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The Adventures of Robin Hood: A Robin Hood Spotlight

The Adventures of Robin Hood

"The Christmas Goose"

Written by Oliver Skene*
[AKA Ring Lardner, Jr. and Ian McLellan Hunter]

Directed by Don Chaffey

Original UK Airdate: December 22, 1957

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Perhaps the best-known thing today  – other than the theme tune – about the 1950s TV series The Adventures of Robin Hood was a closely-guarded secret when the show was on the air. Although filmed in England, the show was written by Americans, but not just any Americans – writers who were backlisted in Hollywood for their Communist sympathies. Just as Robin Hood would often disguise himself, so too did the writers under many false names. The screenplay of “The Christmas Goose” is officially credited to Oliver Skene – the name used by Ring Lardner, Jr. when he cashed his cheques. Skene was one of many aliases employed by Lardner and his writing partner Ian McLellan Hunter. Lardner and Hunter wrote many of the early episodes and shaped the development of the show. In his autobiography I’d Hate Myself in the Morning: A Memoir Lardner says that Hunter did not contribute as much or as often to the later episodes. Some episode guides have credited this episode to Lardner alone, and others like Steve Neale’s comprehensive list have credited it to both men.

A very brief summary episode could be “an unpleasant man changes his ways as he learns to value others.” The same description also applies to Charles Dickens’ 1843 novella A Christmas Carol, which has been homaged in countless movies and TV shows. However, Lardner and Hunter do depart from the Dickensian template more than most holiday specials have done. The political messages in this episode aren’t just an example of the Christmas spirit, Lardner and Hunter kept the ideals in their hearts year-round.

The episode opens with an 11-year old boy, played by Jon Whiteley, wandering through the forest with his pet goose Matilda in tow. The boy is excited to find some mistletoe up a tree. He leaves his goose to guard the holly he’s already collected as he scales the tree to acquire more Christmas decorations.

Into this scene ride the new lord of the manor, Sir Leon  – who just acquired it from his late uncle – and the estate’s bailiff. Sir Leon Is played by Jack Watling, who had an extensive career in film and television. However, this episode marks his sole appearance in the Robin Hood series. However, the bailiff is played by Paul Eddington, part of the show’s regular repertory players – taking on different roles in each episode. Eddington finally ascended to the role of Will Scarlet in the fourth and final season – a transition he regarded as a mixed blessing as his repertory days allowed a greater variety of roles. Here Eddington plays the bailiff as an ingratiating, vacillating man – always ready with a phony smile, playing  both sides. It’s become a game with historians of this series to read the writers’ experiences on the blacklist into every scene. Still one could see parallels between the bailiff and those who half-heartedly supported the left-wing writers while ultimately throwing their support behind the studio.

The bailiff is showing Sir Leon around his estate of “some 40 acres”, and Sir Leon corrects him – it is precisely 42 acres. The bailiff tries to defensively laugh it off saying he was going with a nice round figure. But the exchange reveals Sir Leon’s character. He likes precision and he doesn’t like to feel cheated.

Sir Leon demands to know who the boy is and what is he doing. The boy says his name is Davey. The bailiff recognizes him and assures Sir Leon “It’s quite all right. He’s own of your own serfs.”  But Sir Leon continues to take offence.

Sir Leon: It is not all right. This is my hunting preserve. And my people are not allowed on it!

Davey: I wasn't hunting, your lordship. Just cutting a bit of mistletoe.
[Bailiff chuckles, trying to lighten mood. Sir Leon still looks livid.]

Bailiff: Christmas next week, you know.

Davey:  I cut some holly too. I hope your lordship doesn't mind.

Sir Leon:  Mind? Of course I mind! This is my tree! My mistletoe! And my holly!

Bailiff: The custom of the manor is that people can collect firewood, my lord.

Sir Leon:  By hook or by crook only. Don't tell me about the customs of my estate. I know them only too well.

Davey: Sir Neville didn't mind. He even gave a prize for the family that decorated their house the prettiest.

Sir Leon:  The fact that my uncle mismanaged this estate is no concern to me. Come down, boy!

Seeing Davey threatened the goose Matilda starts fluttering about and flapping her wings at Sir Leon’s horse. Davey cries out for her to stop, but it’s too late.  Sir Leon’s horse rears up and throws its rider to the ground. Sir Leon seems only slightly bruised, but he shouts that his shoulder is broken – maybe his neck. The bailiff offers to destroy the goose and the lord initially agrees but then gets a better look at the goose and changes his mind:

Sir Leon: Now, now, wait a minute. Destroy a plump, succulent goose like that? No, no, that goose attacked me, but it has the right to a fair trial. Like any creature under my jurisdiction. Tie the beast up and bring it back to the castle.

And so, the bailiff seizes the goose and tells Davey to be off with him.

Friar Tuck (played, as always, by Alexander Gauge) wanders through the forest and comes across Davey who is sobbing loudly. Tuck is horrified to learn that Davey’s friend is to be put to death, but on subsequent questioning realizes that the friend is a bird. Tuck is relieved and says "I'm sorry. I didn't understand. I thought this was rather more serious." But Davey protests that it is serious. Matilda will be killed and eaten unless someone can speak on her behalf. Davey asks if Tuck would.

Tuck agrees to help. "I'll do it for your sake, my boy. Because I believe that no child should be miserable at Christmastime."

