Robin Hood Airport

Sean Bean and Brian Blessed

As regular readers of this blog will know, Robin Hood not only has links with Nottinghamshire but also Yorkshire - both counties continuing to claim him as their own.

In April 2005, when the Peel Group opened their £80 million airport on the former site of RAF Finningley in the borough of Doncaster, South Yorkshire, they provocatively re-named it 'Robin Hood Airport.'

This former long range nuclear bomber base is situated less than 18 miles from the legendary haunts described in one of the oldest tales about the outlaw, A Gest of Robyn Hode printed between 1492-1534.
   Robyn stode in Bernesdale,
  And lenyd hym to a tre;
  And bi hym stode Litell Johnn,
  A gode yeman was he.
The 'Barnsdale' referred to in the early ballad - the base for the outlaw's activities - is often identified with a relatively small area in South Yorkshire near The Great North Road, just north of Doncaster. Wentbridge and Saylis also appear in the stories of Robin Hood and the Potter and the Gest respectively. Legend states that his remains are buried at Kirklees Priory near Brighouse, West Yorkshire.

So two years after the airport's official opening a10-foot bronze statue of Robin Hood, sculpted by Neale Andrew was unveiled by actors Sean Bean and Brian Blessed on the first floor of the airport. Both actors are Yorkshire born and bred and proud of their roots.

During a press interview after the ceremony Sean Bean confessed that he would, "love to play Robin Hood on the big screen," he said. "It's 16 years [2007] since Kevin Costner did it - now it's my turn." 

Sean Bean with the statue of Robin Hood

Sean Bean continued:
"And we all know Robin Hood was definitely a Yorkshireman who was chased into Nottingham. They say he could be from Loxley in Sheffield - thats near where I come from. In fact Robin Hood is possibly my great, great, great, great, great, grandfather." 

Brian Blessed, who played Robin Hood's father in the Costner movie Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, joked that the reason they were both invited was because, " Sean is very talented, but I have the sex appeal."

Sean Bean and Brian Blessed

Blessed said:
"I was born just eight miles away in Mexborough and I lived in Goldthorpe, my dad died about a year ago - he was the oldest surviving coal miner, he was 99 - and he was thrilled to bits with this airport. It's marvellous the way it's revitalised the area. I'm very proud to be part of this."
After the airport was re-named in 2005, Nottingham  council accused Doncaster of 'jumping on the band-wagon'!

To read about Robin Hood's death at Kirklees please click here. Information about the medieval ballads Robin Hood and the Potter and the Gest of Robyn Hode can be seen here and there are many more links and in the sidebars.

Geoffrey Godway (1911-1999)

Geoffrey Godway (1911-1999) with Joan Rice in the make-up department

This is an up-date to a post from three years ago. It was in November of that year I posted a picture of Joan Rice (1930-1997) in the make-up department for her role as Maid Marian during the filming of Walt Disney's Story of Robin Hood and his Merrie Men.

At the time, I was not sure who the gentleman was applying the make-up. I went through the names, including Geoffrey Rodway the Make-Up Supervisor on the movie, Trevor Crole-Rees, Stuart Freeborn, Eddie Knight, A. L Lawrence, Robert Alexander and Wally Schneiderman. They are all listed in various articles as uncredited make-up artists on Disney’s live-action movie. At the time I guessed in might have been Geoffrey Rodway.

Well, I was thrilled to receive a message from Alex Rodway:
“Yes that is Geoffrey Rodway, my grandfather.”

Neil, our regular contributor, also informed us that South African born Geoffrey Rodway (1911-1999) was employed in various make-up departments from the early forties right through to the seventies. Including working on the much-loved Carry-On films.

Rodway was part of the team that worked for Walt Disney on Treasure Island and Sword and the Rose.  He was also Joan Rice's make-up artist not just on Robin Hood, but also Curtain Up, A Day To Remember and One Good Turn. 

In March of this year Mick got in touch and asked if the family had lived in Iver in Buckinghamshire? I am pleased to say that yesterday Tim Walker contacted me with this answer:

"Hi all - I'm another of Geoff's grandsons - cousin of Alex who wrote in previously. Geoff did a large number of films at Pinewood Studios, which are of course situated in Iver. So yes Geoff and his wife Nora (who was also his assistant) did live in the area - I think in Denham and Iver at some stage. This was up until Geoff retired and they moved to the South coast during the seventies. I hope this is of interest. Regards, Tim Walker. 

Many thanks to all those who very kindly contacted this web site regarding Geoffrey Rodway, especially members of his family. If you have any information regarding the production crew or actors and actresses that made Disney's Story of Robin Hood please get in-touch. I will be pleased to hear from you.

