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DVD Review

DVD cover

Maid Marian and Her Merry Men The Complete Series 1-4 Box Set


Starring: Kate Lonergan, Wayne Morris, Tony Robinson and Danny John-Jules
Eureka Entertainment
RRP: £49.99
Certificate: PG
Available 22 September 2008

This mammoth box set brings together all four cracking series of Maid Marian and Her Merry Men for the very first time - that’s a mighty 25 regular episodes, one extended Christmas Special, six audio commentaries from cast and crew, four brand new mini-comics, a generous handful of entertaining featurettes, and, er, one Hunt the Chicken game, all crammed together in one very classy package...

This BAFTA-winning historical comedy which ran from 1989 to 1994 was a truly unique triumph of children's broadcasting that defied its time slot, and pulled in the grown-ups as much as the kids.

Tony Robinson's scripts put a new comedy twist on the legend of Robin Hood by having Maid Marian depicted as the real heroic leader of the Merry Men, whilst Robin Hood himself is a pretty useless and cowardly ex-tailor, more interested in colour coordinating the outfits than fighting for justice, who accidentally becomes recognised as the most feared and respected member of the gang, despite his total incompetence.

These 8 discs follow the adventures of Marian and her gang of freedom-fighting misfits, as they help the peasants of Worksop Village to fight the tyranny of the villainous King John and his right-hand man, the Sheriff of Nottingham.

As well as creating and writing the series, Tony Robinson also gives us his best comedy performance ever as the devious Sheriff, as he brings infinitely more character and wit to this role than he was ever allowed to as poor old Baldrick in Blackadder.

In fact, many comparisons can be drawn between Blackadder and Maid Marian. Both shows mine a similar comedy source - not just the obvious historical trappings, but also many of the comedy situations derived from the basic set-up - a wily, cunning servant (Sheriff of Nottingham/Blackadder) working for a thoroughly inept and ignorant Monarch (King John/Queenie). You could almost go as far as to say that Maid Marian is a children's version of that classic show, without quite as many willy jokes.

Throughout all four series, Robinson's sparkling scripts are perfectly complemented by a superb cast. Forbes Collins is wonderful as the bad-tempered and deliciously childish King John, whilst Red Dwarf's Danny John-Jules was an inspired choice for rasta merry man Barrington, who also acts as an occasional rapping narrator for the show.
The real scene-stealers though are Mark Billingham and David Lloyd as Gary and Graeme, the King's bumbling guards. Supposedly vicious and ruthless trained killers, they are actually terribly nice but dim blokes and provide much of the humour in these terrific discs.

The first series was the one that stayed most true to its historical(ish) concept, and every episode is a cracker (later seasons, whilst still brilliantly funny, would go off on a bit of a tangent as the show's makers became more aware of it's growing adult audience, and the legend of Robin Hood would begin to play second fiddle to satire and surrealism.) Special mentions within Series One must go to A Game Called John, in which the Merry Men acquire their legendary uniforms from an unexpected source, and the sixth episode The Whitish Knight which pokes fun at ITV's Robin of Sherwood with a brilliant spoof of the cheesy Clannad soundtrack.

There are limited but very welcome special features for the Series One discs. These are mostly aimed at children and probably won't over-excite the mature viewer (a karaoke feature, a quiz, and the first of four brand new mini-comics specially designed for these DVD releases) but maybe that's exactly how it should be. It's all too easy to forget this is a children's show after all.

One mild disappointment is that there is just one commentary soundtrack to be found, provided by Tony Robinson for the first episode. It would have been nice to hear contributions from some of the other cast members on this original series, and it's baffling why Robinson didn't provide commentary on all six episodes as he clearly has a deep love and affection for his wonderful creation.

The adventures continue into Series Two, with a noticeable growth in the cast ensemble. We now have new characters embroiled within the comedy conflicts such as Rose Scargill (Marian's treacherous former best friend and now Robin Hood's biggest fan) and Guy of Gisbourne (King John's utterly useless and wet-behind-the-ears nephew, who is forced to stay with the very reluctant King).

Whilst it's nice to see such a large and lively cast of characters, this season's cast growth does have a small detrimental effect on some of the original regulars. In particular, the introduction of the incredibly silly Guy of Gisbourne into the King John household seems to reduce the roles Gary and Graeme, the undisputed stars of the show. The sheer wetness of Guy does begin to grate after a short while (imagine a very poor man’s Rik Mayall), and it's a shame that the character couldn't have been a little more 'semi-regular', allowing the brilliantly bumbling Guards a bit more room to breathe.

Another noticeable difference between this series and the first is the increasingly frequent use of anachronisms and satire. Whilst the first series remained pretty faithful to its historical setting, the second series begins to veer into the modern world with plenty of contemporary references and clear political satire. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as many of the cultural allusions are so sharply written and downright funny (as well as being a strong pointer to the show's future direction) although it does detract a little from the deep-rooted wholesome magic that embodied the first series.

Nevertheless, all six episodes of Series Two are still charming, witty and captivating episodes in their own right. The Worksop Egg Fairy is a classic example of the show, as the ignorant villagers struggle to come to terms with the concept of a chicken, much to Marian's increasing frustration. The Beast Of Bolsover (a clear reference to Dennis Skinner, MP for Bolsover) sees a rival gang of outlaws attempt a take-over of Sherwood Forest, whilst the series is rounded off with something of an 'epic' - Rotten Rose is, uniquely, a two-part Maid Marian story and sees the gang in real trouble, as both Marian and Robin are finally captured by the Sheriff and face imminent execution.

