That’s a gross overstatement, of course (DWC luring readers with clickbait headlines? The shame of it!). The circumstances that led to Doctor Who’s cancellation at the end of the 1980s were far too complex and varied to blame it on any single competing programme, but there’s a solid case to be made for the proposition that Robin of Sherwood, ITV’s mystical take on the Robin Hood legend which ran from 1984-1986, delivered a significant wound to our favourite show in that era – one which directly influenced the decision to postpone Season 23 and left the series metaphorically gasping for breath thereafter.
Commissioners at ITV have tried many different things to challenge Doctor Who’s Saturday evening primacy over the decades, some more successful than others. Buck Rogers in the 25th Century was deployed against Season 18 in autumn 1980, causing a fall in Doctor Who’s ratings which led to the decision to move Peter Davison’s debut series to a weekday slot. A less shrewd move was to place the justly-forgotten Celebrity Wrestling against the Christopher Eccleston relaunch in 2005. But Robin of Sherwood has to go down as the most successful ITV competitor to Doctor Who, at least in terms of the impact it had on the BBC’s decisions affecting its long-running sci-fi series.
It was the fantasy and folklore elements that gave Robin of Sherwood an original take on the legend, masterminded by series creator Richard Carpenter. Michael Praed’s Robin of Loxley wasn’t just a humble man fighting against oppression; he was chosen for the task by Herne the Hunter, the god of the forest who would appear, Obi Wan-like, to offer cryptic guidance to his charge. This, combined with a strong supporting cast (including Ray Winstone as Will Scarlett), a memorable score by Clannad, and cinema-quality production values proved a winning blend and the series was soon winning large audiences in the Saturday tea-time slot.
Michael Grade, then on a mission to revitalise the BBC1 schedules, looked on with admiration and inevitably compared this new ITV hit with what his own channel was offering in the same vein. The writing was already on the wall by the time Series 2 of Robin of Sherwood premiered against Part One of Timelash over on BBC1 but that little snippet of scheduling history nicely, if painfully, sums up the gulf in quality between the two series at the time. Doctor Who, rooted in traditional BBC production methods of the time, simply couldn’t compete with what the commercial channel (yes, people really did used to call it that…) was offering with this combination of glamourous leads, location-based filming, and effective storylines. One could argue that it would have been perfectly possible to make Doctor Who an equally impressive show with a similar budget and level of creative input, but that’s a discussion for another day…
Even the most ardent Doctor Who fans of the time had to concede that Robin of Sherwood really was a tremendously good series. If you fancy taking a look, try the opening two-parter Robin and the Sorceror which sets things up nicely; Series One finale The King’s Fool which presents Richard the Lionheart, usually a heroic figure in Robin Hood retellings, in a rather different light; or, perhaps the best of all, Series Two’s feature-length The Swords of Wayland with its witches posing as nuns and hit-squad of marauding malevolent knights.
Having helped prompt Doctor Who’s near-cancellation, Robin of Sherwood managed to rub salt into the wound by providing its own take on regeneration at the end of the second series. Michael Praed decided to quit the lead role to take up theatre and television opportunities in America, prompting an ingenious move by the show’s producers to ensure this didn’t mean the end. Rather than opt for a straight recasting, it was decided that another person could quite reasonably take over the mantle of being Robin Hood – after all, there are numerous versions of the legend so why not just opt for another one? Praed’s Robin died in a hail of arrows and was replaced at the start of the third series by Jason Connery’s Robert of Huntingdon.
Series Three saw an increase in the number of episodes with a young Anthony Horowitz (Foyle’s War; Alex Rider) brought in to help out Carpenter on writing duties but the quality wasn’t as strong as in the first two years. Connery couldn’t match his predecessor for charisma and the series was starting to suffer from the limitations of the format, there being only so many ways to show the outlaws outwitting the Sheriff yet again. Nonetheless, the show continued to do good business for ITV and a fourth series, intended to be the last, was given the go ahead.
Sadly, it was financial problems rather than the Sheriff which caused Robin of Sherwood’s demise. Production company Goldcrest was sunk by the failure of the likes of Absolute Beginners and Revolution at the box office and, with no replacement backer, HTV couldn’t afford to finance the show on its own. Shortly before going into production, the fourth series was cancelled and although there were a number of efforts to revive the show, that was the last viewers saw of Robin of Sherwood.
In another parallel with Doctor Who, a new lease of life finally came not on screen but on audio, with the crowd-funded release in 2016 of The Knights of the Apocalypse, an all new production based on a script penned by Richard Carpenter for the never-realised fourth series. All the surviving cast members returned (including Michael Praed in a cameo role) for a well-received revival which will bring a smile to the face of anyone who hummed along to Clannad’s theme song back in the day (‘Robin Hood – the hooded man…‘). Check it out to get a flavour of why the series continues to be so well regarded and while you’re at it treat yourself to the complete series DVD box set. You could even give Timelash a rewatch afterwards. Actually, on second thoughts maybe I’ll skip that one…