Archie Duncan, Villain and Hero

Archie Duncan (1914-1979) has the unique distinction of playing a villain and a hero in the world of Robin Hood. He played Red Gill, the murderer of Robin’s father in The Story of Robin Hood (1952) and Little John in 105 episodes of TV’s The Adventures of Robin Hood between 1955-1959. 

Archie Duncan is proving to be a popular choice for your favourite Little John of 'all-time' in our current poll (see the right-hand panel on this blog).

Archie Duncan

Archibald Duncan was born in Glasgow on 26th May 1914 and was educated at Govern High School. His father was a regimental sergeant major and his mother a postmistress. The Scottish actor Russell Hunter remembers ‘big Archie’ at a Communist Party Rally in support of the Soviet Union and the opening of a second front in 1941. Duncan was then working as a welder at John Brown’s Shipyard.

“I was looking for acting work,” Russell Hunter said. “Duncan came up to me and asked if I he had a big voice? I replied yes! So he invited me through to a back room, where I was asked to read the part of the fascist in the Saturday night production at the Partick Borough Halls. As the original actor had been called up.”

Archie Duncan later introduced Russell Hunter to the Glasgow Unity.

It was at the Citizens Theatre Company that Duncan joined the training ground of many Scottish actors including, Molly Urquart, Duncan Macrae, Gordon Jackson and Eileen Herlie. He then made his Scottish acting debut in Juno and the Paycock, playing all three gunmen, at Glasgow's Alhambra in May 1944.

Duncan's London debut came at the Phoenix Theatre in 1947 when he appeared with Alistair Sim and George Cole as Inspector Mc Iver in Dr Angelus.

Film roles started to follow with: Operation Bullshine (1948) Counter Blast (1948), The Bad Lord Byron (1949), Floodtide (1949), The Gorballs Story (1950), The Elusive Pimpernel (1950), Green Grow the Rushes (1951), Flesh and Flood (1951), Circle of Danger (1951) Henry V (1951), The Lavender Hill Mob (1951) You're Only Young Twice (1952), Hot Ice (1952), Home At Seven (1952) and Walt Disney's The Story Of Robin Hood and his Merrie Men as 'Red Gill' (1952).

Archie Duncan as Red Gill 

Two years later Duncan teamed up with Richard Todd and James Robertson Justice again in Disney’s Rob Roy the Highland Rogue as Dugal Mac Gregor.

Archie Duncan as Red Gill with Richard Todd as Robin Hood

In-between these various film roles, came the first of his long running TV appearances in the early U.S. series Sherlock Holmes as Inspector Lestrade. But just as he was finishing the final recording of Sherlock Holmes in 1955, he was preparing for a role that he will always be fondly remembered.

Richard Greene as Robin Hood and Archie Duncan as Little John

6ft. 2inch Archie was to play the part of Little John for Sapphire Films in The Adventures of Robin Hood with Richard Greene, at Nettlefold Studios, the first production of the newly formed ITP company (later ITC). It was commissioned by Lew Grade and was shown in the first weekend of Independent television in 1955 and became a massive success, running to 143 episodes

Duncan's portrayal of Little John would be fondly remembered decades later for his combination of strength, skill and  humour.  It was during the filming this unforgettable series that this Scottish gentle giant proved to be a true hero and managed to prevent a runaway horse from hurtling towards a group of spectators, consisting of mainly children, watching close by. For this brave feat, he was awarded the Queen’s Commendation for Bravery and £1,360 in damages. But it also resulted in him missing the recording of eleven episodes of Robin Hood. So between times, a replacement was found in fellow Scotsman, Rufus Cruickshank.

After TV’s The Adventures of Robin Hood, Duncan’s most notable film roles were in Saint Joan (1957) and Ring of Bright Water (1969). 

Matt Robertson sent me this message:
"I think I remember "meeting" Archie Duncan when I was a child visiting grandparents at Linthouse, Govan. As I recall, Archie Duncan was occasionally in the small Post Office at Linthouse, his mother or sister was the postmistress there. I would have gone into the Post Office, along with other kids at the time, to shout out, "Who killed the otter?" He had been our hero as Little John on TV but whacked Mij in Ring of Bright Water."
Archie Ducan's career in television production carried on with parts in programmes like Z Cars, Hereward the Wake, Orlando, Black Beauty and Bootsie and Snudge. 

But in 1978 he suffered a massive stroke which caused paralysis down his right side. Sadly he passed away at Whipps Cross Hospital in Leytonstone, London aged 65 on 24th July 1979. 

Don't forget to get involved and vote for your all-time favourite Little John in our poll in the right-hand task bar.

