Robin Hood: Spotlight on Toby Stephens as Prince John.
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.