Monday 13 February 2017

We Don't Go Back #35: The Swords of Wayland (1985)

By 1985, Doctor Who had gotten rubbish, and in my parents' home we had by silent consensus changed sides. Which was OK, because Robin of Sherwood was on.
Best. Robin Hood. Ever.
Of all the filmed and televised versions of the Robin Hood legend, Richard Carpenter's Robin of Sherwood (which ran for three seasons between 1984 and 1986) is probably the strangest, but also one of the most influential. Several of the character roles in the Robin Hood legend, and how we think of them, were cemented by Richard Carpenter's version. It was the first version to acknowledge the dodgy moral context of the Crusades by introducing a significant Saracen character (although neither Robin of Sherwood or the subsequent versions that followed its lead would cast an actual Arab in the part). Guy of Gisbourne being a dolt, Much the Miller's Son being a bit useless and Will Scarlet being a badass all really came from Robin of Sherwood, although no Will Scarlet could ever be as perfectly dangerous as Ray Winstone's murderous loose cannon.

The theme tune and incidental music, all of it by Clannad, was iconic in its own right, enough that it spawned a hit album and more than one parody.
Much, Will, Nasir.
More than any other frequently filmed story cycle, the legend of Robin Hood represents the context it's made in. When made in Britain, the story of Robin Hood is always a story about Britain as it is right now. And as a series made in the depths of the Thatcher era, a period of modern British history that we thought could never be surpassed in its awfulness until, oh, about 2016, Robin of Sherwood wears its class politics on its Lincoln green sleeve.
Once, there was nothing I thought was more awesome than a bloke with a deer on his head.
I suppose that's partly why no subsequent version of the story has picked up on Robin of Sherwood's paganism, and the supernatural story elements that accompany it. In the mid-eighties, mainstream religion was dying a death, and a final battle for the spirit of Britain was waged between evangelical Christians and new agers and pagans.
Actual appearance from Satan? Hell yeah.
Robin of Sherwood is on the pagan side; in this version of the story Robin is the Chosen Son of Herne the Hunter, a supernatural entity, a personification of an abstract, the British folk-memory of any number of pagan Horned Gods. Herne entrusts Robin with Albion, one of the seven enchanted swords of Wayland the Smith and tasks him with defending the spirit of the land. This means that forcible redistribution of wealth and the defence of the working class from the forces of law and order by martial rebellion is aligned with goodness, rightness, and truth on a cosmic level.

For example, most versions of the Robin Hood story end with Good King Richard coming back from the Crusades and putting everything right. But while at the end of the first season of Robin of Sherwood, King Richard does indeed return, he turns out to be no better than Prince John. No one in government with any power is a good guy.
Bloody Tories.
Robin of Sherwood's class war credentials are never more obvious when you look at the series' main baddies, the Sheriff of Nottingham (Nickolas Grace) and Guy of Gisbourne (Robert Addie, who died tragically young). This pair of negligibly competent public school poshos, one slimy and scheming, one a dim-witted thug, pretty much cover the Tory stereotype bases. If they're on top, it's because they have the apparatus of state on their side, not because they deserve to be or they're any good at their jobs. And in fact their incompetence at the business of regional government is the main reason they're a credible threat. They do stupid, ugly, extreme things because they're not smart or skilled enough to behave like sensible governors.

So, just like the Tory government in the mid eighties, then. Which is explicitly, if unwittingly, aligned with Satanic evil from Robin of Sherwood's very first episode. When you think of Margaret Thatcher's public pieties and her open, warm friendships with genocidal fascist dictators, the parallels aren't so much obvious as like a sledgehammer. The Sheriff and Abbot Hugo make a cynical deal with Baron Simon de Belleme, a black magician, in the very first episode, and keep making almost literal deals with the Devil throughout the series. When our own rulers were having dinner with Pinochet and Suharto, the story of Robin Hood was never more relevant.
Marian and Tuck.
Both Christianity and paganism have their good and bad representatives in Robin of Sherwood. The bad representatives are always aligned with the government; the goodies are always pitted against it (Nasir, the one Muslim character, is literally just "the Muslim character" and his religion never comes up in any meaningful way). The difference between Christianity and paganism in Robin of Sherwood is not that one's good and one's evil. It's that paganism works and Christianity doesn't. Well sort of. Satanism and black magic, Christianity's evil mirrors, they work, but the only force competent to defeat the succession of black magicians that Robin faces is pagan. Although Friar Tuck represents adequately (and I think this is the last significant version of the story where he isn't marginalised or deleted, which is itself interesting), it's in Robin, with his magical sword and the enchanted silver arrow he wins in the legendary archery contest, where the power to defeat evil lies.
Hounds (Kate Bush not pictured).
So in short, in several episodes it's pagans vs Satanists (with the one heroic Christian and heroic Muslim silently making common cause with the pagans). In the wider context, exactly contemporary with Robin of Sherwood, well meaning spiritual-warfare evangelical Christians were convincing Social welfare agencies that Satanic abuse of the vulnerable was a systematic thing. On TV, it's still a thing, but the only thing that can stop it is a healthy back-to-the-land paganism. The opposite of Satan is not Jesus, it's Herne. Christians are responsible for having made Satan a thing in Robin of Sherwood (and, as I said, more than once the organised church makes common cause with the forces of explicit occult darkness) but it's the pagans that sort it out. When there were only four channels and this was broadcast on the most popular weekly timeslot on the most popular channel, this was a significant statement to make, one you were only ever going to get past the general public in a piece of genre television. Robin of Sherwood was properly subversive TV.
The forces of subversion.
Sometimes I get asked why I spend so much time critiquing genre media, when I could be, you know, looking at Proper Art or Proper Literature, and of course stuff like this is the answer. Ten million people were watching a narrative where no part of the apparatus of state was not malevolent, incompetent, or both. A piece of popular Saturday night telly, showing them a world where Christianity has had its day and only alternative religion can offer a working solution. If that's not culturally significant, I don't know what is.