Your Favourite Friar Tuck

James Hayter  as Friar Tuck on the set of Disney's Story of Robin Hood

In last week's post I explained how Friar Tuck has been an integral part of Robin Hood's men since Anthony Munday's two Elizabethan plays, 'The Downfall' and 'The Death of Robert Earl of Huntington' (1598). This jovial character has been interpreted thousands of times. But which actor in your opinion portrayed him the best?

As regular readers of this blog will know, I have run a couple of surveys to find your all-time favourite Robin Hood and Maid Marian. It was Michael Praed of TV's Robin of Sherwood who achieved the most votes for the outlaw hero and the results of that poll can be seen here

Michael Praed as Robin Hood

Joan Rice (1930-1997) gained the most votes for her portrayal of Maid Marian in Disney's live-action movie The Story of Robin Hood and his Merrie Men (1952). The rest of that chart is here.

Joan Rice as Maid Marian

So who was your favourite Friar Tuck? I can now reveal that out of a poll of 134 it was James Hayter (1907-1983) who came out on top with 49 votes.

James Hayter as Friar Tuck

In The Story of Robin Hood, Hayter played one of the most memorable Friar Tucks of all time and went on to re-create his famous role for Hammer Films A Challenge for Robin Hood in 1967. But in his long acting career he starred in countless film, stage and television productions.  He is probably best remembered for being the voice of Mr Kipling Cakes and James Onedin’s father-in-law in the costume drama, The Onedin Line.
But towards the end of his long and illustrious acting career, Hayter was chosen by comedy writer and producer, David Croft, to appear as a new assistant in his successful TV series Are You Being Served

Alexander Gauge (1914-1960) gained second place in the poll with 27 votes. His Friar Tuck appeared in 91 of the 143 episodes of the much-loved television series The Adventures of Robin Hood (1955-1959). 

Alexander Gauge

Eugene Pallete's gravel-voiced, sword wielding Friar Tuck was your choice for third place with 20 votes. This legendary Hollywood character actor appeared alongside Errol Flynn in the classic Technicolor screen version, The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938).

Eugene Pallete

Once again we return to TV's memorable Robin of Sherwood for your fourth Friar Tuck. It was Phil Rose who gained 14 votes. Rose is a very popular British actor both on stage and television. 

Phil Rose

Next with 5 votes is Eastenders star Tony Caunter who appeared as the friar in the BBC mini series The Legend of Robin Hood in 1975. This for me was a pleasant surprise. Because, although it was a fine version (nominated for a BAFTA TV award) which included Martin Potter as Robin Hood and Diane Keen as Maid Marian, the series was almost forgotten until a viewers' petition finally made the BBC release it on DVD. Tony's friar made it to number five in our chart.

Tony Caunter

A more recent Friar Tuck reaches number six. This is Mark Addy from York in England, who donned the robes in Ridley Scott's recent version of Robin Hood (2010). As a souvenir collecting bee keeper, Addy's priest is seen brewing mead for profit.

Mark Addy

The late Ronnie Barker is at joint number eight with 3 votes. Barker, famous for his roles in hugely popular tv series like The Two Ronnies and Porridge appeared as Friar Tuck in Richard Lester's Robin and Marian in 1976. Although his appearance in the movie was short and understated it was certainly memorable.

Ronnie Barker

And alongside Ronnie Barker at number eight is Michael McShane who appeared as the chunky, quick-tempered, drunken priest in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves in 1991.

Michael McShane

At number nine, sharing 2 votes each are four 'friars'. Mel Brooks in his hilarious spoof Robin Hood:Men In Tights (1993) as Rabbi Tuckman, with David Harewood's Tuck, the disillusioned priest from Fountains Abbey in BBC TV's Robin Hood (2006-2009). Alongside those, also with 2 votes are Bill Dow as Friar Tuck in the first internet version of Robin Hood, Beyond Sherwood Forest (2009) and the Welsh actor Martyn Ellis who appeared in 52 episodes of The New Adventures of Robin Hood as the friar (1997-1999).

Niall McGinnis gained 1 vote for his Friar Tuck in Sword of Sherwood Forest (1960).

So, the best Robin Hood production of all-time would have Michael Praed as Robin Hood, Joan Rice as Maid Marian and James Hayter as Friar Tuck. Who would be Little John?

I would like to thank all those readers who took part and helped produce this interesting result. Don't forget to vote for your favourite Little John in the task bar.

To see the all the votes for your favourite Robin Hood and Maid Marian please click on the link Favourites.

Robin Hood and The Spy

It has been a while since I have reviewed a book on this blog. But for me 'The Watchers' by Stephen Alford has been one of the most riveting books I have read this year. Not only does Alford throw open a window on the murky world of Elizabethan espionage, but also introduces us to one particular spy who has fascinated me: the man who changed the Robin Hood legend forever.

