By: Alex Moreland
“It’s what you dream of as a kid,” says Jonas Armstrong of Robin Hood, “practicing how to fire bow and arrows, riding horses, doing stunts. Getting to play Robin Hood and the band of outlaws!”
Today – 5th October, 2021 – marks 15 years since the premiere of Robin Hood. The series, which aired on BBC One from 2006 to 2009, reinvented the legend of Robin Hood for a whole new era: it presented a much younger, more dynamic version than audiences had seen before.
Lead actors Jonas Armstrong (Robin Hood), Lucy Griffiths (Marian) and Keith Allen (the Sheriff of Nottingham), as well as executive producers and co-creators Foz Allan and Dominic Minghella, look back on the series – explaining how they found their own distinct take on the myth, what it was like to film the show in Hungary, and more.
The series began life when Doctor Who first went into production. “I said to Greg Brenman, then Head of Drama at [production company] Tiger Aspect, if Doctor Who works they’re going to want more of these family dramas,” remembers Foz Allan.
“Foz had been into the BBC and said – there was big excitement around Doctor Who on Saturday night – there should be room in the schedule for another show like it as well. They weren’t hugely interested!” says Dominic Minghella.
“But then Peter Fincham joined as controller of BBC One. He had young kids at the time, as did Foz and I, and arrived asking why isn’t there a Robin Hood on Saturday nights? That was where all the creative energy was focused, Saturday night,” continues Minghella. “They said to him ‘oh we’ve been talking about that actually’, and quickly called Foz.”
“I was in the middle of Doc Martin when Foz asked if I could do Robin Hood. It sounded like a great opportunity: it came at a time in my career where I realised I wanted to be a producer as well as a writer,” says Minghella, explaining what drew him to the show. “I didn’t have a burning ambition to retell the tale of Robin Hood, but Foz was somebody who was secure enough in his own production role to be willing to share it.”
“Dom was a very experienced writer, I was a very experienced producer, it felt like exactly the right meeting of minds to tell a well-known story in an exciting way,” says Allan.
“When it was go, it was really go really quick,” says Minghella. “I’d written one script, as a ‘here’s how I would do Robin Hood’. Everybody loved that, it was greenlit, and suddenly we were producing 13 episodes on a tight budget. It’s stressful, but the kind of stress you want.”
At this point, the casting process started – though not without some initial back-and-forth. “Often we were putting people forward who were over 30 and the BBC came back saying ‘it’s a show for young people, a lads and dads show, we want fresh young faces’. The average audience of BBC One was about 75 – ‘we need to bring it down to 69, can you please put some young people in your show?’” Minghella jokes.
“I did a first audition with Dominic, Foz, and Michelle Guish. I liked the scenes, I felt they could suit me,” remembers Lucy Griffiths, who played Marian in the first two series of Robin Hood. “That was the first of four auditions I did over two or three months. It was the longest audition process I’ve ever had! I think there was some concern about my age, because I was only 19, but in the end, they trusted me.”
“It was a good opportunity to find great people who were new, though. That cast was brilliant,” says Minghella. “Sam Troughton, my hero. Jonas, obviously, a proper cheeky chappy. Lovely Lucy, such poise for a 19-year-old. Will Beck, who’s the star of Casualty now. Harry Lloyd, Gordon Kennedy, Joe Armstrong, who is a class act, we had a fantastic cast.”
“I think Richard Armitage lied and said he was under 30, or maybe we lied, because I desperately wanted him. We had a little bit of a fight [with the BBC], and I’m really happy to have won that battle,” says Minghella, before doing an impression of Armitage in the first episode. “I’ve looked after your land, Locksley. Who do you think you are, Lord of the Dance?”
“My agent phoned to say you’ve been offered the part of the Sheriff,” recalls Keith Allen. “No audition, no interview, nothing: you fly out to Budapest in four days. Obviously, the person who had been cast pulled out at the last moment and nobody else was available…”
“I didn’t have time to do any research, there wasn’t time to worry about past comparisons – it literally was off the plane, onto a horse, be entertaining.”
