Michael Praed: “Robin of Sherwood holds up, but I imagine if you watched Dynasty now, you’d wet yourself laughing”

TV Heroes: Michael Praed found fame as TV’s best Robin Hood, before quitting for an ill-fated stint on Broadway – and marriage in a hail of bullets in front of 60 million people. It was some “crazy s**t”, he tells Paul Kirkley

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Michael Praed has just described Liam Neeson as “an absolute bastard to work with”. But don’t worry, this isn’t the makings of some undignified, Twitter-style showbiz beef: the troublemaker in question is Neeson’s holographic avatar, who Praed is currently starring alongside in Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds.

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The West End show, which has just opened at the Dominion Theatre, is a theatrical re-tool of the recent arena spectacular, based on Wayne’s 70s symphonic rock reimagining of HG Wells’ sci-fi classic (I hope you’re following this). As well as Praed, it stars David Essex, Jimmy Nail, Daniel Bedingfield and Sugababe Heidi Range. And, of course, Liam Neeson, billed as appearing “in 3D holography and on screen”.

When RadioTimes.com speaks to Praed, he’s in the middle of a “lamentably short rehearsal period”, and trying to get to grips with his digital co-star, not to mention a tonne of pyrotechnics and CGI, an eye-watering 3,000 lighting cues and a live orchestra (conducted by Wayne himself). 

“It’s uber-precise,” he explains. “Liam Neeson speaks on a click-track, because he’s got to synch up to the CGI. And we’ve got to fit our bits in between his bits, not to mention all the other bits, which is monumentally tricky. As an actor, you’re in charge of your performance to a certain degree, but it’s very limited and constrained. And slightly terrifying, if you forget what you’re supposed to be doing.

“But,” he adds brightly, “it will all be fine. It always is.”

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War of the Worlds, says Praed, “has all the components of a musical, but isn’t really a musical at all”. And he should know: though he made his name on screen as the 80s’ definitive Robin Hood, Praed’s career has been dominated by musical theatre. He’s played everyone from Captain Von Trapp in The Sound of Music to the lead in the original West End production of Aspects of Love. Prior to that, it was his performance in The Pirates of Penzance at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane that won him the starring role in Robin of Sherwood, and it was top billing in a Broadway musical that lured him away from it (a career move that didn’t quite go to plan, but we’ll come to that).

Born Michael Prince in 1960, Praed spent his early years in Iran, where his father worked as an accountant. Aged 8, he was sent to a boarding school in England, a “wretched” experience he has since likened to being in “a lunatic asylum”. When it came to choosing a career, he remembered “some sage and salient advice” from his father. “He said, ‘When picking a job, it doesn’t matter what you pick, as long as you pick one you think you’re going to enjoy.’ I think he was referring to himself in many ways. I don’t think he particularly enjoyed being an accountant, and I think there’d been a chance when he was a younger man to have a go at being a footballer. So I chose drama.”

Praed began his training at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, but managed to gain his Equity card before finishing, and left for a job in rep in Southampton, picking the professional name Praed (it’s an old Cornish word for meadow) at random from a phone book. By 1982, he was doing Gilbert and Sullivan in the West End – which is where he caught the eye of writer Richard Carpenter and producer Paul Knight, who were scouting for a lead for their new TV version of Robin Hood.

“The night we went, Michael did a stage trip to get a laugh,” Carpenter, who died in 2012, once recalled. “I thought, ‘You cheeky little sod.’ I warmed to him enormously.” “He had it all,” concurred Knight. “We were very lucky to find him.”

Making its debut on ITV in April 1984, Robin of Sherwood was a bold new take on England’s most famous outlaw, blending scuzzy, broken-toothed realism with a rich seam of magic and fantasy, rooted in the ancient traditions of tree worship and fertility rites. 

In this version, Robin was the spiritual son of Herne the Hunter, horned pagan god of the trees: a child of the forest, drawing on centuries of pre-Christian spirituality to aid him in his fight against the wicked Sheriff of Nottingham and Bad King John. In one memorable episode, he even faced down the Devil himself: like a pre-watershed Ken Russell movie, it saw Rula Lenska’s pious Mother Abbess and her fellow Brides of Christ unmasked (or de-robed, technically) as servants of a sexy Satanic coven – literally shedding their nun’s habits as they summoned Lucifer into the corporeal world. Mary Whitehouse, self-appointed guardian of the nation’s Christian morals, was apoplectic with fury.

As Robin, Praed was teamed with a bunch of young actors that included Ray Winstone as an angry, short-fused Will Scarlett and Clive Mantle as Little John. Filming in the forests of Wales and the West Country, they became as tight as a band of outlaws themselves.

