Thoroughly modern Robin

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ROBIN HOOD, BBC1'S BIG NEW SATURDAY night family drama, hit the headlines in August for the wrong reasons when it was revealed that rushes from the show had been stolen from the Budapest set. Someone had clearly taken the message of robbing from the rich all too literally. The tapes were recovered a couple of weeks ago, but not before the cast and crew had been forced to re-shoot some of the missing scenes.

Richard Armitage, who plays the smouldering baddie Guy of Gisborne, reveals the irony of the theft. "The producers originally looked all over Eastern Europe for the right place to film Robin Hood. They considered Romania, but rejected it because they were worried that the mafia there might steal footage. So they chose Hungary instead because it's safer."

The actor adds that the crime brought the company closer together. "It tested our resolve. When it happened, it was like a blow to the stomach. But everyone picked themselves up again and said, 'We're not going to let this shake us. Let's just get on with the re-shoots.' In the end, it actually strengthened everyone."

Characteristically, Keith Allen, who has a field day in the series playing Guy's unremittingly evil boss, the Sheriff of Nottingham, treats the whole situation with black humour.

"I've heard that at weekends, dodgy people come and make porn films on the Robin Hood set. There are apparently some very sordid scenes going on in the middle of the Sheriff's courtyard. Perhaps the tapes were stolen by someone who thought they were porn. How disappointed they would have been to discover that it's just scenes of me shouting at Robin Hood."

No-one, however, is likely to be disappointed watching the real thing. Foz Allan, the executive producer of the 13-part drama, which BBC1 is hoping "will do a Doctor Who" in the 7pm slot on Saturday evenings, underlines that this is very much a contemporary reading of the enduring myth of Robin of Sherwood.

FOR A START, SUCH "YE OLDE WORLDE" figures as Friar Tuck have been axed and the phrases "Merry Men" and the "Maid" in front of Marian consigned to the bin marked "camp men in tights".

After five bloody years fighting what he ultimately saw as a misguided conflict in the Holy Land, this Robin (played by relative newcomer Jonas Armstrong) returns to England as a disenchanted and tormented war veteran.

But the brooding nobleman is galvanised into action when he sees the suffering that is being visited on his home village of Locksley by the sadistic Sheriff of Nottingham and his equally malevolent henchman, Guy.

Seething with righteous ire at the injustices heaped upon his people, Robin renounces his title, teams up with a motley crew of outlaws - including the Scottish actor Gordon Kennedy as Little John, Sam Troughton as Robin's faithful manservant Much, and Harry Lloyd as Will Scarlett - and makes his home in Sherwood Forest.

Aided and abetted by Marian (sassy 19-year-old newcomer Lucy Griffiths) - who dons a mask to become the superheroine-esque "Night Watchman" - they make it their mission to wreck the Sheriff's dastardly plans.

I'm on the set of Robin Hood at Fot studios on the outskirts of Budapest. The show is being shot out here because Hungary still possesses mile after mile of dense forest that is now almost impossible to find in Britain. Even more importantly, low Hungarian labour costs meant that it cost a fraction of what it would have done in the UK to build this lavish, 30-acre recreation of 1192 Nottingham and Locksley on the studio back-lot.

As he shows me around the reconstruction of 12th-century Middle England, Allan says, "the BBC was insistent that they wanted this to be very contemporary. Otherwise, what's the point of doing it again? You could just show re-runs of previous versions.

"If you look at the 1939 version, Errol Flynn goes storming up the castle steps and kicks the butt of Basil Rathbone, who looks suspiciously like a Nazi. And the Michael Praed/Jason Connery version of 1984 was full of Clannad music and spirituality.

"It was a New Age adaptation, slap bang in the middle of Thatcherite materialism. Robin Hood is always primarily about the time in which it is made. The great thing about it is that it is a myth you can bend to do what you like."

The most telling aspect of 2006 reflected in this Robin Hood is the fact that, having been traumatised by what he witnessed in an unnecessary war, our hero now has an aversion to killing.

