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Interview: Michael Eaton on Fellow Traveller

5 April 10 interview: James Walker
illustrations: Ging Inferior

"There’s nobody else who has spread across all the generations in so many forms"

The story of Robin of Sherwood has been told and retold for centuries and put Nottingham firmly on the map. But the story behind the story is even more interesting, as local writer Michael Eaton - creator of Fellow Traveller, the true story of blacklisted Hollywood screenwriters working secretly on a UK TV production of the Robin Hood story in the 1950s – points out…

Why has Robin Hood been a popular story for so long?
It’s a question that no-one has really answered before because there are so many other heroes in Britain - but there’s nobody, apart from Robin, who seems to have spread across all the generations in so many forms - the early ballads, plays, sitcoms, films, books etc. And of course, it’s a presence that’s changed over the centuries; each generation has its own particular Robin that we project our anxieties and aspirations onto. My favourite is the Errol Flynn film from the 1930s. From there, you see the shadow of the jackboot in Europe, with Robin a kind of prefiguring of a resistance leader in an occupied country. Later in the eighties TV series you get a much more folkloric Robin, tied in to Celtic mythology and post-1960s spiritual thinking. Nowadays, he becomes a spirit of the forest, like the Green Man. He’s a marvellously malleable figure.

Tell us about the Robin of your generation…
This was The Adventures of Robin Hood, the half-hour ITV series with Richard Greene, who played Robin like a Battle of Britain fighter pilot. The war cast a big shadow over the fifties, and Robin became like the good platoon commander overseeing a series of disparate sort of men from different classes and regions. The great contradiction is that Robin is supposedly an aristocrat, but also a man of the people. So it wasn’t a kind of popular uprising overthrowing the status quo as there still had to be a toff in charge. The message was: you have good authority and bad authority, but always authority. The authority being rebelled against is one that didn’t take people into account and is oppressive. Therefore, Robin is happy to restore the balance when the good King Richard comes to overturn his bad brother.

This shaped your film Fellow Traveller
I was fascinated to learn that my favourite childhood TV show, that I watched every Thursday at 5.45pm, had been largely written by blacklisted Hollywood screenwriters - most of whom were still in the States, smuggling their scripts in through a kind of televisual underground railroad to Nettlefold Studios in Britain. As soon as I learnt that, I knew what film I would make.

So the fifties ITV Robin Hood was a communist?
There are many aspects of that series that are absolutely fundamentally left wing - not just smuggling in left wing ideas into the narrative, but more cogently as an allegory of McCarthyism. Of what had happened to these people. It’s all about Robin and the boys of the Forest, who’ve all been outlawed and disenfranchised by a ‘bad’ authority. So many scenes in those early shows involve capturing one of the villagers and getting them to inform on the whereabouts of outlaws - so we have that whole kind of McCarthyite agenda of naming names and branding people as un-American finding its way into the medieval tales of Robin Hood – even though they were still based on the ballads of the tales.

So Hollywood was not such a merry place...
Hollywood was seen as a nest of radical thought, which was particularly true among the writers who were the proletariat of the industry. The struggle for unionisation and better conditions had politicised a lot of these writers, and consequently they were among the first to mobilise against the rise of fascism in Europe, with communism being a viable alternative. After WWII the backlash began as the right attempted to purge left wing Marxist thought. The main attack was against civil servants, trade unionists, teachers - even surgeons were attacked, presumably because they were worried they would inject them with communist propaganda. But the entertainment industry was a sexy place to attack; you got the headlines if you went after the stars, a lot of whom capitulated under the pressure. But, it was the writers - the toiling serfs – who were really singled out for attack. One of whom was Ring Lardner Jr…

He was one of the writing team for The Adventures of Robin Hood…
…who served time for contempt of court as one of the ‘Hollywood Ten’, for refusing to co-operate when asked; “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?” If you said no, you could be done for perjury. If you said yes, the next question was; “tell me the names of people involved.” There were lots of people who were Communist in the 1930s until the full extent of Stalin’s crimes began to trickle out, and were quite happy to say; “Yes, I was a Party member in 1935 because I saw the rise of Hitler and the Communists were the only people who were mobilising against it.” So the next accusation would be; “So you were a premature anti-fascist?” The Hollywood Ten refused to answer the question because either way it would affect them or the people they knew. Ring said; “Well yes Mr Chairman, I could answer that question - but then I’d hate myself in the morning.”

What became of him?
After prison, he was blacklisted from the industry and had his passport taken away. Adventures of Robin Hood enabled him to put food on the table and to write. When I showed Ring the film, he told me that at the time Adventures of Robin Hood was one of the most popular shows on television and that he couldn’t tell his youngest he’d written his favourite television programme because he knew he’d be so proud he’d blurt it out.

In all Robin Hood interpretations, the forest appears to be a refuge for like-minded people…
The forest is a place of liminality. There’s a really well-defined topography in the Robin stories. You’ve got the town - Nottingham - and in that you have the Castle, which represents royal authority. Anyone around the castle is immediately oppressed by the rule. Then you’ve got the villages, where the soldiers go out and get tax from people - and if they don’t pay, chop off their hands. In the middle you’ve got this liminal space where all of the normal rules don’t apply and this band of men exist.

There’s a wonderful scene in the Errol Flynn film where Marian is going through the forest and is captured by Robin who shows her what life is like there. She sees how they feed the people and are able to live together in harmony and peace, and she’s instantly converted. In anthropological terms this space represents community in opposition to authority and develops the notion that different races, faiths and classes can come together - united through their differences.

First episode of The Adventures of Robin Hood, 1955 (YouTube)


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