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Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves at 30: Nick Brimble on an Awkward Premiere and Shooting in a Waterfall

19 July 21 interview: Ashley Carter
illustrations: Smugcomputer Illustration

A $50 million budget, Hollywood’s biggest star, England’s most famous legend, an Oscar nomination, a BAFTA win, a song that became one of the best-selling singles of all time, that performance from Alan Rickman and a box office take of almost $400 million. Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves left a huge impact on the legacy of Nottingham’s folk hero and, to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of its release, we caught up with some of the people responsible for bringing it to life, continuing with Nick Brimble...

Reel of stills from Prince of Thieves

Respected stage, screen and voice actor Nick Brimble has been a well-known face on British film and television for almost five decades. But before appearing in the likes of A Knight’s Tale, Ivanhoe and Grantchester, the Bristol-born actor was chosen for the role of Little John...

I have plenty of memories of making the film. We didn’t actually shoot in Nottingham – the exterior of the castle was Carcassonne in France, and we were only there for a couple of days. The rest of it was built in Shepperton Studios.

One of my main memories was filming the scene in which I fight Kevin Costner in the waterfall. That was shot in November in Yorkshire, and man was it cold! From the first shot to the last we were fighting in that water and we weren’t allowed to wear wetsuits under our costumes because they restrict your movement while fighting. But it was freezing. During lunch we just stood next to a fire to warm up, before putting our wet costumes back on and going again. The actual scene in the movie is only a couple of minutes, but we filmed in that water for the whole day.

The fact that Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves is still being talked about is wonderful. It’s one of those movies that everybody seems to know, and it’s part of people’s lives

I went up for an audition, and then was sent to meet the director and producers. I think I met them three times, but I knew they were casting the lead roles in America. Even though they wanted to see me for Little John, I knew they wouldn’t cast me, so I wanted to go up for Guy of Gisbourne instead. I’d been in a project called Crossbow, which was about William Tell. I played the bad guy, riding around on a horse in black leather, which was a very Guy of Gisbourne-type part – you know, the henchman who beat up peasants and all of that. I thought that was the role for me! I tried to talk them into giving me that part, but they were adamant that I should be Little John. 

I’d just recently been living in a village in Somerset, and I knew a lot of the guys who used to drive around in old pickup trucks with Confederate flags in the back. They were the kind of guys who didn’t want to pay their taxes, and it occurred to me that they were the sort of characters we were talking about when it came to Little John, so that’s how I approached it. They liked it, and I got the job. 

Knowing that the legend of Robin Hood was so big around the world made it a project that I really wanted to be part of. When I was first going to the cinema aged around ten, the film I saw was the Disney live-action version [The Story of Robin Hood and his Merrie Men, 1952]. Richard Todd was Robin Hood, and the great James Robertson Justice was Little John. For me, that was the world of Robin Hood as I knew it – I had a picture book of the film, and there was a stream near where I lived that my friends and I would go to and recreate the fights in. It was part of the mythology of being English, I think. I loved it, and was so grateful to be part of it. I’ve been in films that you’ll never have heard of – they just disappear. 

There was even another Robin Hood film being made at the same time that nobody seems to know anymore. Luckily, we were a version of the story that everybody knew and loved.

It’s great that I am Little John to a certain generation of people. So many of the things that you do, even if they’re well-received at the time, are here and then they’re gone. For one reason or another, they just disappear from people’s minds. The fact that Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves is still being talked about is wonderful. It’s one of those movies that everybody seems to know, and it’s part of people’s lives. I’m very lucky in that sense. 

It was very exciting to be part of that group of actors. I remember when we started filming we didn’t have the completed cast – I think Alan Rickman came on board a little later, and we started shooting without a Maid Marian, but it evolved and changed as we went along.

We came to Nottingham itself for the British Premiere. We didn’t have any of the American cast with us, and we had to walk down this red carpet and all everyone was thinking was, “Well, where’s Kevin Costner?”

When the film first came out I was so excited and delighted. I liked it, and everyone I knew liked it. The critics didn’t like it, and it didn’t get great reviews. You know, saying it wasn’t historically accurate and blah blah blah… But, and you don’t see this now, there were queues around the block to see it, particularly in America. It was a smash hit and, because it’s still on TV all the time, people still know it. At the time it was hard work and maybe a little chaotic, but I had no idea it was going to be the success it went on to be. I haven’t sat down to watch the film from beginning to end for decades, but it pops up on TV now and again and I’ll think, “Oh there’s that bit!” or, “Oh my God there’s me!” 

I remember we came to Nottingham itself for what I believe was the British Premiere. We didn’t have any of the American cast with us, and we had to walk down this red carpet and all everyone was thinking was, “Well, where’s Kevin Costner?” Sorry, it was only me! We stayed at a hotel and they wanted us all to arrive in limos, but there weren’t any available, so the company sent over some converted hearses instead. And then after the film we were invited to Nottingham Castle for a big banquet, hosted by the real Sheriff of Nottingham. It was all very funny and strange. 

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