Friday, 7 June 2013

Friday 7 June 1963

In June 1963 Britain was gripped by a saga considerably more salacious than anything they could otherwise see on their TV screens (even in Armchair Theatre).  On the 5th, War Minister John Profumo had resigned, and the revelation of the reasons for this and the associated tales of scandal and espionage would fill the headlines for months and the fallout from which would (so some think) really kick-start what we think of as "the sixties" in the UK.  For those wishing to escape all the Profumo speculation, early evening ITV offered an escape into the past...

The latest instalment of 12th century derring-do reconstructs one of the most famous bits of the Lionheart legend: the raising of a ransom of 150,000 marks to free King Dickie from the clutches of Austria's mean Duke Leopold.  Here's a good look at the heavy jowls of Francis De Wolff as Leopold, riding to Richard's place of imprisonment.

The stress of having the King of England imprisoned in his castle has caused Count Rolf to hit the chalice.  "Drunk again?" tuts Leopold as he enters, behaving more like a nagging wife than a sovereign lord.  Leopold's hoping England won't be able to raise the ransom, and he'll be able to leave Richard to rot in jail.

The title character himself only makes a cameo appearance this week, and he seems to be having a high old time rotting in jail, spending his days with a pair of friendly, extravagantly bearded guards (presumably they've shared Francis De Wolff's discarded facial hair out between them), who he insists call him Richard (this show paints him as the medieval equivalent of a boss who tries a bit too hard to be informal with his underlings).

Meanwhile, back in Ye Olde London Town, the king's mum, Queen Eleanor (Joan Haythorne) and trusty Lord Chancellor (Ian Fleming - no, not that one) are shaken by the ransom demand, but gamely decide to try and raise the cash somehow.  Richard's jealous brother Prince John (Trader Faulkner), isn't so keen, however, thinking the country would be far better off with him in charge.

A plan is hatched to pay the ransom: everybody in the kingdom will be asked to contribute what they can to the appeal.  We see a royal messenger announcing the plan, to much cheering.  "Never trust an Austrian!" grumbles one belligerent prototype Ukip supporter.

Yer classic readers of Ye Olde Dailye Expresse

The scheme's  like an early version of Children in Need (or, in this show's case, Comic Relief might be more appropriate), except there aren't even any dancing newsreaders.  Still, the good folk of Merrie England are more than happy to help out for a good cause, and cheerful peasants happily hand over their hard-earned gold to bring back their king (no baths of baked beans in sight).

This is all very well for most of the land, but what of those regions where Bad Prince John holds total sway? There's much roistering at Jon's stronghold in Nottingham, where a couple of his soldiers are having a lovely time with a local wench (Bernadette Milnes) who claims to be a good friend of Robin Hood.  She sports an authentic 12th century beehive.

In conference with his underling and Robin Hood's archenemy the Sheriff of Nottingham (Ralph Michael) John reveals that he's managed to raise 80,000 marks to contribute to the fund.  But he's had a better idea - if he can somehow get his brother out of the way, he'll have all of that money as well as being King.  The dastard!

John plots to force Richard's pet minstrel, Blondel De Nesle, to return to Austria and dispatch Richard, on pain of having his beautiful lute-playing hands mutilated.

A black and white minstrel
Blondel suggests a simpler idea: he'll just say that the man he saw in Austria wasn't Richard after all, and that the real Richard's dead.  John agrees to the idea but keeps Blondel locked up, though he allows him a ride in Sherwood forest under guard.  But suddenly - "Robin Hood! Robin Hood!" cries Blondel (to which few audience members could've resisted the urge to continue with "Riding through the glen!") and a pair of outlaws emerge from the greenery to carry the minstrel away.

The outlaws demand John's 80,000 marks for Blondel's return, and John, who'd rather not have the minstrel at large, decides to pay it.  John's mum and the chancellor then turn up and reveal the money's been paid to them and they can now afford the king's ransom.  Foiled again! The episode ends with the revelation that the outlaws weren't Robin Hood's men at all, but Blondel's chums Sir Geoffrey and Sir Gilbert.  And very nice young men they look.

...And fade out with everybody having ye goode olde chortle.  Look, I know Richard the Lionheart may not be 100% true to events as they actually occurred, but I'd like to hope that the people of the time really were this jolly.

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