“One of the gratifying things about being an actor is, every job you do, you’re forced together with people,” says Praed. “Ours is a business of storytelling and sharing emotions, and you can become very close to people. You form a little tribe. A family, for want of a better word.”

Looked at today, RadioTimes.com would venture Robin of Sherwood stands up as perhaps the greatest version of the story ever told. Would Praed agree, or does he think Errol Flynn or Douglas Fairbanks might still have the edge? “The thing about Robin of Sherwood,” he suggests, “is it was the right show at the right time. Why was it such a success? It all comes down principally to Richard Carpenter. And I suppose we helped a bit.”

He explains how it was Mark Ryan (Nasir the Saracen) playing Clannad’s Theme from Harry’s Game to a bunch of the Merry Men on his car stereo that led to the Irish folk veterans being hired to provide their haunting score for the series. That music, matched to the show’s spooky, mist-soaked, ethereal visuals, imbued it with a cinematic quality sadly missing from more recent, vanilla film efforts starring Kevin Costner and Russell Crowe. In fact, the whole thing gives the impression of being made with more love and care than was probably strictly necessary for an ITV Saturday teatime adventure series.

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“Well you’ve hit the nail on the head,” says Praed. “It looked incredible. These lighting designers, they’re artists. I think we had about 10 days to shoot an episode, and there was a certain amount of time made available in the budget to make it look as good as possible. So it had a look to it that was right, and a sound to it that was right. Our director understood that all of these elements were crucial, and not one should supersede the other. He knew the actors weren’t the stars of the show. The show was the star.”

Nevertheless, Praed’s intelligent performance and heartthrob looks – part Saxon peasant, part lead singer in a hair metal band – turned him into one of the biggest draws of the day (including a gong for Best Male TV Star at the 1985 Look-In Awards, no less). But by then he’d already left the country – which is why, at the end of the second series, viewers were left numb with shock when Robin of Loxley sacrificed his life to save Marion and Much from the Sheriff’s men.

Run to ground, our hero took his valiant last stand, silhouetted against a blood red sky, before his spirit was returned to the forest, the trees whispering his refrain of “Nothing’s forgotten, nothing is ever forgotten”, as Robin Hood passed from flesh and blood into the realm of legend. 

In reality, Praed hadn’t been reclaimed by Herne the Hunter but had taken a job on Broadway, making an eleventh-hour decision to quit Robin of Sherwood in order to play d’Artagnan in a revival of Rudolf Friml’s Three Musketeers musical. Sadly, following a less than fulsome review in the New York Times, the show closed after just nine performances. That must have hurt?

“Obviously I wasn’t jumping for joy, but that’s the game,” he shrugs. “It’s ruinously expensive to put shows on on Broadway, musicals especially. There’s an awful lot at stake, and in those days you had to get the New York Times review. It just had to happen. If you didn’t get it, you closed. And we didn’t get it.”

Was the disappointment compounded by having quit a successful TV show to do it?

“No, not really. When I was young, about 16 or 17,” he recalls, “I asked a very wise old lady, ‘If you could pass on something to my generation, what would that be?’ And she fixed me with her beautiful blue eyes – I can see her now, with her intense stare – and she grabbed my arm and held onto it, and she said, ‘Michael, in your lifetime, you’re going to have three opportunities. Picture them as a bird with feathers. And what you must do is grab onto those feathers, and hold on for dear life, regardless of what happens. And you’ll know. You’ll know.’”

A dramatic pause. “I thought she was out of her f***ing mind!” he laughs. “But she was serious. And when The Three Musketeers came along, I thought, this is one of those opportunities. I’ve always been a great believer in chance for consequences. Because, look, it tanked, and so you could say, ‘Well you kind of f***ed up there, didn’t you Praed? You left that big hit show to go and do that. What the hell were you thinking?’ But had it been a big hit and I’d won a Tony Award, you’d be saying a different thing. So the decision to do it wasn’t incorrect. It’s a fool’s errand to judge an experience that’s been negative as invalid. Just because that show didn’t work, that’s not life’s journey.

“Also, I now know what it feels like as a young man to open on Broadway. I’ll never forget, after opening night, sitting in my dressing room and taking it in. This mayhem that we’d been through – a producer died during rehearsals, they fired a director. Crazy shit happened on that show. I made my entrance from the back of the stalls… on a horse. It was crazy. And I remember thinking, whatever happens, it’s been fun.”

If that experience was crazy shit, it was nothing compared to Praed’s next engagement on glossy US supersoap Dynasty, in which the former Michael Prince became Prince Michael, heir to the throne of the fictional Eastern European kingdom of Moldavia.

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“If anything was of its time, it was Dynasty,” reflects Praed. “Whereas Robin of Sherwood holds up, because it’s set in ye olden days, I imagine if you watched Dynasty now you’d piss yourself laughing. But it must be remembered, and this is no mean feat, than when I did the show it was number one in America, and I was involved in a storyline that was watched by a billion people, or something crazy like that.” (It was actually around 60 million, but let’s not split hairs.)

