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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Blogger robin hood said...

Robin Hood Series 3 Cast:

Robin Hood - Jonas Armstrong
Kate - Joanne Froggatt
Guy of Gisborne - Richard Armitage
Toby Stephens - Prince John
Tuck - David Harewood
Sheriff of Nottingham - Keith Allen
Little John - Gordon Kennedy
Much - Sam Troughton
Allan-a-Dale - Joe Armstrong
Isabella - Lara Pulver

8 September 2009 at 11:37  
Blogger Clement of the Glen said...

Prince John certainly used Nottingham Castle for his power base for some considerable time though 'in history'.

It was also here that his supporters held out for a few days until King Richard I finally stormed the castle and expelled his brother.

I enjoyed your summary about Toby as Prince John, but perhaps he was a little bit too Larry Grayson sometimes and not quite sinister enough.

8 September 2009 at 17:06  
Blogger robin hood said...

Hi Clement,

Thanks for that information. Isn't it just the case that the history we know least about is that which happens on our doorstep? For example, I lived the first 13 years of my life on Thoresby Estate, having no idea that Cromwell had spent the night in the Great Hall there on his way to do battle.

I find myself more and more interested in Prince John. He gets such a bad press!

Larry Grayson? Well, one I suppose can imagine him telling Guy to "Shut that door" upon delivering Vasey's tooth. (None of which will make sense to my USA readers!)

8 September 2009 at 18:58  
Blogger evielyn said...

Hi Robin- As always another excellent article.

I loved your comments about Prince John I had forgotten as well how many other shows etc. Toby Stephens had been in.

I am looking forward to Isabella she has to be another of my all time favourites who apperared in the show (of course Jonas will always be my no 1).

I had no idea that Prince John had actually captured Nottingham! My history can be a little rusty but of course that must be where some of the Robin Hood legend comes from the Outlaws attempting to hold the city for the King

9 September 2009 at 20:01  
Blogger Clement of the Glen said...

Just to clarify - John didn't capture Nottingham. Before Richard left to go on Crusade in 1189 he made his brother John, Count of Mortain, Lord of Ireland and assigned to him the revenue of six English counties, including Derby and Nottingham. John also received Sherwood Forest.

Nottingham Castle was held by John, which he had partly re-built in stone, when news of Richards capture reached England in December 1192.

When Richard finally returned to England in 1194 Prince John quickly escaped to France.

Knowing of his brothers treachery during his absence Richard advanced to Nottingham on the 25th March. But Prince John's supporters continued to hold the castle in his name, believing Richard had not returned.

But they were very quick to surrender when Richard, wearing a simple coat of light mail and a steel cap on his head, advanced as far as the gate of the castle.

Prince John was then called upon to answer the charges of treason.

Historical fact is often more interesting than fiction!

10 September 2009 at 18:24  
Anonymous Laura said...

Now why didn't they do THAT storyline in the show!? I think it could have been interesting.

Great review as always Robin. Prince John was definitely one of my favourite characters of the series. I definitely didn't realise he was only in so few episodes. I think Toby Stephens did a fantastic job. Like this series' Sheriff, it could have been so campy, but was instead just hilarious. Well done!

21 September 2009 at 06:20  
Blogger robin hood said...

Hi Laura,

Lara Pulver / Izzy Gisborne article should be posted soon.

21 September 2009 at 10:22  
Anonymous kitty said...

Loved John

24 September 2009 at 21:44  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

When I saw that Toby Stephens was to play Prince John I got so excited! Richard Armitage and Toby Stephens in one show! Stephens did an excellent job making John a believable villain. He had that ridiculous vanity that makes you understand why Vasey supported him (easier to gain power). I love him.

21 November 2009 at 01:17  
Blogger robin hood said...


I assume you've seen him as Custer? Excellent stuff.

21 November 2009 at 22:52  

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