Riding Through the Glen 

22 February 2006 tbs.pm/2094

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It’s not often that we at Transdiffusion celebrate a particular programme; as our motto states, we are about “everything except the programmes”. We do, however, make exceptions from time to time for programmes, strands and series that have become long-running institutions, trade marks of the company that produced them or indicate watersheds and policy changes in the history of British programming.

The Adventures of Robin Hood is one such series, which ran from the mid to late fifties and played a pivotal role in the early success of the fledgling ITV network. The first production from ITP – the company soon to become ITC – and produced by a small British film studio, it was one of the network’s first external commissions, at a time when most programming was made in-house. The series started in the UK during Independent Television’s very first weekend – Sunday, September 25, 1955, at 5.30pm – when the new ITV served London only. It was later shown throughout the network and was much repeated in the sixties. In London, it was still being shown on Thames Television in the last days of black and white programming in 1969.

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Commissioning programmes in the fashion he intended to carry on, Lew Grade of ATV sanctioned a huge programme deal ‘on the nod’ with UK-based American producer Hannah Weinstein, through her production company Sapphire Films. Having agreed funding for a season of 39 episodes at a cost of £10,000 each, Lew realised there was the small matter of approaching his board, to seek their approval of the sum of £390,000 he had committed, in what was to become one of those legendary gentlemen’s agreements for which he later became famous.

For The Adventures of Robin Hood, Lew committed 75% of ATV’s then £500,000 programme budget on a single series. After short-lived uproar in the ATV boardroom Lew, customary cigar in hand, was given their backing when company director Prince Littler told the board, “if Lew Grade’s given his OK, that’s as good as a contract and we’ll support him.”

The series was shot in black and white at Nettlefold Studios near Walton-on-Thames, a movie lot famous for a number of cinema successes. As television popularity increased and cinema audiences waned, fewer films were being made there. The studios were rescued by Hannah Weinstein, a political refugee from the US, where Senator Joe McCarthy’s anti-communist crusade was purging Hollywood, with congressional hearings to “establish” the penetration of “communist” activities into the movie industry. Many of the persecuted were scriptwriters and producers, and as Cold War paranoia reached its zenith in the United States, many felt compelled to take refuge in the UK. It is worth noting that most were not in fact active communists, but as is now well-known, Senator McCarthy’s blacklist did not allow mere facts to stand in its way. One of the writers of the series was Ring Lardner Jr. who, because of the blacklist, did not receive an on-screen credit.

Thus the long running series The Adventures of Robin Hood was born, with Richard Greene as Robin of Locksley leading his band of men, fighting injustice and the greed of the Sheriff of Nottingham and his master Prince John. The series was set during the absence of King Richard the Lionheart at the Crusades in 12th century England. Filming of the outdoor sequences was greatly assisted by the fact that Walton-on-Thames lay close to the historic Runnymede Meadow where King John signed the Magna Carta in 1215. This enabled the production to use authentic backgrounds in the English countryside which had remained largely unchanged for centuries.

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Produced by veteran film producer Sidney Cole (Scott of the Antarctic, The Man In The White Suit, etc), The Adventures of Robin Hood involved a pioneering and entirely new technique in TV film-making which enabled the studio to turn out a complete 26-minute programme every four and a half days. A unique production line system, specially devised for the series, was used not only to speed up production but also to ensure that the completed programmes exactly met essential TV requirements. Responsible for this development in TV production methods was Peter Proud, a well-known art director in the British film industry who brought to television his experience of 28 years of film making.

He devised a new method of managing the massive and authentic scenic sets which provided the all-important background for Robin Hood’s adventures. In normal film-making, the studio technicians built huge sets on which the cameras were lined-up for each sequence. To cut out delay and speed up production, Peter Proud used a large variety of items of scenery such as a baronial fireplace, a serf’s hut, a staircase, a corridor and an entrance hall which were mounted on wheels so that they could rapidly be moved into position.

The Robin Hood legend had earlier been given the movie treatment as The Adventures of Robin Hood released for cinemas in 1938 and directed by Michael Curtiz. It had starred the ubiquitous Errol Flynn as Robin, Olivia de Havilland as Maid Marian, Basil Rathbone as Sir Guy and Claude Rains as Prince John. The success of the film hinted that a television series might be a viable proposition and Hannah Weinstein’s Sapphire Films was thus television’s first treatment of the story. Grade’s hunch in giving Weinstein carte-blanche to go ahead and film the project paid excellent dividends to ATV and the whole infant ITV network.

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Greene features on the cover of the third issue of the TV Times

The series amassed huge audience ratings for ITV, was a massive commercial success and was syndicated in the US on the CBS network which ran the series weekly, ahead of ITV, from 1955 until 1958.

A total of 143 monochrome episodes, made to fill thirty minute slots (with commercial break), were filmed. The series’ marathon run finished on UK commercial television on 12th November 1960. It paved the way for other historical swashbucklers like Sir Francis Drake and Ivanhoe, the latter being the vehicle that first brought Roger Moore to public attention.