“Everyone was hearing about Robin Hood,” says Jonas Armstrong. “I was keen to get a meeting, maybe for Will Scarlet or Alan-a-Dale. I was 25! When my agent called to say ‘Jonas, you’ve got an audition for Robin Hood’, I thought okay cracking, who’s it for? My agent said “Robin Hood” – I laughed and said ‘no, who’s it for?’.
“Because I didn’t think I had a hope in it, I didn’t feel nervous. I wasn’t intimidated. I just went for it – and the next day, I flew off to India for six weeks to do [2006 series] Losing Gemma for ITV,” Armstrong added. “The BBC wanted to fly me back for screen tests, but ITV, understandably, wouldn’t allow me to mess around with their schedule. So that was my only audition – I was very fortunate I had such a good agent backing me, but the fact it was just the one is crazy when you think about it.”
“[When I first auditioned], I was working in a hotel as a waitress,” says Griffiths. “After series one, I was invited back to that hotel to be part of an evening celebrating current BBC shows while different companies come down and try to sell their new shows for next year.”
“I recognised the convention,” she continues, “and it turned out that I had been working at the hotel the year before when Dominic and Foz had been pitching the show with Tiger Aspect to the BBC. It was the same convention! That was a nice little full circle moment.”
Of course, the Robin Hood tradition dates back to the 1400s – the myth has been defined and redefined for hundreds of years, from the early ballads to Errol Flynn. How did this team make their version distinct?
“I’d always wanted to do Robin Hood,” Foz Allan says. “The great thing about legends full stop is that they are completely adaptable to their time. That’s why they remain legends: you bring them back and back because they say something for you.”
“Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood represents the triumph of the individual over the Nazi horde,” Allan suggests. “An aging Sean Connery and Audrey Hepburn, tired and stuck in the woods asking what they’re doing – that’s America coming out of Vietnam. The 1980s one of my youth [ITV’s Robin of Sherwood] was devoutly and dedicatedly spiritual in the middle of Thatcherism, which was overtly profoundly materialistic. Today, you might do a kind of Brexit-fractured England – or you might do some plague stories.”
“I don’t think we had much of a conversation about any of the other ones, though,” says Allan. “We were very aware that a youth world was arriving, it was properly the end of the old world. We got into the sense of the team – when you’re young, your friendship group is the most important thing in your life.”
“Our ambition was to move away from men in tights, the slightly silly in a costume [Robin]. Not that we took ourselves too seriously: we wanted it to be more energised, more dynamic, but I always saw it as a comedy,” says Minghella. “I’m not sure other people necessarily did – people wanted it to be a little bit more serious, a little bit more earnest than I ever did – but I think when you’ve got Keith Allen as your Sheriff of Nottingham, obviously it’s a comedy!”
“I thought he should be cruel and occasionally funny,” agrees Allen. “I think what I’m most pleased about regarding Robin Hood is being remembered as a baddy who could make you laugh.”
“I never felt that we needed our political philosophy of taking from the rich to give to the poor,” continues Minghella. “I think if you were doing it now, you might have a really different attitude to the social story that is quintessentially Robin Hood. But I just wanted to have fun.”
Even as they forged their own path, though, Armstrong found the legend difficult to live up to at first. “I had a picture in my head of what Robin Hood looked like: six foot two, muscular, all these images came to my head,” explains Armstrong. “I felt a bit underconfident, because people have an idea of what Robin Hood should look like, or I had anyway. I think I was very self-conscious about that.”
“At the table read, in the Sheriff’s Great Hall – with all the executives from the BBC and BBC Worldwide, there were over 100 people – I convinced myself I was gonna get replaced. I was that nervous! But once the cameras started rolling, and I was surrounded by my fellow cast members, and especially the stunt team as well, I felt safe.