Stephen Alford takes us back to the reign of Elizabeth I. This is a Tudor period celebrated for its glorious achievement but what is often forgotten is that it was also a time of intense national insecurity. The new Protestant queen was regarded by the Catholic powers of Europe as a bastard and heretic. Pope Pius V tried to depose her and King Philip of Spain attempted an invasion. What also added to the country's anxiety was the fact that the Virgin Queen refused to name a successor. So the stability of the country depended entirely on Elizabeth's survival. The stakes could not have been higher.

To give us an insight into how fraught the times were, Alford's first chapter creates a doomsday scenario that haunted Elizabeth's advisors in which she is assassinated and England is faced with a full-scale invasion by the Spanish:

"Hidden behind the doors of her privy chamber, Elizabeth was mortally sick, in a deep fever, unable even to talk to her secretary. In the presence of her ladies, chaplains and most intimate advisers, she died very early in the morning.”

But Alford then returns us back to the shady chronological path as England is faced with the dilemma of bands of martyr-priests and pamphlets being smuggled in from the continent, the continual popish plots and Mary, Elizabeth's Catholic cousin, scheming over the Scottish border.

It was left to Elizabeth's enigmatic Secretary of State, Francis Walsingham, to counter these threats. He sanctioned the use of torture against Catholic priests and employed 'watchers' to track suspected conspirators - particularly those exiled on the continent. 

Alford sheds light on secret files that vividly detail the exploits of Walsingham's agents in this new discipline of 'spyery'. We witness the chilling but compelling world of the dark arts - from the encoded letters in casks of ale, to the use of cyphers, aliases, forgeries, double agents, espionage and cryptography.

But what has it to do with the legend of Robin Hood I hear you ask? Well bear with me and let me try and explain.

Out of the shadows of this period appears a 'watcher' that I have been particularly interested in - Anthony Munday. Many have probably never heard of him but it was this former spy who made the most influential contribution to the Robin Hood legend. 

Anthony Munday (1560?-1633) was a budding writer and adventurer who seems to have fallen into the world of spying by accident. Alford describes how on his travels Munday quickly realised that he was able to tell all that he had seen and heard of the 'wicked conspiracies' of Queen Elizabeth's Catholic enemies. Once back in England he sold his stories in books and pamphlets in London. The priests, who had been Munday's friends in Rome were quickly captured and imprisoned on their return and tried for treason. He confronted his former friends with the evidence of their hatched crimes and helped to see them to the gallows, including Edmund Campion who was hung, drawn and quartered at Tyburn in 1581. 
"The young writer felt a flush of satisfaction at seeing justice done." (p.116)

Edmund Campion's death at Tyburn

 So what began for Munday as an exciting enterprise soon became deadly serious as he reported on the terrible dangers facing Queen Elizabeth from her 'Roman enemies.' Soon his detecting of these conspiracies aroused the bitter animosity of the Jesuits and with his cover blown he turned his attention back to writing prose and verse. By 1589 he was a distinguished enough writer of theatrical productions to appear in a list of playwrights that included the name of William Shakespeare.

Stephen Alford's fascinating details about Munday's early life finish here, although his book continues to take up the exploits of many more Elizabethan watchers. It is a gripping read. 

But now I would like to continue with the later career of Anthony Munday and his famous two plays, 'The Downfall of Robert Earl Of Huntington' and 'The Death of Robert Earl of Huntington.' Both were probably written by Munday in 1598 (seven years after Campion's execution) and evidence shows he was helped by Henry Chettle, who had some part in the writing of the 'Death' and possibly re-worked the 'Downfall.' A court performance in 1598 is recorded as by 'the Earl of Nottingham's men.' This was Charles Howard who had recently been made Lord Admiral and was a patron of the theatre.

In his two plays the Robin Hood of ancient minstrelsy is transformed into an earl. Munday is the first person to name him Earl of Huntington (as he spells it) and the play (within a play) is set as a rehearsal for a revel to be presented inside the court of Henry VIII by the poet John Skelton. The 'good yeoman' had now been gentrified. 

Munday had also softened many of Robin's radical elements for the Elizabethan stage by relocating him in time, class and moral authority, crucially excluding any sense of social challenge through outlawry.

Both of these Huntington plays stress betrayal by family and church. The danger is closer to home, which no doubt resonated with audiences who had witnessed the Reformation.

Earl Robert is told of his outlawry at a feast to celebrate his betrothal to Marian. He has been betrayed by his uncle Gilbert Hood, the Prior of York and Warman his 'treacherous' steward. The wicked prior rewards Warman for his treason by making him Sheriff of Nottingham. Robert's third enemy is Sir Doncaster, who appears as a priest in the 'Downfall' and a knight in the 'Death.'

