Robin Hood. Spotlight on the cast 3: Richard Armitage.
The first Robin Hood blockbuster of 1922 relegated the Sheriff to a simple clerk whilst elevating Guy to the status of Robin's number one villain, lusting after Marian and attempting to assassinate King Richard in the Holy Lands. (All sound familiar? Yes folks, if the BBC watched just one Robin Hood film they certainly watched this one). That film proved so successful that it became the role model for Errol Flynn's subsequent 1938 version, in which the Sheriff is once again sidelined in favour of a Gisborne portrayed by Flynn's real life friend and hell raising drinking buddy, Basil Rathbone. The climactic duel between them is a part of Hollywood legend, and Rathbone's splendidly "camp" performance has influenced all the best Robin Hood villains which followed. How ironic then that they would all be Sheriffs: Alan Wheatley (1950s), Alan Rickman (Prince of Thieves), and Keith Allen (Robin Hood 2006), all have a bit of Rathbone about them.
Guy of Gisborne then disappeared from Robin Hood filmdom for almost 50 years before being catapulted back into the public imagination by Robert Addie's definitive portrayal in 1984's Robin of Sherwood. Addie didn't attempt to emulate the slightly pantomime style now associated with the Sheriff, but instead came on strong as a scary, ruthlessly driven, even psychopathic villain. When that blonde haired blue eyed Guy spat out the words "Wolfs head" or "Saxon", whilst trying to dislodge and replace the equally villainous Sheriff from his position of authority, the supposed "master race" references were unmistakable. But most importantly, Addie's tantrums and arguments with the Sheriff still provided a sense of relief and humour against which to balance those characteristics.
In my opinion Guy of Gisborne as he appears in the BBC's 2006 version of Robin Hood, lacks clarity, definition, and this sense of balance. Having opened up so many possibilities which culminated in the emotional (and disturbing) balcony scene of episode 7, in the end he is little more than the two dimensional character of 1922. And, before the Armitage Army string me up in the forest, this is not a criticism of Richard Armitage who is obviously a talented actor. I'd love to see him play Byron or Heathcliffe, where the perceived villain of the piece is in the end the romantic hero. And am I the only person who thinks Bond would be a great role? He has all the attributes of young Connery in the early sixties; that combination of ruthless and romance. (He even looks like the Bond in the books). I know a lot of fans are imagining Armitage's Guy is a romantic heroic type, who only has to sweep Marian into his arms for her to see the error of her ways, but that's wishful thinking and not what's actually been on our screens.
The BBC's version of Gisborne is impressively dressed in classic bad guy style; a combination of Darth Vader and S.S. trench coat. He is an avid admirer and pupil of the Sheriff, equally as happy to witness him cutting either tongues or Marian's hair, whilst his favoured methods of killing are up close, bloody, and sneaky. He is constantly teased, ridiculed and duped by the Sheriff, whether it is lies about the King's return or a bottle of acid to the arm, but he never shows sign of revolt. Neither is he a man capable of tender emotions. When a silk scarf fails to buy Marian's affections he simply ups the "bribe" to a pony. His desire for Marian manifests itself as abusive, threatening that her father's life will be endangered if she refuses to marry him, and when he first attempts to kiss her in episode 11, or indeed succeeds in episode 13, Marian's reaction is that of a teenage girl upset by the unwelcome physical attentions of an older man.
Does this all sound like a really evil villain? Yes, absolutely! But is the character to have no "saving graces" in the name of entertainment? Even canary crusher Keith Allen gets to make us smile when he looses a tooth or gets hung upside down from a rope. There have been so many lost opportunities to develop a fuller character for Gisborne: The baby in Kirklees Abbey which is apparently his; the fact he has TWICE stabbed the girl he lusts after (once on the eve of their wedding night). How would he really feel if he suspected that? As it stands I think he'd simply kill her. Maybe now that his men have seen her gallop off with Robin Hood that's exactly what will happen. As stated, I think ultimately this BBC version of Gisborne has explored the character little more than the silent movie version of Paul Dickey, and as the years go by will fail to dislodge Rathbone or Addie from their thrones. I stand to be proved wrong. Richard Armitage is a fine actor, and there is much potential in the loose ends of these episodes to be explored.
Next week: Sam Troughton