully this can be sorted out for future releases.