Earl Robert flees to the forest. Meanwhile Queen Eleanor (who lusts after him) hatches a plot to disguise herself as Marian and elope with the earl instead. Luckily Eleanor's plans are foiled and Marian is reunited with her lover in Sherwood.  They are eventually joined by Much the miller's son, Little John, Scarlet, Scathelock and a girl named Jinny.

Even as late as the seventeenth century Robin Hood and Maid Marian were not strongly linked. In the medieval ballads, Robin has no love interest, only a strong devotion to the Virgin Mary, which of course was idolatry to Protestants. So for his two plays, Munday combined Robin's May Games consort Maid Marian with the historiographical Matilda Fitzwalter who had appeared in Drayton's tragic poem 'Matilda the faire chaste daughter of Lord Robert Fitzwalter' in1594. Munday then created a love triangle between Robin, Marian and Prince John. 

Bizarrely, in the early scenes of 'The Downfall' she is known as Marian daughter of Lord Lacy but later she switches to Matilda daughter of Richard I's faithful baron Fitzwater. This could be an example of some of the fixing and re-working of the material that Henslowe paid Henry Chettle for. Or, an indication of how Munday had only sourced Drayton's poem after starting his play.

Friar Tuck is introduced and 'played' by John Skelton, Henry VIII's teacher and the former poet laureate. So for the first time both Friar Tuck and Maid Marian now have an integral place in Robin's band outside of the May Games.

Using Stow's reference to Robin Hood in his 'Annales of England' (1592), Munday set the time-period during Richard the Lionheart's absence on crusade. Unlike later plays Prince John, although hot tempered, is a more positive character and not quite the evil villain. He does try and seize Richard's throne, but he chooses exile when his brother returns and enters the forest. Disguised as 'Woodnet' he fights with Friar Tuck and is honoured by him as a 'proper man.' This is no doubt due to a favourable Tudor attitude towards King John's battle with the Pope.

Robin dies at the hands of his enemies in Act I of 'The Death.' His uncle, the prior of York plans to poison the king, but Robin, for no clear reason, drinks the poison instead and we witness his slow demise:


The rest of the play follows John's pursuit of Marian, who has been gifted the title of Countess of Huntington by King Richard. 

So Anthony Munday, the former spy, had pulled together the Robin Hood narrative tradition as it was known to the Elizabethans. He processed and censored written sources and popular oral ballads of the time to make them acceptable to his patrons and the Tudor court. In doing so he created a framework in his two plays that clearly influenced later productions. 

Elements like Robin's early betrayal in the action, his escape from powerful enemies to the forest, his defiant speech to his men, the jovial friar and Marian's disguise and torment by a lustful nobleman will be continually replicated in various forms down the centuries. This would subsequently leave an indelible impression on a legend that would outlive Munday's own reputation.

Jason Connery as Robert Earl of Huntingdon

Three hundred and eighty eight years after Anthony Munday penned his pair of plays, Jason Connery performed the part of Robert Earl of Huntingdon in the hugely successful 'Robin of Sherwood' TV series written by Richard Carpenter. Along with Little John, Will Scarlet and Much, he was accompanied (of course) by Lady Marian and Friar Tuck.

The Watchers by Stephen Alford  Penguin Books (2013).
Playing Robin Hood: The Legend as Performance in Five Centuries by Lois Potter
Old English Plays by W. Carew Hazlitt
The Death of Robert Earl of Huntington by J. Payne Collier
Anthony Munday and Civic Culture by Tracey Hill
Anthony Munday and the Catholics 1560-1633 by Donna B. Hamilton

Disney's Robin Hood Comic Strip. 9

Jessie Mace Marsh

We have now reached the ninth instalment of our Robin Hood comic strip. This was the first Walt Disney live-action movie to be adapted in this way. It was also another way in which Disney was able to advertise his new releases and keep the film fresh in the audiences mind. 

The strip version of Robin Hood originally ran for twenty five weeks, from 13th July till 28th December 1952 and was illustrated by Jessie Mace Marsh (1907-1966).

Down the years I have posted about Marsh and we have seen a few versions of his 'Robin Hood' drawings in various stages of production. Unfortunately those examples were all I could find, until I was contacted by Matt Crandall. Matt runs the excellent Disney's Alice in Wonderland blog and has very kindly sent me images of the Robin Hood strips that re-appeared in the Belgian Mickey Magazine in 1953. 

To read more about the life of the artist that drew this strip, please click here: Jessie Marsh.

And to see the previous instalments of Disney's Robin Hood comic strip please click here.

Champion Archer Found!

Last week I posted two letters that has been received by John Nelson from Richard Todd. In John's second letter, Richard described how he had been trained for his role as Robin Hood in Walt Disney's live action movie:
"I was given some weeks of training and practice in archery for my role in Robin Hood and became quite proficient. My teacher had been the champion archer of England and I greatly enjoyed working with him and carried on using a bow and arrow for some years for pleasure."

