The day I told Robin Hood to drop his tights and join the SAS


23rd September 2006

Jonas Armstrong as the Robin Hood in the BBC's new Robin Hood series that is being shown on British TV screens during the autumn.

Jonas Armstrong Robin Hood
Lucy Griffiths Maid Marian
Keith Allen the Sheriff of Nottingham
Richard Armitage Guy of Gisbourne
Gordon Kennedy Little John
Sam Troughton Much
Harry Lloyd Will Scarlet
Joe Armstrong Allan-a-Dale
William Beck Roy

Standing in a doorway of a narrow cobbled street on a cold, April morning, the body of a freshly slaughtered goat dangling from a nearby beam, I watched as two men on horseback made their way through a busy market.

To those in the ragged crowd, they appeared quite nondescript. But I knew different. These men were freedom fighters - or terrorists, depending on your point of view. Highly trained soldiers, determined to bring down their country's regime.

It sounds like a flashback to my time with Special Forces, when I would try to blend into the crowd in some Middle Eastern or South American market. But these were no Al Qaeda suspects. This was a breathtakingly realistic film set, in Hungary, with actors portraying Robin Hood and his companion Much, for the BBC's new Saturday evening series.

The show is a fresh, modern and intelligent take on the traditional tale and stars Irish actor Jonas Armstrong. I was there to advise the writer, Dominic Minghella, on what the leader of a band of guerrilla freedom fighters might be like (I've met a few over the years) and how such a man might conduct himself.

Make no mistake: this latest incarnation of Robin Hood is unlike anything you have seen before. Forget the laughing Douglas Fairbanks Jnr, the thigh-slapping Errol Flynn and the well groomed Richard Greene riding through the glen. And don't expect a reprise of the touchy-feely character portrayed by Kevin Costner in 1991's Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves.

This new Robin, who makes his debut on our screens next month, is very much a product of our age, inspired by some of the warriors in Iraq and Afghanistan. Robin's cause is a noble one, of course, unlike today's fanatics who blow up innocent civilians in the name of Islam. Nevertheless, he is regarded as a terrorist by the Sheriff of Nottingham.

That is not to say there isn't a great deal of humour in this new series - you laugh because of the witty script. Gone are Friar Tuck and the tights, in come tactics and character traits similar to the modern-day rebel fighters I came across during my time with the SAS.

The Merry Men are less merry and more businesslike. Even the costumes have a cachet that may become the latest thing once this show is aired.

The BBC set, just outside Budapest, was incredible. Designers had conjured up a medieval town square, complete with shops, houses, taverns and, of course, the exterior of Nottingham Castle.

Outside the castle walls was a moat and in the centre of the square was a set of gallows. I had never been on a working set before, and when I saw it for the first time I was astounded by the attention to detail. Only by touching the castle walls could I persuade myself they were not made of solid stone.

On set, the activity was frenetic. Everywhere I looked there were wires and lights and technicians and cameramen bustling around preparing for the next take, while costumed actors huddled under umbrellas, taking cover from a steady drizzle. The most extraordinary sight of all, however, was that of the 30 or so extras.

Where they found such a bizarre-looking bunch of people I have no idea. Long and short, fat and thin, with lumps and bumps and carbuncles; every one was worthy of a second look. One man must have been 6ft 7in, most of him neck. A woman standing next to him was under 5ft, and about the same width-ways. They were frightening and made for very convincing medieval peasants.

Wandering through the set, producer Foz Allen outlined the concept of the new production and introduced me to the cast.

The idea was one of Robin returning from an unpopular war to which he willingly went, motivated by love of king and country, and at great personal sacrifice, only to find an England in the grip of a slightly mad despot (Keith Allen's menacing and calculating Sheriff) said to be based on Gordon Brown.

Disillusioned by what he finds, Robin tries to make sense of his situation. He soon realises there is more righteousness among the outlaws that have set themselves against the regime than there is among the Establishment.

I found myself in a not dissimilar situation two years ago when I returned from Iraq and realised the extent to which we had been misled by the Government, and I suspect it is no accident that Dominic Minghella, younger brother of Oscar-winning director Anthony, had asked me along to add some thoughts on how such a character might manifest himself.

Back at my hotel, I took time to reflect on those who reminded me of Robin. The character is a metaphor much used in resistance scenarios. Today, Islamic fanatics describe Osama Bin Laden as a Robin Hood figure, while in the Seventies Francie Hughes, the IRA terrorist and hunger striker, was also regarded in his community as a Robin Hood. He cultivated that image despite being shot and captured by the SAS and then jailed until his death by starvation.

But these men have nothing to do with the real Robin Hood. Although probably a composite of individuals rather than one historical figure, the character of Robin is, nevertheless, an inspiring one. He is a righteous man, an idealist who has no truck with oppressors, wherever they might be. This immediately disqualifies Osama Bin Laden and Francie Hughes, who use, or used, bloodshed as a tool and whose aim is murder.

If Robin was around today he probably would be at odds with the Government and the blunders of the "War on Terror", but there the analogy with Bin Laden would end. He certainly wouldn't resort to the murder of innocents, or fit a suicide vest to Little John and justify his actions by some spurious interpretation of the Koran.

There are fighters I have met, however, who can lay claim to the legacy of Robin Hood. One is my old ally in Iraq, Karim Mahood, aka Abu Hatim, aka the "Prince of the Marshes". He led a Shia rebel faction against Saddam after his release from jail in 1986 and fought a 17-year guerrilla war against the dictator. He was styled as Robin by his followers in Al Amarah and, although now regarded by most British commanders as a terrorist, was a brave and honourable fighter.

