A much-loved children’s television favourite that’s being lined up for a Netflix reboot, we look at what makes Maid Marian & Her Merry Men so special.
Just over 30 years ago, Sir Tony Robinson realised there were very few genuinely funny TV comedies for kids. Deciding to redress the balance, he roped in a few of his mates to make a show which would inject some real laughs into the format, as well as providing a beacon of feminism for Robinson’s young daughter. Introducing, then, Maid Marian & Her Merry Men.
Best known at the time as Baldrick in Blackadder, Robinson was already familiar to two generations of youngsters for Sam On Boff’s lsland, Words & Pictures and Play Away in the 70s and in the late 80s for his witty to-camera storytelling for two Jackanory specials. That, and the hilariously knockabout and downright surreal Tales From Fat Tulip’s Garden and its sequel Fat Tulip Too (1985-7).
He’d been approached by Jackanory director David Bell, with whom he had worked on the highly successful retellings of myths and legends Theseus The Hero (1985) and Odysseus The Greatest Hero Of Them All (1986), to do something new on British myths and legends. The two then enjoyed further success with the 1988 Christmas special Boudicca, a raucous, rhythmical version of the life of the title character, which also featured Toyah Willcox.
Foremost in Robinson’s mind for his next project was Robin Hood, which he felt was an obvious shoo-in for a children’s TV show, especially with an added twist. His idea was that the show would revolve around Maid Marian (Kate Lonergan) with Robin (Wayne – now Adam – Morris) relegated to being a Yuppie tailor and would-be mediaeval fashionista (an example of the deliberate and humorous anachronisms the show would embrace).
He thus came up with the basic premise of Maid Marian from watching his daughter Laura (now a successful author) having a kick-about with her male friends and bossing them around, which they appeared to take in good humour. It occurred to him that a show where a girl takes charge might appeal to his daughter, for whom there was so little of interest on regular children’s TV at the time. Robinson discovered she had been drawn to series like The Dukes of Hazzard and The A-Team.
Maid Marian and her Merry Men thus quietly slipped into the CBBC schedules on Thursday afternoons in November 1989 and quickly built a dedicated audience, who loved its mix of comic pseudo-historical stories and well-staged sing-alongs. It was to run until 1994, completing four series and 26 episodes in total.
The cast was sublime. Kate Lonergan played Marian as an idealist, sometimes overestimating the abilities of her merry men. She liked to be “one of the boys” with little attention paid to her appearance, mud permanently in her hair. The late Howard Lew Lewis was Rabies, a well-meaning heavy (when required) but no philosopher. Lewis was best known to British TV viewers at the time as landlord Elmo in the sitcom Brush Strokes. He had also appeared as Mr Applebottom in the the fourth episode of The Black Adder, entitled ‘The Queen of Spain’s Beard’.
The Maid Marian sing-alongs were generally led by Barrington, the Merry Rasta Man, played with welcome chutzpah by Danny John Jules. He was already familiar as the Cat from Red Dwarf, which had begun the previous year on BBC Two. Little Ron, a man of short stature and even shorter temper – played by Mike Edmonds – was the show’s version of Little John. But unlike John he was always slightly befuddled, often looking in the wrong direction.
Tony Robinson’s Blackadder chum Patsy Byrne also made a guest appearance as Marian’s mother in the episode ‘Keeping Mum’. Robinson meanwhile headed the antagonists as the Sheriff of Nottingham.
Robinson’s reasoning for playing the Sheriff was twofold: firstly, he wanted to overcome the inevitable writer’s isolation – being stuck away from the set when the show is in production, unable to advise or problem-solve any unworkable scenes or rewrite dialogue.
Secondly, he was keen to play an evil character who would be a world away from Baldrick, the dogsbody who haunted several incarnations of Blackadder. He also saw the Sheriff as both a chance to show something of his range as an actor and (as is common to many antagonists) be essentially the driving force of the show by being integral to the way the series was plotted.
Forbes Collins played King John and his brother Richard the Lionheart, with much being made of their sibling rivalry. Ramsay Gilderdale essayed a rather childish version of Guy of Gisbourne, Blackadder alumni both. The Sheriff had two half-witted henchmen, Graeme and Gary, played by David Lloyd and Mark Billingham respectively.
The smart series also both acknowledged and parodied other iterations of the Robin Hood legend on TV and film. Most notably the Clannad theme tune for Robin Of Sherwood (created by Richard Carpenter, the man behind Catweazle for HTV in 1984) was alluded to in the episode ‘The Whitish Knight’. The series lampooned the film Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves as well, and the fact both featured Howard Lew Lewis added to the fun.
Over time, there were also references to Jurassic Park and The Crystal Maze, not to mention nods to politics, football and the long-running Radio 4 countryside soap, The Archers. Furthermore, ‘The Beast of Bolsover’ is a tribute to Labour’s long-serving politician Dennis Skinner; Clough is in honour of the-then Nottingham Forest manager Brian. Nigel Pargetter was named after the Ambridge regular from The Archers.
Incidentally, when it came to the production, despite being set in the real Nottinghamshire town of Worksop the locations used were actually in Somerset. Most of the action took place in Porlock Woods near Minehead, while Cleeve Abbey was used for the castle scenes.
The show then was a much-loved success, and the BBC was happy to keep it going. In fact, the Beeb wanted a fifth series in 1994. This time though Tony Robinson didn’t feel best placed to write one at that stage, having recently become the face of TV archaeology as the host of Channel 4’s Time Team. He did come back to the idea though, but when he approached the BBC a year later, he was told budgets had already been reallocated.
Still, even if there were no new episodes, the show’s legacy remained – and there may yet be more to come.
A stage musical version of the show, written by Robinson, David Lloyd and Mark Billingham, was produced in 1996 at The Bristol Old Vic. Tony Robinson played a new character, Mr MacMillan the theatre manager, whilst Mark Billingham was ‘promoted’ to be the Sheriff. Penny Layden played Maid Marian with Damian Matthews as Robin, Alan Gear as Rabies and Kwame Kwel-Armah as Barrington.
The stage show was due to be revived about 18 months ago. By the time things were formally agreed the Coronavirus pandemic hit the theatre world. Tony Robinson recently spoke about the plans on the Celebrity Catch Up Podcast: “we were talking about the possibility of doing a West End musical of Maid Marian last year and the year before, but in a way Covid knocked it on the head and it wasn’t going in the right direction anyway. But I’m now talking to Netflix about the possibility of some kind of revamp of Maid Marian in the future, which would be very exciting.”
The potential reboot of the show would undoubtedly be with a new cast. Robinson went on to say he would very much like to start again and discover a new voice for the programme to keep it relevant in the current era. Whatever happens, we will always have the 26 episodes of the original series to enjoy, from a time when children’s television proved it could be genuinely witty and fun to watch.
And with that, we’ll leave you with the show’s much-loved theme tune…
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