Robin of Sherwood portrayed Britain in thrall to literal dark forces. Consequently, while every single episode of Robin of Sherwood has some sort of pagan or supernatural element, you could pick on a good half dozen episodes (and there were only two dozen) where the paganism tips over into legitimate folk horror.
Morgwyn (pretending to be all holy).
One of the most obvious is 1985's double-length "The Swords of Wayland", which I remember at the time being especially thrilling, and which disturbed my parents in ways that I only really understand now I can watch it as an adult.

Robin (the spectacularly coiffed and marvellously charismatic Michael Praed) and his friends are called away from Sherwood to protect a village from the Hounds of Lucifer, demonic Knights with skull faces who are coming out of nowhere and rampaging across the countryside, raping and pillaging and stuff.
The Hounds of Lucifer despoil a corpse, which is how they roll.
Of course they're not really demons, they're just men with skull masks, but they do in fact serve Satan and most of them aren't even willing, having been forced to obey by the magics of the high priestess of Lucifer, Morgwyn of Ravenscar (Rula Lenska). Morgwyn is however, also the respected and admired prioress of the local convent, and gets away with Satanic murder by posing as a kind benefactor of the region.
This is what she keeps under her habit.
As we know, "convent" is only a couple of letters away from "coven". Indeed, the nuns, who are surprisingly young and nubile, are all in on the Satanic action and there's an unintentionally hilarious scene near the beginning where they all go down into their satanically decorated basement and the nuns whip off their habits to reveal witchy satin dresses underneath.

Morgwyn is using the Hounds of Lucifer to capture young men she can enslave, spread terror in Lucifer's name, and to gather up the seven Swords of Wayland, the mystical blades that embody the spirit of the land. With all seven, she can corrupt the spirit of Britain and call Lucifer to earth. With the acquisition of Orias before the opening credits, she has six. The only one she's missing is Albion. Which Robin has.
The story unfolds as Robin and his friends work out the plot at a pace slightly behind the viewer. The tension then isn't that there's a mystery, it's that each new revelation brings a peril with it. We learn that the miller is in league with the Hounds: will he succeed in stealing Robin's sword? Morgwyn gets the local law on side: will Robin get arrested? Morgwyn has the outlaws magically enslaved: can Robin and Marian (Judi Trott) break the spell and win back their friends' souls? The answers to those questions are often surprising and not as straightforward as one would expect, leading to a nervy, unpredictable story where things get progressively worse and worse for our heroes, and while at the climax of course Robin wins, the story has a real sense of jeopardy, of winning by the skin of his teeth. He stops the ceremony just at the very moment the devil appears, and looks Lucifer straight in the eye. I can see why I thought it was thrilling. It's a close thing. For the first time, Robin ends up in a situation where it seems almost credible that he might not win.
And the very next episode ("The Greatest Enemy") is the one where Robin loses. The Sheriff and Gisbourne corner him on a hill and you think, how will he get out of this, and he doesn't. Robin dies. Another man (Jason Connery as Robert of Huntingdon) would take on the mantle of Robin Hood in the subsequent series, but that wouldn't be for another year and the shock of Robin's death is hard really to explain if you weren't nine years old when it was broadcast and in love with everything that Robin stood for.
On the run.
Folk horror, as I keep saying, is usually an accidental genre, but that's not why I like it. I like it because it always seems to have something to say, always has a comment about class, religion, the geography of history. It addresses our unease. In the seventies it was its own thing;  by the eighties it had infected mainstream television, and the time and place was perfect for a hero to face up to the real world folk horror plot that was unfolding around us as we watched, powerless, and make a desperate stand against it.

And he lost.

But nothing is forgotten. Nothing is ever forgotten.