The same applies to Ahmed Shah Massoud, known as the Lion of Panjshir by his followers, who led the Northern Alliance against first the communists and then the Taliban in Afghanistan. And there is also a young Arab sheik, whom I cannot name, who greatly impressed me with his integrity during his nation's most turbulent times. Educated at Gordonstoun and Sandhurst, he is at ease with statesmen yet can talk long into the night round a campfire with tribesmen who hang on to his every word, in awe of his mystique.

There are also many SAS soldiers who evoke the spirit of Robin Hood. These are the men who join indigenous rebel forces around the world and help them in their battle against our common enemies. Their deeds are never publicised but these "blades", as we call SAS soldiers, are some of the bravest I have ever met.

When they return to their original regiments, inoculated against the "but that's how we've always done it" attitude of the bureaucratic Cold War generation of senior officers, they are treated as heroes. Their confident style and credibility, won on the battlefield, grates with the time-servers and inspires a whole new generation of volunteers.

All these men have certain personality traits that I tried to pass on to Jonas. They are charismatic and courageous, as all leaders must be. They are battle-hardened. And they are supremely confident, but never arrogant. Jonas is a fantastic actor, but when I first watched him delivering his lines a dramatic scene in which he reads out a death sentence handed out by the Sheriff of Nottingham he sounded as if he were at a sixth-form prize-giving.

At first, I tried to tell him something about Abu Hatim and General Massoud and explain how they generated so much authority and loyal devotion. But unless you've met them in the flesh, it is hard to understand, let alone imitate. However, as luck would have it, there was someone on set who acted as inspiration the stunt co-ordinator, Bla Unger.

A bull-necked Hungarian with a head like a robber's dog, a lantern jaw and piercing blue eyes, Bla was as adept at riding horses as wielding a sword and stomped round the set terrifying everyone. Whenever you were with him, you had the sense that something dangerous was about to happen.

"Deliver your lines a bit more like Bla," I said to Jonas. He understood exactly what I meant and his performance transformed immediately.

At an ungodly hour the next day, I was picked up from my hotel and returned to the set. To my surprise the actors were already there, preparing their costumes and going over their lines. It's hard work being an actor, I discovered. Before starting my work, I sat down for breakfast, which was dealt out in industrial quantities, much to the delight of the extras. They shuffled in looking like Orcs from The Lord Of The Rings (and that was before they'd put on their costumes and make-up) and ploughed through the breakfast as if it were an eating contest.

That day I watched some fantastic scenes and acts of derring-do by the stuntmen. There were back-flips off barns, breathtaking rope slides and exciting fight scenes. At one stage, 12 outlaws hammered past on horses within inches of me, pursued by the Sheriff's men in full armour. It was authentic and exhilarating and reminded me that little has changed in the world of guerrilla warfare in 800 years. Just as Robin Hood robs the rich to feed the poor, so today's freedom fighters often have to resort to thieving to fund their campaigns.

In another scene, Robin Hood hides broadswords in a cartload of hay, just as IRA terrorists used to hide guns in the boots of cars. And while Robin targets his enemies with flaming arrows, so today's rebels attack with bombs and mortars.

By the time I left the set, I thought Jonas had captured the spirit of Robin Hood perfectly. There is something about his performance that reminds me of David Beckham or Jamie Oliver, but, in a strange way, that seems appropriate.

Today's rebel leader has to be media-savvy. Image is important. It is a combination of image, charisma, courage and skill that motivates your followers and terrifies your enemies.

I believe that Jonas's character has it all. I look forward to the series.

ROBIN HOOD - Our Robin is a noble - Robin of Locksley - who returns with honours from the Holy Land - and a new perspective on fairness and the value of human life. Clever, idealistic, arrogant but selfless, dryly humorous, heroic, a little world - and battle-weary, undaunted by authority, sometimes outrageously bold but always principled.

MARIAN - Courageous, smart, proud Marian is as adventurous a champion of the poor as Robin. Marian must appear to toe the line in Nottingham for the sake of her father, but her toughness belies the pain of lost love: her heart is yet to be unlocked. The years may have eroded Marian's gentleness but they have left untouched her generosity of spirit and keen sense of duty to her people.

THE SHERIFF OF NOTTINGHAM - A ruthless, charming, ambitious, paranoid, driven, cruel, calculating, political-minded, insecure, witty, devious, intelligent, highly-strung strategist.

Sir Guy of Gisborne - Vain, brutal, ambitious, loyal, practical, unemotional, single-minded, boastful, frustrated, he's a selfish bully. Gisborne is capable of tremendous cruelty in his overwhelming pursuit of heritage and position, yet beyond this drive for recognition is his one hope for redemption: Marian.

Will Scarlett - Son of Locksley's carpenter, Will is the gang's chief engineer. He can construct anything from any material, so long as it's wood. Will's family suffered during the bleak years of Robin's absence, and his passionate hatred for all things Sheriff makes him fundamental to the gang's central mission.

Little John - Little John was leader of the forest outlaws before Robin arrived. A man of few words and much muscle, John has a more simplistic morality than Robin's: see a problem, sort it out. But underneath that brute strength, is Little John hiding a big heart?

Allan-a-Dale - Witty, cheeky, Allan can talk the hind legs off a donkey. He would talk the hind legs off his own donkey, and find himself having to walk, if Robin did not rein him in. He is a pathological liar, and a brilliant front-man for scams.

Much - Robin's manservant is sometimes daft, forever loyal, forever hungry, forever yearning for the warmth of the home fire. He makes us laugh. He SO doesn't want to be in the forest. And yet, if he wasn't by Robin's side - wherever that may be - we know Much would wither and die.