Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Robin Hood: Spotlight on Lara Pulver as Isabella Gisborne

Robin Hood series 3 was naturally awaited with some degree of trepidation. However, in spite of reservations expressed by many viewers in this blog's comment boxes, there were signs that the show could survive Marian’s murder. Examples being Richard Armitage's re-vamped (and excellently portrayed) Guy; the potential (albeit ultimately unfulfilled) in David Harewood's Tuck; and guest villains such as Bill Ward's Ruthless Rufus. (No, not the Black Sabbath drummer. That's the OTHER Bill Ward). But things were still a little uneven, until that is a certain Lady of noble birth was found racing through Sherwood Forest trying to escape her husband Squire Thornton's soldiers. Between episodes 5 and 9, Isabella Gisborne was the glue which held the show together. Firstly, because her character was the satelitte around which other key players would revolve, whether as brother, would be lovers, rivals for the Badge of Office, or King. Secondly, because Lara Pulver gave her all in a performance which rivalled that of Richard Armitage's "wild" Guy, and certainly put a much needed jolt in Jonas Armstrong’s apparently lagging spark plugs.

Isabella Gisborne (alongside the earlier Night watchman) was one of the only true innovations this version of Robin Hood has been responsible for. (Discarding the idiotic idea of murdering Marian). Not only because she is a female Sheriff of Nottingham, but also because she is Guy's sister. This idea, affording as it does the opportunity for a love affair between Robin Hood and both a Gisborne AND a Sheriff, could well go on into subsequent screen versions of the legend. (I for one hope it does).

The introduction of the character was well conceived. Whilst we'd all been following the "new love interest Kate" stories in the media, Isabella was sneaking in from left field, and straight into Robin's arms (not to mention his lips), within two episodes of their meeting. (See episode 6). Was this too soon for the Lucy fans (of whom I am one)? Yes, of course it was. But this is comic book time. And so it was that most Hoodies, still smarting over losing Lucy and taking a dislike to Kate, warmed to this woman who took a promiscuous purse from her garter for the outlaw leader. Yet more revelations about Lady Gisborne were to follow.

"Too Hot to Handle" (episode 7) was for me one of the best in Series 3, and is the one in which Isabella Gisborne shows her true colours. Whereas Robin Hood's scripted relationship with Marian had fairly studiously avoided any and all "adult" connotations, one needed little imagination to interpret Isabella's sharing of a bowl of strawberries, or offering to take her dress off (albeit in a good cause!), as anything other than sexy. In this respect, Lara Pulver shook Jonas out of what had seemed to become his action hero "comfort zone". And not only that. No sooner are Isabella's passionate advances rejected, than she flies into an uncontrollable rage, revealing her true nature not simply as a Gisborne, but as a victim, having been “sold like a piece of meat” by her own brother. It really is a great character, rich in potential, and Lara Pulver portrays her superbly.

There are other memorable moments which define her: In episode 8 Isabella's ambitions have her throw herself in front of Prince John, taking a hit from Guy's arrow, rather than lose the Prince who might support her as the new Sheriff. And then the all telling conflict with Meg (episode 9), who she sees at first as a victim much like herself, only to swing wildly to the other extreme after observing Meg's love for Guy, which reminds her of a happiness she herself was deprived of by the marriage Guy sold her into.

And sadly, that was it. After episode 9 it was all over for Isabella Gisborne, just as it was effectively all over for the show itself. Episode 10 attempted to redraft the entire show, the consequence of which was only too apparent in already falling viewer ratings. Lara Pulver would give another great performance in episode 12, plotting against Kate in one final attempt to break her away from Robin, but the suggestion made in episode 10 that Robin Hood already knew Isabella from childhood (and had just failed to recognise her so far in the series), simply undermined a lot of her character's credibility. And there would be one further insult to injury.

Isabella Gisborne deserved her own final exit; her own iconic "death scene". Even if it was as ambiguous as Keith Allen's had been (making a 4th series possible), Lara Pulver had done more than enough to merit that. But in the end she had to share the spotlight with the unnecessary return of Vasey.

Historical note:

The first female Sheriff of Nottingham was Mrs. C. M. Harper, who had previously worked on the Nottingham Council. She held office for the year 1931/32. No doubt her methods were somewhat more democratic than our Izzy Gisborne's.

For much more information and pictures about the Sheriff of Nottingham, follow the links on THIS PAGE.

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Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Robin Hood: Spotlight on Toby Stephens as Prince John.

One thing surely everyone can agree on about Robin Hood Series 3 is that it had an fine succession of great villains. Perhaps the best villains of the entire three seasons. Who can forget the creepy Scrope (Kevin Eldon), like a Dickensian Uriah Heep, or the brutal Ruthless Rufus (Bill Ward), leering at Kate as she endured her humiliating dance. Whilst I still think it a shame the direction of the show favoured guest stars over regular cast members in its scripting (and its budget?), I confess I’m glad to have encountered the likes of Big Bertha along the way.

Honours for Baddest of the Baddies would of course have to go to the Terrible Trio: Guy and Isabella, (both of whom we’ll cover in future posts), and Prince John.

Whilst researching Toby Stephens I was surprised at how many films and shows he has appeared in, and which I would have seen without me making the connection. So versatile are his acting and facial expressions that I didn’t link him to his previous outings as Gatsby, (“Great Gatsby” 2000), Rochester ("Jayne Eyre" 2006), or Bond villian Gustav Graves ("Die Another Day" 2002). (Note: He was also Bond himself for a BBC radio production of "Dr No" in 2008). But I did remember him from "The Wild West - Custer's Last Stand"; a must see drama documentary which often plays on the history channel, and which fans of his portrayal of Prince John will certainly enjoy.

Both Prince John and King Richard can be difficult to script as they relate to the Legend of Robin Hood. For example, in the past King Richard has tended to be shown as some blond haired, white robed, holier than thou character, often turning up in the final scenes to perform the marriage ceremony over Robin and Marian. (It's enough to put any self respecting Hoodie of their venison). I think it’s to the credit of this show that King Richard was treated more ambiguously than that. (For a great portrayal of King Richard see Richard Harris’ psychopathic role in “Robin and Marian”). Prince John, on the other hand, has always been thought of as a baddie, but even so, the combination of “camp” and cruel which Toby Stephens injected into the proceedings was a delight to see, especially at a time when compensation for the exiting Sheriff Vasey was needed.

The arrival of Prince John was cleverly anticipated in the story by having Sheriff Vasey send Guy to him as a scape goat for punishment. (Episode 2). When Guy returns in episode 5, not only unscathed but with a small army of his own (not forgetting the lion!) one is left speculating as to what Prince John is going to be like. In episode 6 we find out, as he happily waves to a wedding congregation outside Loxley Church, only to gleefully set fire to it once they are all inside! (He also does a great party trick using nothing but a barrel of Royal water and one upside down Loxley villager).

Toby Stephens made such a strong impression in the series that one might assume he was in most episodes. In fact it was only three. But the manner in which his Prince John played the other key villians against each other in their desire to be the new Sheriff, responding to the Prince's eternal question "Do you love me?", would be a key element of series 3. I think this particular theme was was one of the better written and impressively enacted ideas throughout the series.
As I sit here now typing this on the outskirts of Sherwood Forest, I can only wonder at how different my life would be if this particular Prince John had got his way and made Nottingham the capital of England...

Historical note: In 1191 Prince John seized Nottingham Castle. So when King Richard returned from the Crusades he came to Nottingham in 1194 to recapture the Castle, still held by John's supporters who refused to surrender. (Thanks to Clement of the Glen for bringing this to my attention).

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