“After the first episode some critics were quite cruel, saying physically, I didn’t look like how Robin Hood ‘should’ look like. But that’s their opinion, so excuse my language but f**k them,” says Armstrong, explaining how “in the break between series, I worked with a trainer and put on about a stone and a half of muscle. I came back looking physically different, and I felt more at ease with myself.”
Though Robin Hood is famous for living in Sherwood Forest, the series didn’t shoot there. “I did a tour of Europe – Bucharest, Romania, Hungary, Czech Republic, Ireland and England – looking for the right [location],” explains Foz Allan. “We knew that it’d be a big show – horses, fights, CGI, castles – so you’re looking for some studio space and some interesting woodlands. We built most of the houses and the castle interior. Frankly, it was cheaper to do it in Hungary.”
When the cast arrived in Hungary, production began with a rigorous training process to teach them how to be an outlaw. “It was very intense,” says Armstrong, “because we had to learn new skills – even though I’d had training at drama school with fighting and swordplay, this was different. It was unarmed combat, using a bow and arrow, different types of swords, horse riding, different stunts.”
“We had more flexibility with the stunt team than I think you would necessarily get in England,” says Griffiths. “Rules and regulations are there for a reason, but they are often a bit stifling as well.”
“The stunt team put us through our paces – in Hungary they don’t mess about,” agrees Armstrong. “There was no ‘oh we have to protect our actors’, they just said, look, this is what you have to do. We’re gonna make you do it. They were brilliant.”
“I never went to the Hood Camp,” says Allen, “as nearly all my scenes were shot in the castle – or occasionally on location overseeing the ransacking of villages.”
“It’s a big deal to take people away for that length of time, but still keep the enthusiasm up,” says Minghella. “It’s quite hard to be away from home, particularly for young people. You’ll know about the theft of our rushes that extended our stay, which was highly stressful.”
In August 2006, it was reported that four tapes of footage from the series had been stolen from the studio in Hungary – throwing schedules into disarray, risking missed production deadlines. (It was rumoured, though never confirmed, that a ransom had been issued for their return.) Ultimately, local police recovered the tapes by early September.
“The tapes were stolen. The tapes were returned. I think one guy went to prison for it,” says Foz Allan, still speaking carefully about what happened. “The tapes were buried in black plastic bags covered in cinnamon – the bad guys apparently believed that dogs couldn’t smell tape if cinnamon disguised the scent.”
“It wasn’t a publicity stunt, which was reported a lot of the time,” continues Allan. “It was very emotionally harrowing. Because we were the first High Definition show filmed outside of the UK for British television, we only had one High Definition machine – when the tapes disappeared, we hadn’t copied and duplicated as you normally would.”
“We were looking at getting everybody to reshoot significant amounts of what they’d done. It would’ve been difficult, and we wouldn’t have been able to deliver the show [in time]. It was a hit before it arrived, in the sense that BBC Worldwide had already sold it to quite a lot of territories – so not being able to meet those deadlines would have been emotionally distressing.”
Nonetheless, Armstrong remembers the production fondly. “There weren’t any fallouts between the cast, which is rare over a three-year period, filming that intensely. The friendships that were forged – without sounding cliché – became like a family. Because you are family, when you’re away from home over seven months at a time.”
At the end of the second series, Guy of Gisbourne kills Marian – was it Lucy Griffiths’ decision to leave the show? “It was an idea the writers had, and we spoke about together – they always wanted to be quite bold with the choices that they made, and it was a bold thing to kill your heroine!” says Griffiths of her departure.
“Killing Marian was breaking that ‘they want to be together, but they can’t be together’ love jam,” explains Minghella, who wrote the series two finale. “For me, the triangle of Gisbourne, Marian and Robin was what I loved about the show, but I found myself writing its logical conclusion.”
“One of the reasons I knew the show was a big success – I think it sold to 140 or 150 territories, it did extraordinarily well worldwide – was I’d get emails out of the blue. ‘Dear Mr. Allen, why’d you kill Marian? Love, watcher from Chile’ – which is very satisfying!” says Foz Allen, laughing.
