Mud, mud, all over the street, it sticks to your feet, It’s mud, mud, You get it in your hair, you get it everywhere, that mud, brown mud…
Thursday, 16th November 1989, BBC1, and the first episode of Maid Marian is broadcast. I loved it… but will it stand up to in-depth critical evaluation? I don’t know. But let’s see if it stands up to my shitty blatherings instead.
First off – irritatingly, the DVD comes in a cardboard slipcase. I know that should be a positive thing – and it does give a premium feel – but I dislike them. It’s an extra thing to have to pull off before you can watch the DVD, and they’re easily damaged.
The cover is identical on both the slipcase and the DVD case – and it’s OK. The front is far too busy, the photos aren’t the best quality in the world, and the rest of the design blends in too much with the green the gang are wearing. Camouflage is great when you’re a merry man hiding from someone, but not so good for the DVD covers. Infuriatingly, it also commits the sin of calling the release a “Special Edition”. No, it isn’t – because that indicates that there is also some kind of “standard edition” released, which there hasn’t. (I don’t think the VHS counts, and besides – the Series 2 DVD bears the same wording, and Series 2 wasn’t released on VHS.)
On the plus side, the cover does bear the rather fun wording “The true story of what happened in Sherwood Forest – Uncovered by and starring Tony Robinson”, and there are some pictures of the gang round the logo from the booklet – more on which later. The back cover is far better designed, and we’re also told that the series won the award for Best Children’s Programme (Entertainment/Drama) in the 1989 BAFTAs, which I didn’t know before. Well done.
Open the case up and remove the booklet, and you’ve got a handy list of chapter points inside. (The chapter titles themselves are pretty mundane, sadly.) Irritatingly, there’s not a chapter point placed just before the end credits, which would be useful – especially considering how nice the end credits are. There’s also the two discs – see if you can guess my complaint about this, and I’ll tell you if you’re right later on. The discs themselvss are picture discs – the design is nice enough, but they aren’t particularly well printed.
Oh joy, it’s the Eureka Video ident. Still unchanged, and still as appalling as ever. If something’s going to look that unprofessional, you might as well not bother. Let’s move on.
The introduction sequence is a nice clip from Robert The Incredible Chicken, where Marian is teaching Robin how to shoot an arrow. This eventually segues rather nicely into the main menu, where the arrow finally hits home. Well, I say a “nice clip” – it’s nice the first couple of times. After that, you’ll want to skip it… which unfortunately, the disc doesn’t allow you to do (unlike the intros of the Red Dwarf DVDs). It’s only 25 seconds long, so hardly the WORST THING IN THE WORLD, but it’s yet another slight irritance that the release could easily have avoided. (To be fair, the second disc goes straight into the menu.)
The menus themselves are quite nicely designed – select an option, and a (rather badly rendered, it has to be said) archer pulls back an arrow and lets it fly into another tree – where the next menu is stuck to. It’s pretty effective, and the bullseye option highlight is a nice touch (although it’s sometimes difficult to see which option is highlighed, which negates the point of it slightly). Travelling back through the menus doesn’t use the same animation – instead, an arrow flies upwards to reveal the last menu. A small thing perhaps, but it is a lot faster – and makes traversing the menus a lot more pleasant than some releases. I hate long animations when all you want to do is go back to the previous menu.
Unfortunately, the menus do have yet another of my bugbears – there’s a seperate Setup menu, which when you select it, leads you to an entirely different menu with just the Subtitles On/Off option on. Now, I can understand a seperate menu if there’s also going to be controls for the commentary on it – but as there isn’t, a seperate menu for just the subtitles is pointless. Why not just have the subtitles option on the first menu in place of the Setup option?
All is forgiven, however, for the music on the menus. Not only is the music on the main menu the backing track of the end credits – no singers, just the music – but the music on the chapter menus for each episode is the backing track for the main song in that episode. It’s incredible that these have been dug out of the archive – really, really impressive stuff.
