Looking Back At MAID MARIAN AND HER MERRY MEN - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

Home Top Ad

Post Top Ad


Tony’s hiding in the green wood.
Here’s the thing.

Great history is an endless source of fascination, and is interpreted and re-interpreted for the rest of time, as perspectives change.

Great mythology is exactly the same, as has been shown by regular re-interpretations of the Greek and Roman myths, the stories of Camelot, and yes, the pretty much undoubted folk myths of Robin Hood and his Merry Men.

Great satire changes less, because most of its arrows are straight, true, and specific. But unless the things it’s satirizing change, great satire will stand the test of time because both its subjects, and the validity of its approach to those subjects, will remain recognisable and true.

Lysistrata, by Aristophanes, is still valid today because it tells the story of how heterosexual men will do almost anything, even things that were previously unthinkable to them, if denied pleasure by women, and promised it will be returned to them only once the unthinkable thing is achieved – and that’s not about to change any time soon.

Catch-22, by Joseph Heller, is still valid today because it tells the story of the madness of war, and the absurdity of command structures – annnd that’s not about to change any time soon, either.

Animal Farm, by George Orwell, is still valid today, because even though it was specifically written as a satire on the Russian Revolution and those precise circumstances are no longer in play, it also works as a commentary on the corruption and transformation of all those who start off with noble ideals, but gradually drift into greed and self-service. And, without getting overly satirical ourselves, that seems to be going nowhere any time soon, either.

Maid Marian and Her Merry Men is still valid to this day because sadly, the patriarchy has yet to be torn down and thrown into any available river like an offensive statue, so there is still cultural resonance in the idea of a clever woman being usurped in the public eye by at best a mediocre man - which is the central premise of the show.

Seriously? We’re equating a Nineties children’s TV show with Aristophanes, Joseph Heller, and George Orwell?

Why yes. Yes, we are. You may need a moment to come to terms with that before we move on. Do not, even for a moment, be confused by the fact that it’s a children’s show. Some of the most powerful messages in all of fiction have been aimed directly out of a page or through a screen at an audience of children.
Maid Marian and Her Merry Men is a textbook perfect satire on a phenomenon that didn’t exactly have a name when the show was written, but has gained one since. It’s called Hepeating – where women say a thing and are ignored, then a man says the same thing and is listened to, applauded, and if you happen to be a potentially legendary outlaw, immortalised in song and story for the rest of time.

The notion at the heart of the show is that it’s Maid Marian who is the brains behind the rag-tag bunch of outlaws known as the Merry Men, that we’ve only really heard of this Robin Hood wastrel because he hung around with her, looking cool, and that history could not in any sense cope with a clever, audacious woman beating the pants off the forces of state power, embodied in the Sheriff of Nottingham (played by writer Tony Robinson).

Sorry, if you don’t think that’s classic satire, you’re really missing a trick somewhere. And as we say, sadly, it still resonates today. Because patriarchy.

Before we get all serious and political on your geeky nostalgic asses, let’s frantically point out that it also still resonates today because it’s ridiculously funny.

Mixing sophisticated satire with simple, straightforward punchline gags, gloriously over the top characters, a bit of thigh-slapping pantomime and songs, Maid Marian and Her Merry Men is what you get if you blend a little bit of Blackadder (OK, possibly, given that Tony Robinson wrote and starred in it, maybe quite a LOT of Blackadder), a Terry Pratchett sense of the comically possible (Never read any of his books? Do yourself a favour – read them and make your life better), and a classic British pantomime.

It never forgets its primary objective, which is to entertain kids before teatime, but like all the best pantomimes, and plenty of the highest-grossing animated comedies of subsequent decades, it operates on multiple layers, so any parents in the room will suddenly guffaw at a line that the kids ignore.

There’s always a sense of barely-restrained anarchy in both the writing and the performances in Maid Marian and her Merry Men, and when the anarchy inevitably breaks free, it’s like a fantastically productive sneeze – you know it’s coming, and it might be a bit messy, but wow, you feel fantastic afterwards.
Kate Lonergan’s Maid Marian is very easily likeable, for all she sometimes loses patience with her frankly dim-witted band of have-a-go heroes. In fact, there’s a degree to which she’s the Blackadder of the piece, being the most modern and intelligent member of the gang. But really, she’s a Blackadder who remains optimistic, passionate, and fair, while still managing to understand how stupid those around her are.

So – half a Blackadder, then.