The storyline was the infamous “wedding massacre” in which the warring Carrington and Colby clans gathered at a castle in Moldavia for the nuptials of Praed’s Prince Michael to Amanda Carrington (Catherine Oxenberg). Mid-way through the ceremony, the castle was stormed by armed rebels attempting a bloody coups d’état, spraying the wedding party with bullets and apparently leaving them all for dead. Think Game of Thrones’ Red Wedding, but with considerably more taffeta and hairspray. 

“When we filmed the scene… I can’t remember how many principals there were on Dynasty, but let’s just say there were seven of us, there were seven different endings, and in one of them you were going to get killed. Everyone’s contract was up for renewal, as I recall, so none of us knew how it was going to end, who was going to die and who wasn’t going to die.”

In the end, most of the cast, including Praed, lived to fight another contract renegotiation, though Prince Michael was written out the following year. Back home, meanwhile, Robin of Sherwood continued with Jason Connery as the new Hooded Man. Praed says he never watched any of his successor’s episodes because he was in the States at the time. The pair have met over the years at various Robin of Sherwood conventions (the show still has an active fan base) but they’ve “never compared notes, particularly”.

“It’s much harder for someone to take over a role,” he sympathises. “You get compared to what the other person did, and that’s really unfair. Because they’re their own person, doing it their own way. But you can’t get that elephant out of the room.”

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Recently, RadioTimes.com reported that Connery will be reuniting with Winstone, Mantle and the rest of the cast for an audio story, The Knights of the Apocalypse, based on an un-filmed Richard Carpenter script. Could Praed be tempted back for a similar venture?

“Funnily enough, Nick Grace [the Sheriff of Nottingham] called me up about this, saying ‘Would you like to be involved? Obviously you can’t play Robin Hood’. And then I think he sent me an email, which, for one reason or another, I didn’t see. And then I completely forgot about it until I spoke to him again but… I’d love to be involved. Even if it’s just to play a spear-carrier. He said he’d have a word, but I haven’t heard anything about it, so I’m not sure what’s happened. But I think it they’d be missing a trick.”

I ask if he’s ever sat down and introduced his son and daughter, Gabriel Frankie, to Robin of Sherwood.

“Do you know what, I don’t think I have,” he says, sounding genuinely surprised at this oversight. “When they were teenagers, they couldn’t give a f**k about Robin Hood. But no, they haven’t seen it. Oh for crying out loud, I must show it to them. Because it’s pretty good, I think.”

Post-Dynasty, Praed combined movie and TV roles – he starred in the 1993 mini-series based on Jilly Coopers’ Rutshire bonkbuster Riders, and reunited with Ray Winstone in the 1999 film Darkness Falls – with a growing theatre profile, particularly in musicals. He also took the lead as Phileas Fogg in 22 episodes of a Canadian-produced steampunk sci-fi series, and was the narrator of the BBC’s Timewatch. Despite this, he’s candid about the dry spells he’s encountered.

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“I’ve had some very lean periods,” he says. “Every actor has, unless you’re Tom Cruise. If 90% of actors are out of work at any one time, of the 10% that’s left, there’s only a small percentage who will always work – the Tom Cruises and Judi Denches and so forth. So why on earth would any individual put themselves into a job where there’s an 80-90% chance they’re never even going to get a job, let alone make a career out of it? That’s almost the clinical definition of delusional. And yet actors do it, which is why they’re very courageous, actually. It can get very bloody serious very quickly if you can’t pay the mortgage.”

And working to pay the mortgage means you can’t always pick and choose projects that nourish the soul. “I remember once my agent saying I’d been offered something, and I said to her, ‘I’d rather stick needles in my bollocks than do this’. She said, ‘Yeah, okay, but they’ve offered you this amount of money’ and I said, ‘Okay, that changes things.’ And so I did it, because I was younger and had yet to learn that wonderful maxim that the woman who marries a man for money, ends up earning every penny.

“But there’s nothing wrong with doing a job for money. People say, ‘you’ve sold out’. Well walk in my shoes for a minute. You have to eat.”

Praed’s refreshingly unpretentious approach to the business of show also extends to his views on method acting. Did he live like a wolf in the forest in order to find his Robin Hood, sleeping in animal carcasses and eating raw bison liver, as Leonardo Dicaprio did for The Revenant? Apparently not.

“That’s what make-up’s for,” he laughs. “I daresay there are actors who, if they’re playing a tramp, never wash. I’ve never quite understood that myself. But then again, I haven’t got four Academy Awards.”

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Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds is at the Dominion Theatre, London