Unfortunately, whilst the version of the main theme on the main menu is complete, the versions of the episode-specific songs only last 50 seconds or so – it’s not the complete recording, even as heard in the episode. Gah! Why bother to go to the trouble of digging these out, and then not include the full versions? If it wasn’t practical to include them in the menus, why not as a music cues extra, along with the full, sung versions?
There’s also another missed opportunity with these… but I’ll get to that in time.
One other point – the discs themselves aren’t actually named, so if you’re playing them on your puter, you can’t see at a glance of the desktop which disc you’ve got in your drive, which is annoying.
To answer my question at the start of this review then – yes, it stands up. Fuck me, does it stand up.
It’s a cliche to say that there are no good children’s programmes made any more. And it’s not strictly true – you only have to look at Cartoon Network’s output (Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends, Billy and Mandy, etc), or the sadly now-deceased Dick and Dom in da Bungalow to see the lie in that. But whilst I can’t say I’ve been following CBBC hugely closely, it has been a while since I saw a decent live action kids show of this level. That’s partly because, rightly or wrongly, executives think that the market for kids TV has disappeared – and that once they get to a certain age, they want to pretend to be grown-up, and watch Hollyoaks and Eastenders instead of quality drama and comedy aimed at their age group. I personally think that’s bollocks, but there we go.
But this was produced when the BBC routinely produced quality kids stuff. This, frankly, is a show that’s had money chucked at it. Glorious location shooting (which makes up most of the episodes – and just look at how stunning the village set looks), beautiful sets (the castle set is just wonderful), fantastic music (not just the songs; the incidental music is amazing) – hell, even the credits at the beginning and end are gorgeous. Glorious,stunning, beautiful, fantastic, amazing, gorgeous – each word thoroughly deserved. Every single part of the show oozes quality. Even the episode title and credits at the start are wonderfully designed – combined with the evocative music stings… this is a show that has had love and attention festooned onto it from every single department.
The start of The White Knight is simultaneously hilarious, and absolutely beautiful to look at. Look at that beautiful Dorset countryside. And, if I may entertain yet another of my personal bugbears, proof that you don’t have to slap a film effect all over something to make it look great.
The cast is uniformly excellent. Honours have to go to Tony Robinson as the Sherriff, and Forbes Collins as King John, but there isn’t a single bad performance here. And it’s funny. A lot of it is character and performance based, so it’s impossible to portray the joy of the Marian/Rabies exchange “Rabies, what’s thick and chops down trees?” / “Erm… me.” in written form. But there’s also some wonderful parodies – the archery-competiton-as-darts stuff in Robert The Incredible Chicken is just sublime. “And now, our final competitor, Robert the Incredible Chicken. Are you nervous, Robert?” / “Oh, not really, Sheriff, taking each arrow as it comes – I’m fit, I’ve worked hard, and it’s just down to me now to go out there, you know, and get a result…” And there’s loads of quality slapstick to top things off. What more could you want?
Here’s a show that talks to kids – not talks down to them. Witness the Sheriff in Robert The Incredible Chicken, after he has survived an arrow through his hat:
“Who did that, come on, who was it? Look, when a perfectly innocent passer-by is walking through these woods, he does not expect on oaf, some stupid stupid little boy, to act oh-so-clever with his stupid friends by showing off with a bow and arrow. Because let me tell you – that hat is very special to me – because it was given to me by a very special person – My Auntie Marjorie. Now, if the boy who did this has got any guts at all, I want him to own up right now. Because if he doesn’t, then everyone in this entire forest is going to have to stay behind until he does.”
Brilliant stuff – hilarious, original, ridiculously well-acted, and undermining authority as all the best kids shows do.
