Monday, April 20, 2009

The Herky-Jerky Politics of BBC's Robin Hood

Unfortunately, BBC's Robin Hood is only available through Season 2 in the United States, so I've not seen any subsequent episodes.

I was struck by the weirdness of the politics of the show, especially in the first season. While the second season settled into a bland, vaguely-left multicultural and semi-pacifist ideology, the first season was much more heavy-handed in its politics.

It wasn't weird that BBC had heavy-handed (indeed, often hamfisted) political content; the weird part is how inconsistent it is. It alternated wildly between Labour and Tory politics, rather than having a consistent pro-Labour political message like one expects from the BBC.

Take, for example, the episode "Turk Flu." You've got heroic striking English miners, oppressed cross-dressing Saracens, and all the trappings of a pro-Labour show. The Sheriff of Nottingham is depicted as an evil capitalist mine-owner, with a callous disregard for worker safety. Yes, the episode is one of the stupider ones, but it is what we expect the BBC to produce (er, the political content, not necessarily the stupidity).

On the other end of the spectrum though, is the pilot, "Will You Tolerate This?" In this episode, Robin is a former crusader (though haunted by the horrors of war) who returns to find his people suffering under excessive taxation. When Robin goes to the Council of Nobles meeting on Market Day and finds that there is no commerce because of the taxes, he suggests having a tax holiday every market day, and then offers a Cliff's Notes primer on basic capitalism as if he were channeling Adam Smith. Robin Hood is a tax-cutting capitalist Tory, and the Sheriff of Nottingham is depicted as a self-serving evil politician who pretends to have the people's best interests at heart with high taxes.

And so it goes, lurching back and forth from episode to episode. Sometimes the Sheriff is an evil right-winger, calling the fight against Robin Hood a "war on terror" and decrying the nanny state, and sometimes he's an evil left-winger, proclaiming the patriotic duty* of paying high taxes, and echoing socialist rhetoric that Robin Hood is stealing from us all.

I'm not sure what to make of the back-and-forth political play. At first, I thought it might be a case of dueling writers, each one trying to score political points through the scripts, but I've been unable to detect a pattern in terms of who gets the writing credit for each episode.

Perhaps it is simply that Robin Hood himself resists certain political interpretations. By his very nature, he is necessarily a populist figure, yet he fights the usurping Prince John in favor of the crusading King Richard. Robin Hood is not anti-authority; rather, he champions legitimate authority. Though in shorthand we often say Robin Hood "steals from the rich and gives to the poor," as we get past the bumper sticker version into full narrative we find that he steals from the (illegitimate) state and returns to the over-taxed poor what was already theirs. Ironically, for someone who is so often seen as a hero of wealth redistribution, Robin Hood is radically against the redistribution of wealth, and in fact distributes wealth back to those who originally produced it. Upon the return of King Richard, Robin Hood doesn't join a commune -- he re-takes his rightful place as feudal lord, master of his peasants. Robin Hood must flee to Sherwood Forest and take up arms because he is the rightful lord, fighting against the illegitimate authority of usurpers.

King Arthur is endlessly malleable in terms of his politics. He has been used as a symbol of both left and right, to good effect. Robin Hood, on the other hand, resists use as anything but a hero of the populist right. The further writers move away from that, the more their source material has to be stretched and twisted; it always risks popping back to its original shape.

*American audiences should note that the first season of Robin Hood preceded Joe Biden's claim that paying higher taxes is patriotic, so the similarity between Biden and the Sheriff is Biden's fault, not the writers of Robin Hood.


  1. Something does feel slightly unsettling politics-wise about this series, but I haven't been able to put my finger on it. I think you did for me!

  2. Hey Robin Hood is a best show for all time and now I got a site for this show and now I am going to Download Robin Hood Tv Show with all episodes of every season. Friends you can also watch this show for free from here... :)

  3. Anonymous2:24 PM

    I am a big fan of tv shows. I always Watch TV Shows Online. This is really great show. Thanks.

  4. I guess Robin Hood can be watched online here: Watch TV online

  5. I watched the BBC's Robin Good, pretty enjoyable movie.

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  6. Robin Hood is one of my favorite movies as well as books btw.

  7. I love this movie! It's just awesome:)

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  8. I think Robin Hood is one of the most controversial and interesting characters in literature ever. From one point he is a hero that is helping poor people but from another he is actually a thief who is stealing without even being sorry for that. Robin Hood stories seemed so fascinating to me always, thank you for this one as well!