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Richard Greene with Bernadette O’Farrell

Much of the success of Robin Hood was due to good scripts from exiled Hollywood scriptwriters – and to excellent casting, with Richard Greene cast in the leading role. Two actors portrayed Maid Marian: Bernadette O’Farrell from 1956 to 1958 and Patricia Driscoll from 1958 until 1960. Paul Eddington played a variety of guest parts for three years before finally becoming Will Scarlet.

There were guest stars aplenty. Richard O’Sullivan was one of three actors used over the years to play the young Prince Arthur. Other guest stars included Thora Hird, Leo McKern, Nicholas Parsons, Jane Asher, Ian Bannen, Sidney James, Leonard Sachs, Patrick Troughton, Irene Handl, Bill Owen, Wilfred Brambell and his partner-to-be in Steptoe and Son, Harry H. Corbett who played no less than four different roles during the show’s 143 episodes.

Dick James was the singer of the Robin Hood theme, and few people alive in the 1950s will fail to remember its rousing chorus. James later entered the music publishing business when his singing career ended, and in 1963 he established Northern Songs with John Lennon and Paul McCartney, to publish the pair’s original works. In 1969, James and his partner Charles Silver sold their shares in Northern Songs to ATV who were able to buy up enough public shares to become the majority stockholders in the company and name it ‘ATV Music’. James later became the publisher of many of Elton John’s classic works, written with Bernie Taupin. Another version of the Robin Hood song was released by Frankie Lane, with children singing with the chorus.

After filming Robin Hood ended, there were various attempts to keep the tales of Sherwood Forest alive on film and television, starting in 1960, when Terence Fisher directed a spin-off movie to the TV series, for Hammer Productions. Again starring Richard Greene as Robin of Locksley, it was titled Sword of Sherwood Forest. Fisher, who had directed several episodes of the original television series for Sapphire, cast Hammer stalwart Peter Cushing as the Sheriff of Nottingham. It would be more than 25 years before a further TV reincarnation of Robin Hood arrived on our screens, and this time in colour. This was the HTV West series Robin of Sherwood, which starred Michael Praed as Robin in the 1984/85 season and Jason Connery as Robert of Huntingdon for the final series in 1986 .

In 1991 one more cinema film was produced, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, with Kevin Costner as Robin.

There is a growing Adventures of Robin Hood Appreciation Society, with an international membership, programme of activities and a web site.

There is no doubt that the ITV series The Adventures of Robin Hood has stood the test of time and remains for many the enduring memory of all that is ‘Robin Hood’. Widely exported to overseas networks and remembered by millions the world over, this series created a new genre, the “tv swashbuckler”.

Weinstein later successfully managed a sequence of ATV commissioned film series including The Four Just Men (1959), Sword of Freedom (1957), The Buccaneers (1956), The Adventures of Sir Lancelot (1956) and Colonel March of Scotland Yard (1956), and ran the former film studio until a new husband mortgaged the property in 1960, but he disappeared and the bank foreclosed. Nettlefold studios fell into the hands of a liquidator, and most of the equipment went to Shepperton. Stage 1 (the Robin Hood stage) was sold intact and when on to become Hammer’s first ‘purpose built’ stage, re-erected at Bray Studios. The studio lot was sold to the local council and became Hepworth Way, part of a 60s shopping centre at Walton (now itself demolished.)

Creator Hannah Weinstein and many of the cast, writers and crew are no longer with us, but it still seems appropriate to offer belated congratulations to all associated with the series, and a very happy 50th anniversary for 2005.

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Robin Hood, Robin Hood, riding through the glen

Robin Hood, Robin Hood, with his band of men

Feared by the bad, loved by the good

Robin Hood, Robin Hood, Robin Hood

He called the greatest archers to a tavern on the green

They vowed to help the people of the king

They handled all the trouble on the English country scene

And still found plenty of time to sing.

He came to Sherwood Forest with a feather in his cap

A fighter never looking for a fight

His bow was always ready and he kept his arrows sharp

He used them fighting for what was right.

With Friar Tuck and Little John they had a roguish look

They did the deeds that others wouldn’t dare

Re-captured all the money that the evil Sheriff took

And rescued many a lady fair.

He rode up to the palace and was cheered by everyone

His Lady Marion threw him a rose

The King of England knighted him the Earl of Huntingdon

And that’s the way the legend goes.

Robin Hood, Robin Hood, riding through the glen

Robin Hood, Robin Hood, with his band of men

Feared by the bad, loved by the good

Robin Hood, Robin Hood, Robin Hood

‘Robin Hood riding through the Glen’ Chorus and Verses © Dick James Music 1955

The Adventures of Robin Hood is available on DVD. The writer wishes to acknowledge help from Carl Ellis, Whirligig children’s television website and the imdb movie database, in the development of this article.

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2 responses to this article

Alan Keeling 18 February 2015 at 9:21 pm

Channel ITV was the last regional company to screen repeats of Robin Hood into early 1972. Mind you, Channel TV did not start transmitting until 1962.

Alan Keeling 4 March 2016 at 11:30 pm

London Weekend Television/Hammer Films produced an hour long TV pilot called “Wolfshead – Legend of Robin Hood”, which never became a series. New Zealand actor, David Warbeck played the legendary hero. This 1969 production was released to cinemas in 1973, as a supporting feature to “Take Me High” starring Cliff Richard.

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