Another delightful thing about the series is something Robinson mentions in the commentary – the show isn’t exactly innocent. FFS, Gary and Grahame strip naked in the very first episode. But there’s also the general air that anything might almost happen, even if it never quite does. I recall when a kid I found Kellie Bright’s performance as the little girl trouser-troubling – she has attitude, as indeed do most of the characters, which gives the show an edge. (Today, I will stress, I no longer find her trouser-troubling. She’s still one of the best child actresses I’ve ever seen, though.) As Tony says, children aren’t innocent – people are delusional if they think they are – and the series simply reflects that. And reflects it in a far better way than Rachel Stevens bursting out all over.
It’s not absolutely perfect. Very occasionally Marian herself can come across as slightly too twee; and the occassional thing is rammed into the ground a bit too much (the “people watching us on little boxes” bit from The White Knight, for instance – or the whole Snooker thing in A Game Called John). But the missteps are few and far between.
I actually come from Nottingham – the legend of Robin Hood tends to get drummed into you from a very early age. (Cue Lee & herring walking onto the stage at a gig in Nottingham I went to – both wearing Robin Hood hats. Stu was embarrassed.) And yet, out of all the versions over the years – it’s Maid Marian that sticks in my head as the definitive version. Which is bizarre, but somehow fitting.
Yet again, I repeat my assertion – anything I loved as a kid, I still love now – and I still can’t understand why other people feel differently. Some people have the view that great TV like this is wasted on kids – but as far as I can tell, I what I loved about the show then is the stuff I still love about the show now – give or take the odd parody or reference that I now get. Good TV isn’t wasted on kids – because most kids know the difference between good and crap telly. You’re talking down to them if you think anything different. Even at a younger age range – there’s a reason why Teletubbies captivates youngsters. It’s because it’s well-made and well-produced telly.
Booklet: An eight-page comic, written by Tony Robinson and drawn by Paul Cemmick. And it’s BRILLIANT. A show for kids, and they manage to get a penis joke on the second panel. And another one on the third panel. And another one on the fifth panel. You almost get the impression that this is the level Tony Robinson wanted the series to be at in the first place, and was censored – given a few comments he makes in the commentary.
Interestingly, the character designs don’t seem to be based on the actors themselves (rights? Or an artistic decision?), but that’s no problem. It’s funny, it’s rude, it’s ridiculously well drawn, it wittily concerns Maid Marian and her Merry Men returning after a long absence – and I love it. I know I’ve been a whinging bastard so far in terms of DVD-specific stuff – but here, they haven’t put a foot wrong. Superb. “A fifteen year old children’s programme! This really is torture!”
If only there was a poster in the same style…
Trailer: Presumably broadcast on CBBC leading up until transmission, this is bad quality, presumably taken from VHS. It’s a great shame there’s a “Unrestored original BBC trailer” caption superimposed onto part of it – couldn’t that have been stuck on as a title card before, rather than obscuring part of the trailer? I also wish some kind of restoration had been done on it. Still, it’s impessive that it was dug out, and nice to see.
How the Germans saw it: Ah, it’s the equivalent of the Japanese version of The End! (Although actually, I’ve revised my opinion of that – I think it’s pretty interesting, and nice to see the whole thing rather than clips. But I digress.) The two clips shown are from The Sharp End of a Cow and The White Knight, and last about nine minutes in total. It’s pretty amusing stuff (albiet probably the kind of thing you only want to watch once) – although you wonder why they didn’t just put an alternative German soundtrack on a couple of episodes instead. To be fair, maybe there were further edits made to the German broadcasts that made this unworkable. Anyway, bonus marks for labelling these as “Klammer 1” and “Klammer 2” – klammer meaning, of course, ‘clip’.
Commentary: Oh yes. Tony Robinson, chatting away over Episode 1. And he’s brilliant – informative, critical, hilarious, and has no awkward pauses. One of the best commentary participants I’ve ever heard. You only have to listen to the first minute of it before he tells us that Danny John-Jules is “more of a crapper than a rapper”. And he says dickhead. Ha ha, Tony Robinson said dickhead! I won’t ruin the rest of it by quoting it to death – but needless to say, this is by far the best extra on the disc.