The other half, joyously enough, is supplied by Tony Robinson himself. Robinson famously played the entire Baldrick family in the Blackadder series, so to cast himself as the scheming, cunning-plan-crafting Sheriff of Nottingham must have seemed like poetic justice.

It was also, as it turns out, a stroke of absolute genius, and Robinson more than proves himself capable of delivering a scheming villain who, like Marian herself (and crucially, like most children regarding their parents), is sometimes floored by the utter idiocy of most of the people around him. Such is the symmetry between Marian and the Sheriff, they even occasionally share an eye-rolling moment of fellow feeling at the absurdity they find in their fellow humans.

As for the Merry Men themselves – they’re updated for a late 20th century audience in a way that gloriously combines child-friendly fun and a more sophisticated, if a little worthy, left-wing parent-humour.

Robin Hood? No longer Robin of Locksley, but Robin of Kensington, a clueless former tailor and that paragon of working-class scorn, a yuppie, played with perfect upper middle class loucheness and vanity by Wayne Morris.
Needing an Alan-a-Dale character, both to act as a kind of narrator and to add a musical element? How about Danny John-Jules, probably better known for his roles in Red Dwarf and Death in Paradise, as Barrington, a rapping, Rasta Merry Man, ripping up the forest with his – ahem – child-friendly rhymes? Joyful silliness with an underlying logic, you see? It’s the hallmark of the show, and whichever way you slice it, it’s the impression that stays with you.

Little John – famously named as a joke because was a huge, bearded tree trunk of a man? Mm-hmm – Little Ron here, an ACTUALLY little Merry Man played by Mike Edmonds, but one with a huge propensity for semi-organised violence (not unlike Tolkien’s Dwarfs, to be fair).

If you want to over-analyse the Blackadder threads in Maid Marian and Her Merry Men, you should probably be stopped before you do someone a mischief, but there’s a riff here back to Episode 6 of the original Black Adder series, where noted villain Jack Large (Mick Walter) is nicknamed Little Jack because of his small stature, but turns out to be a violent, sadistic killing machine.

There are jokes placed in the names of some characters too, which only the adults watching in the Nineties would have understood. “Rotten” Rose Scargill (Siobhan Fogarty) – Marian’s best frenemy – of course takes her surname from Arthur Scargill, the 1980s leader of the National Union of Mineworkers who squared off against Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the Miner’s Strike of 1984-5. It’s a clever political gag, but you have to have the context to understand it. Both the best friend of the wide-eyed idealist Marian, and her worst enemy, the inference is that while Scargill the miner’s leader may have had the best interests of the poor and oppressed at heart, ultimately, he may have been the kind of friend they could have done without.

A similar but less politically charged gag can be seen in the name of a wandering peasant who fulfils the Baldrick role in the show, being regularly punched and hit with things to comic effect – hey, that panto vibe comes through in physical slapstick, as well as suddenly breaking into song and throwing wanton anachronisms around like truncheons at a demonstration.

While none of the kids watching Maid Marian and Her Merry Men would have batted an eye at the filthy yokel being named “Nigel Pargetter,” any grown-ups who listened to The Archers on the radio would have got more than a chuckle out of it, causing their progeny to look at them like they’d just exploded embarrassingly all over the lounge carpet.

Other characters too had names familiar to grown-ups, including Clough – a reference to outspoken football manager Brian Clough (Yes, we know it’s been 30 years. Google is your friend), and even the Beast of Bolsover – the nickname of a firebrand, give-no-damns Labour MP named Dennis Skinner (who really IS worth Googling), but which were usually accepted by the kids as just names of characters in their funny show about Maid Marian.

That multi-layered approach to providing entertainment for whoever might be watching was key to the success of Maid Marian and Her Merry Men, and, as we said at the start, the show stands up well even to this day, because a) it riffs comically and cleverly off an ‘accepted’ version of the Robin Hood myth, b) its central twist is both still satirical and funny, c) it’s peppered with gags, ranging from the gloriously puerile and childish through to the sophisticated, clever and politically poignant, and above all, d) it’s still an enormously energetic, engaging, fun way to spend a handful of your lifetime. There are four seasons of Maid Marian and Her Merry Men, and while you might expect it to get tired and tedious relatively quickly, give it a re-watch today and you’ll be surprised how fast, how furious, how downright funny it is – and how quickly and happily you can lose a day in a binge watch.

Old School, New Term. Stream 1000s of classic children's TV episodes and get 50% off for 3 months in the BritBox Winter Sale.

Tony lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk

No comments:

Post a Comment

Post Top Ad