“I felt like – especially in the second series – I had given my all, and I had done what I went there to do, if that makes sense,” Griffiths says. “I felt ready and happy to leave. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to be there! It’s just that I was happy and ready to do something else.”
Having killed Marian, Dominic Minghella began to consider leaving as well. “I was really proud of the end of season two – but I felt as though I’d done everything I could with the show.”
“I read once there had been some big fallout, but in fact Foz and I remain best mates, always trying to work together,” says Minghella. “I just didn’t know how to come out of the gates in season three with something new and exciting. If you can’t be brilliant, let someone else have a go at being brilliant, basically.”
Is there a danger a show like Robin Hood might start to feel repetitive? “If you look at something like CSI, for instance, the story each week is different, but the structure is the same,” suggests Foz Allan. “The reward for the audience is about character – if you’re enjoying Gisbourne and Robin’s banter, you look forward to that, and if you don’t get that there is a little bit of disappointment there.”
“You have to find a way to reward the right bit of the audience expectation,” he continues. “You look at something like Doc Martin, Silent Witness, or Doctor Who, people enjoy them for their familiarity. Always looking for episode 39 to be fresh is a mistake – looking for episode 39 to be enjoyable and emotionally rich is where we should be.”
Going into series three, Robin Hood introduced a number of new characters – new outlaws Tuck (David Harewood), Kate (Joanne Froggatt), and Archer (Clive Standen), as well as new villain Isabella (Lara Pulver) – as part of an effort to reinvent the show for its third year. There were even conversations about a potential fourth series, meaning its stars had to decide how much longer he wanted to stay in the part.
“This was halfway through the third series, because obviously the writers would have to come to a finale,” remembers Armstrong. “I had long conversations with my agent: after three years, when Will Scarlett had gone, Djaq had gone, Marian had gone, and we knew that Keith and Richard were leaving, where’s it going to go?
“I’m sure that the writers would have managed to carry it on. But I just felt it was the right time for me to leave.”
“Sally [Wainwright, writer of Happy Valley and Gentleman Jack] was brought in to have a look at setting up a fourth series,” reveals Foz Allan. “If you change your Robin, you have to have a pretty radical solution to that, and that’s what Sally was working on.” Several of the new characters introduced that year were considered potential leads for a fourth series.
Ultimately, the BBC decided not to renew Robin Hood for a fourth series. Armstrong’s Robin Hood died in an emotional finale, protecting the people of Nottingham from Sheriff Vaisey one last time – seeing a final vision of Marian as he drew his last breath.
How do they all feel about it now, looking back?
“I’m immensely proud of it now,” says Minghella. “It’s never a good idea to look online and see what people are saying about where you’ve been, but I stumbled across several groups who follow Robin Hood and for a good chunk of people it’s still alive.”
“As Foz and I used to say, it’s for this generation, we want them to remember it and love it and own it as theirs,” he continues. “The love we put into it seems to be appreciated, which – having given years of your life to something, not seeing your family and your kids because you really wanted to create something that resonated – is just really, really gratifying.”
“The fact that we’re having this conversation 15 years on is very rewarding: television is and should be a disposable medium,” agrees Allan. “Getting something that’s remembered 15 years later is pretty good. [I’m also] proud of putting together a production model in Hungary – nowadays it’s quite regular to go abroad and shoot big shows, but then it was very much early days.”
“I love Budapest, it’s beautiful,” says Griffiths. “Because I’m not really a traveller, I would probably never have left Brighton – I’m very lucky that I was forced to! I was quite privileged to have that experience, to have learned [what I did] in a way that that I know not everyone else has.”
“[I’m pleased that] a lot of adults have fond memories of the show” says Keith Allen. “It was great family viewing. It was, for a lot of people, a shared experience with family, and that can be very comforting.”
“I’m proud that our stories are part of the legend of Robin Hood, and that we got to live that for three years,” says Armstrong. “And we did live it! And it was a beautiful thing.”