It’s the usual complaint, though – in fact, it’s so predictable you don’t even need to read the rest of this paragraph. Indeed, I advise you to skip it. Why only one episode? It just isn’t enough – because it’s the only actual analysis of the series on the disc (bar an extremely short easter egg). If there was a documentary or something, it wouldn’t matter – but as there isn’t, a full set of commentaries would have been enough to give the series a bit of context. As it is, the release is sorely lacking in this area. The series deserves better.
Lute Karaoke: A missed opportunity.
When I first read about this, I was ridiculously excited. Maid Marian karaoke – what could be better? But the problem is – the only song included is the main theme. (Set to a collection of clips, with the main theme playing, and the words at the bottom). I was expecting all the episode-specific songs there too. I do wonder whether this was the original intention – you have to select a specific tuner on the lute in order to play the song. Perhaps some of the other tuners were originally meant to play the other episode-specific music.
Worse, it’s not even like it’s a karaoke version of the song playing (like the main menus) – it’s just the standard version. As it is, you might as well just sing along at the end of each episode. What a senseless waste!
Quiz: Surprisingly hard, actually – it might take you a while to get 10/10. And when you get an answer right or wrong, you get the Sheriff (in newly-recorded lines by Tony Robinson) congratulating or insulting you, which is quite amusing. There’s more than 10 questions as well – they’re all mixed up – so it’s not as stupidly simple as some DVD quizzes. Fun enough, for what it is.
Easter egg: A short one minute piece, with Tony Robinson talking over clips of the characters, detailing the inspiration for the names of the characters. I won’t ruin the punchline, but it’s well worth listening to for it. Sadly, all it does is make me want to hear far, far more of him.
Well, did you guess my complaint regarding the discs? Put simply: this release did not need two discs. The episodes and extras would easily have fitted onto one. (The six episodes are less than 25 minutes each!) Eureka have a habit of doing this – some of the Brittas releases were the same – and I can think of few things in DVD-land more infuriating. It’s pure marketing bollocks (LOOK! IT’S A TWO-DISC SET!) at the expense of ease of use, and it really gets my feckles up. I knocked a star off the extras for that one. THAT’LL SHOW THEM.
As for the extras – I feel bad saying they’re kinda weak, but… they’re kinda weak. The booklet is fantastic, as is the first episode commentary – but the rest of it is pretty insubstantial. A series like this deserves to be celebrated. I know budget is a problem with DVD extras, and a proper documentary is often not possible – but even a full set of commentaries would have done in providing this series with a bit of context. And – I’m sorry, but they asked for this one – if you’re going to call something a “Special Edition”, I want a full set of commentaries and documentaries, and archive material if extant. Not in the position to do this? Then for crying out loud, don’t call it a Special Edition!
(Incidentally, apart from the VHS-sourced trailer, there is no archive material on this set – no outtakes, no deleted scenes, nothing. Whether this is because they don’t exist, or simply because they weren’t hunted down for the DVD, I have no idea – I don’t know what the archive status of the first series of Maid Marian is. So I simply don’t know whether anything of this nature could be included. I haven’t knocked off any stars for the lack of this kind of material.)
However, the usual problem comes up… if this had been released without any extras at all, it would still be worth buying. Because the series itself is so stunning. It’s the essential problem with DVD extras – and to be fair, with a release like this, you’re almost amazed that there’s any at all. It’s just a shame that if they’d spent a bit more money and done six commentaries, they’d have an extras package I would think was pretty damn good considering – and well worth four stars.
I don’t mean to tear this release to shreds, or anything. I’ve mentioned plenty of things that irritate me, but a lot of them are mentioned purely because this is a DVD review and it would be pointless not mentioning the things that I would have done differently, even if only slightly. But it’s the lack of contextual material in this package that really hurts it. But I can hardly not recommend you get the release because of this – the episodes are a pure, unadulterated joy:
“I will punish you both as no man has ever been punished before. I will do such disgusting things to you, that even the torturers will go URRRGGGHHH, and ask to leave the room.”