So the big question last week was who was 'the Champion Archer of England' in 1951?

I would like to send a huge thank you! to Chrissy Noel on our Story of Robin Hood Facebook page, who went to the trouble of contacting 'The Society of Traditional Archers' with our question. They responded almost immediately with an answer, 'it was the late great George Brown'.

Very little information is available on the internet about George Brown. Chrissy thinks he may have had connections with 'The Sherwood Archers', an archery club based in Southwell, Nottinghamshire. 

The 'Society of Traditional Archers' had this to say:
...we all knew about George. He was a Gentle Giant of a man, unassuming, a true gent and a true champion. This was the 1950's, a change over period in modern archery when man made materials were taking over from traditional equipment. George never made 'champion' again but like the wonderful Edward McKewan he is a legend to those of us who are lucky enough to remember him. he inspired many of us as children as did Richard Greene, Richard Todd et al. I bumped into Richard Todd outside the may fair theater in London...My God I exclaimed you're Richard Todd... he shook my hand and replied, 'Yes, young man I am indeed.' He was small in stature but a legend.

Chrissy did manage to find some silent film footage by British Pathe of George Brown at a 'Grand National Archery Meeting' in 1956. And SOTA confirmed that this is the man we have been looking for.

George Brown in 1956

The irony is that George Brown has appeared on this blog before. 

Way back in 2008, Neil sent in this fantastic still, showing behind the scenes during the making of Walt Disney's Story of Robin Hood and his Merrie Men (1952). Not only does the image give us a rare glimpse of the equipment and crew as they a film by the river bank with Richard Todd, but Neil managed to get the names of the two archers - James Hemmings and George Brown. 

So here is Richard Todd and George Brown possibly on set together!

Thanks to Chrissy and Neil I believe we have managed to trace Richard Todd's champion archer!

George Brown the Champion Archer of England during the 1950's

Letters From Richard Todd

John's autographs of Richard Todd and Ken Annakin

I received a wonderful email from John Nelson last week. John is a huge fan of Walt Disney's Story of Robin Hood and his Merrie Men (1952) and a regular visitor to this web site. He has been fortunate enough to have met both Richard Todd (1919-2009) (who played Robin Hood) and Ken Annakin (1914-2009) (the producer of the movie). John has kindly allowed me to show his two letters from Richard Todd.

But first here is John's email:

Hello to all.
Here are three items from my personal collection sent to me by Mr Richard Todd, in my opinion the finest of all Robin Hoods on film.  Errol being a close second.
I had the great pleasure of meeting Richard on many occasions and corresponded with him for many years.  I met Ken in Los Angeles a few years ago, sadly he has also passed away.
I found them both to be friendly, obliging, and very kind gentlemen and I am sure they would have been delighted with your interesting and very informative "The Story of Robin Hood" site.
It appears Richard had fun making the movie and mastering the art of archery and swordplay becoming quite proficient in both and I am sure he would not have minded me sharing these personal letters and photo with you for the pleasure and enjoyment of your many followers.
He certainly was an amazing, talented actor.  Hasty Heart, The Dambusters, Rob Roy, being among my favourites. The Story of Robin Hood being the top of my list.
Wishing you continued success.  Keep up the good work.

My kindest regards to you.
John Nelson

Below is John's first letter from Richard Todd:

It is particularly interesting to read this:
'I don't know how my version of Robin Hood compared with the various other ones that have been filmed but I truly think that Walt Disney, his script writer and the producer Perce Pearce, captured the youthful adventurous spirit of the traditional image of the characters of mythology, possibly based on both fact and history.
The Robin Hood film will always be one of my favourite memories despite a few awkward moments during the filming.' 

I wonder which 'awkward moments' Richard Todd is referring to?

Below is John's second letter:

Richard Todd gives another fascinating insight into the making of the film when he says:
'I had a certain amount of training in the basic skills of swordplay while I was at drama school and later during those films requiring any fencing. I worked and trained with experts both in the United Kingdom and America.
I was given some weeks of training and practice in archery for my role in Robin Hood and became quite proficient. My teacher had been the champion archer of England and I greatly enjoyed working with him and carried on using a bow and arrow for some years for pleasure.' 

Frustratingly I can't put a name to 'the champion archer of England' who trained Richard Todd. 

In his biography Caught In The Act (1986)Todd mentions that, 'a gymnasium was set up for me at Pinewood Studios, and here, under the watchful and energetic tutelage of Paddy Ryan, the doyen of British stunt men, I worked out almost daily, and practiced back-flips and tumbles that I hadn't tried since my early army days. Rupert Evans, a former Champion at Arms of the British Army, coached me in sword-play, and he and Paddy worked with me throughout the picture. In addition, I had hours of tuition in archery and practice on horseback, with and without bows and arrows. I may not have been the greatest celluloid Robin Hood, but I was certainly going to be the fittest.'