Armstrong puts down his bow between scenes and comes over to talk to me. Dressed in a beige jerkin, dirty brown suede trousers and scuffed black boots, he really looks the part.

"Robin is a troubled killer," reckons the actor, who landed the role after supporting roles in the C4 dramas Teachers and Ghost Squad. "He comes back from the Crusades and says to the outlaws, 'We do not kill - otherwise, we're just the same as the Sheriff.' Robin has seen enough bloodshed to realise there are other ways of solving things."

The other notable element of this Robin Hood is that he is far from perfect. The feisty Marian, for one, is happy to take the rise out of his occasional pomposity. When, for instance, he returns from the Crusades and tries to win her back with all sorts of empty romantic rhetoric, she simply laughs in his face: "Five years, and you're still peddling the same old drivel."

Armstrong thinks that such weaknesses will make his Robin plausible to modern audiences. "Why do we keep coming back to Robin Hood? Because he's a believable superhero. We all know superheroes like Superman, Batman and Spider-Man, but Robin is very much more human. "He's not flawless. Like all leaders, he's an egotist and he's often quite arrogant. He's not an out-and-out hero - who wants to watch someone saying 'aren't I brilliant?' all the time? You need an undercurrent of darkness."

The first episode features some pretty nifty action sequences - you'll believe a man can sever a hangman's noose with an arrow from several hundred yards. But, given the programme's family-viewing slot at 7pm on a Saturday night, the producers have had to handle the issue of violence carefully.

Kennedy believes the drama treats it sensitively - without losing any of the realism modern-day children have come to expect. "Kids love the excitement of it," says the actor, who hails from the Borders and has previously starred in Red Cap and Absolutely.

"I've got kids and they lap it up. They come out of something like Spider-Man 2 buzzing. It's important that you don't patronise them. They're well able to separate fantasy from reality.

"Things have moved on. Film has led the way. Movies like Lord of the Rings are pretty violent, but also very clever. They cut away at exactly the right moment. You definitely need to make it exciting. The Sheriff and Guy have to pose a real threat. Kids will soon see through it if it's fake."

The Sheriff certainly poses a real threat in the first episode. In one scene likely to prompt whole forests of angry letters, the Sheriff, furious that his plans for world domination have once again been thwarted by Robin, takes one of his beloved tiny exotic birds out of its cage. Emitting an ecstatic squeal, he slowly crushes it in his fist.

Allan underscores that the Sheriff should not be a cardboard cut-out baddie. He is a living, breathing character. "We were very aware that in the past villains have often been very two-dimensional, boring and comfortable with themselves.

"So we wanted to make this Sheriff driven by ferocious ambition. We have given him something to aim for - his desire is to become Chancellor of England after John has assassinated Richard the Lionheart on his return from the Holy Land."

The Sheriff clearly relishes his clashes with Robin. "The Sheriff keeps taunting Robin to try to kill him and every time he fails to do so, it's like a body blow to him," observes Allen, who made his name in works such as The Comic Strip, Shallow Grave and, more recently, Bodies.

"The Sheriff admires Robin and sees him as his sparring-partner equal. Without Robin, the place would be boring for the Sheriff. All he'd have to do is endlessly hang peasants."

The Sheriff adds to the gaiety of nations - and as such is a vital component of this vibrant series. The modern resonances are certainly all present and correct if you look for them. But above all, this Robin Hood is a rattling good night in, full of loveable goodies and hateful baddies.

"If we go all serious and Ingmar Bergman on our audience, they'll just get bored and switch off," confirms Allan. "First and foremost, this is meant to be damn good entertainment."

Asked about the reaction he hopes to elicit as the Sheriff's pitiless henchman, Armitage exactly captures the spirit of this production. "Hate mail is what I'm hoping for," he says, bursting into peals of laughter that ring out over the Hungarian version of Sherwood Forest. "If I'm booed and hissed in the street, then I'll know I've done my job well."

• Robin Hood begins tonight on BBC1 at 7:05pm.