It's good to see a marked improvement on the special features here, too. This time round, not only do we have commentaries for two whole episodes, but we even have some new participants - Robinson is joined by the director, the costume designer and the make-up artist (stop yawning at the back) for The Beast Of Bolsover, whilst Little Brown Noses features a much more banterous and lively commentary with director David Bell, Howard Lew Lewis (Rabies), David Lloyd (Graeme) and Mike Edmonds (Little Ron).

Also included is a simple but quite slick Hunt The Chicken interactive game (alright then, it’s very simple but I still enjoyed it!) and a rare chance to view an Internal Trailer in which Robinson and the gang try to convince the BBC sales team to get behind a new range of Maid Marian comic books - it's actually quite intriguing to watch this special material, originally intended for BBC eyes only. It’s also a shame that it seems to have gone largely ignored by the BBC sales team, as these brilliantly designed comic books actually ended up flopping quite badly!

The show had a rest for a couple of years before returning with Series Three, which gets off to a bit of a lame start, opening up with two of the weakest episodes of the whole run. Maid Marian always had a strong musical element, often in the form of a brief and perfectly reasonable scene-setting song from Danny John-Jules. But by the third series, the villagers of Worksop were bursting into cheesy song much more frequently, and it does start to seem just a bit unnecessary. The fact that half of the cast members are so blatantly miming to the voices of professional singers doesn’t really help matters, as the show comes perilously close to venturing into Crackerjack territory - a bit of a waste when you’ve got such a great comic premise as this to work with.

It’s not all bad news though; after a disappointing start, the show picks up again with Keeping Mum, a cracking episode in which the band of Merry Men are forced into a temporary career change when Marian’s mother comes to visit, under the impression that her daughter works as a dental receptionist. There’s another Blackadder connection here, as Marian’s mother is played by none other than Patsy Byrne, the legendary Nursie from Blackadder II.

The real highlight of the Series Three discs though is the inclusion of the 50-minute Christmas Special from 1993, Maid Marian and Much The Minimart Manager’s Son, in which a dodgy dealer double-crosses both Marian’s gang and King John’s men, whilst simultaneously conning the peasants of Worksop Village into buying his tacky, useless rubbish to fend off The Giant Toad Monster of Stoke-On-Trent.

It’s an unusually complex but thoroughly engaging story, and makes good use of the extended length to create something truly special - it’s quite possibly Maid Marian at it’s very, very best.

There’s only one audio commentary here for the Keeping Mum episode, but we do get an interesting extra feature in which Tony Robinson discusses creative writing with the King’s guards themselves, Mark Billingham and David Lloyd. I was fascinated to discover that Billingham, whom I’ve only ever known as Gary the affable but dim-witted guard, is now a major best selling author of crime fiction - and that I have actually read some of his fine works without ever making the connection! Here, Billingham and Lloyd discuss how they often came up with storyline ideas to help out a busy Robinson during this hectic third series, which eventually led to the three of them sharing a co-writing credit for one of the episodes of Series Four.

This fourth and final series, consisting of seven episodes in total, was perhaps the strangest of them all. Much of it’s surreal humour and quite sophisticated parodies were now clearly aimed at adults and students rather than the children, and you can’t help feeling that some of the younger audience were now feeling bewildered at this strange show being broadcast in their time slot!

Tunnel Vision is the episode jointly written by Robinson, Billingham and Lloyd, and is widely considered to be one of the very best - something which Robinson  jokingly admits to feeling a bit aggrieved about, as it was the only episode not to be written entirely by himself! It certainly is a brilliantly funny episode - an almost nonsensical parody of The Crystal Maze, in which we see Wayne Morris in a whole new light, as he sheds his usual Robin Hood costume, to perform a top-notch impersonation of Richard O Brien, complete with random harmonica playing and knowing smiles to the camera. It’s a million miles away from the earlier Maid Marian episodes, but it’s still genuinely superb stuff.

The series is rounded off for good with the most bizarre episode ever, Voyage To The Bottom Of The Forest, in which the Merry Men find themselves crash-landing in the parallel world of Engyland, where the villagers of Workflop have been awaiting their arrival to save them from The Wicked Witch. It’s three times as barmy as it sounds, although all is not quite as it seems, and the predictable ending can be guessed just a couple of minutes into the episode.

Perhaps it’s just as well that the series ended here, if the show had got any weirder than this, it could very easily have disappeared up its own backside.

The Series Four special features include audio commentaries for two of the episodes (neither of which yield anything of great interest, I’m afraid) and a series of much more entertaining new comedy sketches with the cast playing themselves at a supposed reunion party - it’s great to see this kind of brand new original and quirky material on DVD releases, rather than the often tedious Making Of... featurettes that we usually end up with.

The best special feature of the entire package is a look back at the Maid Marian comic strips with Tony Robinson and illustrator Paul Cemmick. They discuss the short-lived range of colourful, vivid comic books that criminally failed to sell, as well as the collection of strips that they later worked on together for The Telegraph. Both Robinson and Cemmick are clearly still proud of their collaborative efforts, and it’s nice to see that their work has come full circle as they have reunited to produce the four terrific mini-comics that are presented within this very package.

Overall, Maid Marian and Her Merry Men was a pretty unique slice of television history, and, despite the very occasional and very forgivable lapse in quality every now and then, this has got to be a tempting purchase for anyone with a passing interest in what was quite possibly the greatest children’s television show of all time.


Danny Salter

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