The Tough Guy Agency supplied stunt men and fight-training for The Story of Robin Hood and other action films of that period. It was managed by Mickey Wood (1897-1963) the self-defence and physical training expert. But it is unknown wether Rupert Evans (1911-1995) and Paddy Ryan (1911-1999), who are both mentioned by Todd, were connected to this company. 

Rupert Evans with James Hayter (as Friar Tuck)

Ryan, a former Desert Rat, is considered to be the 'father of English stunt men' and credited with performing one of the film industries best known stunts. This was his spectacular high fall from the castle turrets in the movie Ivanhoe (1952) into an eight feet deep moat. 

But who was the champion archer who trained Richard Todd?

A big thank you to John Nelson for contacting me with these fascinating letters.

If you can help in identifying 'the champion archer' who trained Richard Todd in 1951 please get in touch.

To read more about the life of Richard Todd please click here.

The Bird That Woke Robin Hood

'Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne' from Percy's 'Reliques' 

Since moving to the beautiful county of Gloucester I have been astonished by the amount of birds that regularly visit our garden.  My fiancee and her mother are attempting to teach me the various species and their calls. So with my interest in the Robin Hood legend, I decided to ask them if they knew of a bird called a Woodweete. I was greeted by puzzled looks. So I explained to them that it was this bird that woke Robin Hood from a dream in the ballad Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne. They had never heard of such a bird, so I decided to spend some time investigating this mysterious creature.

First some information about the ancient ballad. It was Thomas Percy, Bishop of Dromore in Ulster, (1729-1811) who ensured the survival of the original manuscript of Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne and it was published for the first time in his Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765). Percy's collection (including eight Robin Hood ballads) later became known as the Percy Folio.

David Fowler in his Literary History of the Popular Ballad (1968) described the Percy Folio as:
      the most important single document relative to the history of balladry  
Percy explained how, when visiting the home of Humphrey Pitt in 1753, he saw the collection of manuscripts 'unbound and torn, lying on a dirty floor' being used by parlour maids to light the fire! He was already interested in old poetry and rescued the remains of the folio. On closer inspection he discovered that it contained ballads, historical songs, metrical romances and sonnets dating from between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries. 

It had not been treated well, probably because the owners would have found the Middle English and Border dialect used in the manuscript incomprehensible. Many of the pages, Percy explains, were badly 'mutilated and imperfect.'

 Percy's 'Reliques of Ancient English Poetry'

The publication of Percy's Reliques of Ancient English Poetry not only revived scholarly interest in ballad poetry but inspired people like Robert Burns, William Wordsworth, William Blake, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the brothers Grimm and the whole 'Romantic Movement'. Sir Walter Scott recalled that at the age of thirteen he forgot his dinner because he was so enthralled by his first perusal of the Reliques.

The ballad Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne, saved by Percy, only survives in this portfolio. It is written continuously in an early seventeenth-century hand (with possible omissions) but Percy discovered that 'it was a ballad of Robin Hood which had never before been printed and carried marks of much greater antiquity than any of the common popular songs on this subject.' 

Thomas Percy (1729-1811)

Even more damage was done to the manuscripts when Percy had the collection bound together. The bookbinder trimmed off the edges of the pages, losing some of the first and last lines. Not only this, but being compliant with the age he deemed it important to 'correct' and edit the ballads he published, sometimes even re-writing, conflating and softening the text for his eighteenth century readers. This is something he would later be criticized for by scholars. One of the alterations he made was the name of the bird that awoke Robin Hood from his dream in the forest. The original seventeenth century manuscript has:
The woodweele sang and wold not cease
Percy does not hesitate in altering woodweele to woodweete (as seen in the image at the top of this post) and describes the bird as:
a Golden Ouzle, a kind of Thrush.
But when John Hales and Frederick Furnivall edited the Reliques in 1868 they suggested Percy's 'woodweete' as :
a Witwall, the Great Spotted Woodpecker
Later, the great American ballad collector Francis J Child in his English and Scottish Ballads (5 vols. 1882-98) printed the ballad with woodweele but in his glossary has woodweete.

Confused? It doesn't get any easier! The Romaunt of the Rose, a French allegory partially translated by Chaucer, seems to refer to the same mysterious bird :

Can we assume that this poem in Middle English is referring to the same bird? If we do than what do the Chaucerian experts think the bird was?

John Urry in The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer (1721) explains in his glossary that wodwale is 'witwall' known as the golden ousel a bird of the thrush-kind.

Fifty four years later Thomas Tyrwhitt's glossary to The Canterbury Tales (page 645) has:
WODEWALE: n. of a bird. Widewael. BELG.Oriolus. Killian . According to Ray, our Witwall is a sort of Wood-pecker.
The famous English philologist Walter William Skeat (1835-1912) admitted the great confusion in these names:

North of the border, John Jamieson in his Etmological Dictionary Of The Scottish Language (1818) has:

Arthur Quiller-Couch (1863-1944) in his Oxford Book of Ballads (1927) describes the 'woodweele' in the ballad of Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne as:
                       woodweele]woodlark, thrush?

In modern times there has been a surge in research into the legend of Robin Hood. In 1976 R. B. Dobson and J. Taylor reproduced a collection of  thirteen ballads with accompanying notes known as the Rymes of Robyn Hood. In their glossary of the ballad Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne  (p.141) they explain that 'woodweete: woodwall, is usually identified with the golden oriole, noted for its singing voice.' 

Other current experts on the legend like Professors Stephen Knight and Thomas Ohlgren go with woodwall (golden oriole).

I decided to consult the RSPB site on the golden oriole and was frustrated to see that this beautiful singing bird only colonizes on the south or east coasts of England in the summer. Nowhere near Sherwood Forest or Yorkshire's Barnsdale, where the ballad is set. Whereas the green woodpecker, like the song thrush, is a resident across all of England's ancient woodland.

But what I did not take into consideration was the 'medieval warm period' or the Medieval Climatic Anomaly. This, I learned, ran from about 950 AD to 1250 and would have encouraged the golden oriole's breeding range in north west Europe. The bird is a great wanderer, especially the males in their first two years. So it is possible that during the 13th Century the golden oriole could have visited the forests of central and northern England.

Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne is (as Percy mentioned) of great antiquity and has many ancient motifs, notably Guy's horse-hide and head, which seem more like ritual costume. Was the 'woodweele' chosen for it's traditional mythical elements or as a metaphor? 

It seems - from all this - we have at least three possible candidates for the 'woodweele' in Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne. These are the song thrush, golden oriole and green woodpecker. Down the centuries, birds like these have established a substantial amount of folk-lore about them. 

Golden Oriole

The golden oriole is known in ancient lore as a 'transfigured magical image of the blackbird.' Like the blackbird, the oriole's flute-like calls make it a piper of the dawn and its cheerful notes have been described as 'merry as its clothing.'

This beautiful, but secretive bird, spends a lot of its time aloft in tree tops. It is known in legend for its healing virtues and when looked upon by a person with jaundice, it cures the sufferer-but sadly dies during the process.

Song Thrush

The song thrush, meanwhile, has been described as the 'very spirit of spring' and likes to nest in forests with good undergrowth. The male's distinctive song has musical phrases (sometimes over a hundred), which are repeated two or three times interspersed with grating noises and mimicry (including other birds and man-made objects). The song thrush has a unique voice box, known as a 'syrinx', which enables them to sing two notes at once and blend them beautifully. For its weight the song thrush also has one of the loudest bird calls.

Many famous poets have celebrated the song thrush in verse. Including Robert Browning in his Home Thoughts, from Abroad:
That's the wise thrush, he sings each song twice over
Lest you think he could never recapture
The first fine careless rapture. 

Green Woodpecker

The green woodpecker would also have had a song loud and persistent enough to awaken Robin Hood. The 16th Century antiquarian John Aubrey noted that this particular bird was used for divination. In Norse mythology, the green woodpecker was the bird of Thor, god of thunder and lightning and was able to cure illness and prolong life.

This haunter of forests was described as a 'living barometer' by our ancestors and can become very vociferous when a storm approaches. Did the poet include the woodpecker's 'ceaseless calling' as a warning to Robin of his imminent brutal confrontation with Guy of Gisborne?

Below are three clips of the birdsong of our possible candidates, the green woodpecker, song thrush and golden oriole.

Green Woodpecker

Song Thrush

Golden Oriole

After a great deal of consideration, I believe it was the green woodpecker (with its 'joyous laugh') that woke Robin Hood in the greenwood. 

What do you think? 


The Golden Oriole by Paul Mason, Jake Allsop
Fraser's Magazine by Thomas Carlyle
Popular Music of the Olden Time... by William Chappell and George Alexander Macfarren
Chronicle of Scottish Poetry from the Thirteenth Century... by James Sibbald
British Birds in Their Haunts by Charles Alexander
An Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language by John Jamieson
Notes and Queries February 1855
Reliques of Ancient English Poetry by Thomas Percy
Bird Life and Bird Lore by Reginald Bosworth Smith
RSPB Handbook of British Birds by Tim Cleeves and Peter Holdern