At the castle of Sir Leon Tuck’s plea for clemency falls on deaf ears. Sir Leon insists “that goose attacked me and must stand trial. That's the law." During this scene Sir Leon is humouring his own daughter Susan. Susan is played by Jane Asher who played children in two other episodes, although she’s most famous as Paul McCartney’s one-time fiancée and artist muse.

Sir Leon has a beaming fatherly pride. Tuck tries to appeal to Sir Leon’s empathy as a father, but Sir Leon insists that Susan is “unique”.  The trial must go ahead. Tuck says he’ll be speaking in defence of the bird, which Sir Leon agrees to even though he finds the idea of defending a goose to be absurd. Of course, he doesn’t find the idea of putting a bird on trial absurd.

And yet however absurd the trial would seem to 20th century audiences, animal trials were a common feature of medieval life, although perhaps not quite in late 12th century England. This was not the first – nor the last – episode where the writer used genuine medieval laws and customs to comment on broader political points.

The trial begins with a shot of the goose Matilda sitting peacefully in her wooden cell as the bailiff speaks in his official and officious capacity.

Bailiff: Sir Leon, despite a grievously wrenched shoulder, has graciously consented to preside over this manor court as judge. He would like to point out that he's anxious to comply both with the spirit and with the letter of the law in giving this vicious bird a fair trial. 

The camera pans from Matilda’s cage up to the Sir Leon – sitting above everyone else as both accuser and judge – down to the impassive audience none to impressed by this concept of fairness, and finally back to the bird which seems more placid than vicious.

The idea of Sir Leon sitting as judge of his own case is more comically absurd than even putting a bird on trial. It’s a concept that also appeared back in the first episode when the Sheriff of Nottingham said it was “useful custom” that Normans could preside at their own trials. Perhaps Ring Lardner, Jr. was thinking of the time when his own government sat as both judge and processor of him at the HUAC hearings.

As Sir Leon recounts his encounter with the bird he concludes by saying:

Sir Leon: As that goose belongs to one of my serfs. I granted the bird's rights and had it arrested. Instead of using violence, I invoked the law.

[The bailiff nods, but his expression is one more of contemplation than complete approval.]

Sir Leon: Now I'm a law-abiding man. And I intend to administer my estates in a law-abiding manner. But let me make it clear that I intend to invoke every privilege granted me under the law.

And here is Sir Leon’s character. He doesn’t mind being seen as a hard man, but he wants to seem fair. He wants all his actions to be seen as just and proper and fair. And to Sir Leon being fair means invoking a system that gives him near complete authority.

Friar Tuck fulfills his promise by agreeing to speak in Matilda’s defence. Tuck begins by saying he wishes to call a character witness. The bailiff laughs “whoever heard of a goose having character.” But Sir Leon says “The law states that an animal on trial has the same rights as a human being. You may proceed, friar.”

Tuck calls Davey to the stand. Under the friar’s questions we learn that Davey is an only child, his father is dead, his mother works twelve hour days at the loom to make ends meet. Tuck says “Well, it seems to me as if you've been a very lonely little boy.” Davey agrees, but then says he’s  not lonely when he had Matilda with him. As far the bird’s vicious character, the only other such incident in Matilda’s past is when a dog snarled at Davey and Matilda squawked in his defence. Davey says that Matilda thought Sir Leon was going to hit him and she was only protecting him.

Tuck dismisses Davey and approaches the bench.

Tuck: Sir Leon, perhaps now after hearing Davey's testimony you realize why I'm here. I come to speak on behalf of a lonely boy who faces the tragedy of losing his one friend. We do not dispute your technical, legal rights. But we would like to point out that this case is a result of pure accident. There was no malice involved, whatever. I appeal to you to give this boy a Merry Christmas by restoring to him his pet, his one friend, the goose Matilda.

Sir Leon: Well, I...

[The bailiff holds out his hand and makes a noise to cut off Sir Leon.]

Bailiff: My lord, this friar's sentimental appeal does not alter the facts of the case. The goose attacked you, injured you ... and should be executed.

Sir Leon: Quiet right. I sentence Matilda. I mean I sentence that vicious goose to be taken to my kitchen, fattened and executed on Christmas Day.

Davey: (jumps up, turns to Tuck) Father.

Sir Leon: (leans forward to drive the emotional knife in) ... in time for my Christmas Dinner.

Watling may have delivered the last line with a panto flourish, but it helps drive home the point to the younger viewer that for all his talk of law, Sir Leon isn’t interested in fairness – just in filling his own gizzard.

Meanwhile the scene shifts to Sherwood Forest, some of the Merry Men are dragging firewood, singing a Christmas tune.  Derwent (played by Victor Woolf) is wearing a Phrygian cap. In other times and places this headgear would connote liberty and freedom, but in this episode it marks Derwent  out as a chef. Derwent fills a similar role to Much in other Robin Hood films and movies. He’s not a great fighter, but fun to have around. Derwent and another Merry Man are delighted when Tuck appears – the perfect person to sample their Christmas Cake, hot from the oven.

Tuck is insistent on seeing Robin Hood, but he’s also tempted by the sweet food before him. Well, that is until the Merry Man laments that all they lack is a goose for dinner. Reminded of his mission, Tuck declines saying “No. I can't. I just don't have the appetite.” Fearing Tuck must be ill to act so out of character, Derwent hurries to find Robin Hood.

Here at 11 minutes and 27 seconds into the episode – a minute from the halfway point – Richard Greene’s Robin Hood appears on the scene. It’s rare to see a Robin Hood story set at wintertime, and this episode makes a few concessions to the season. Robin and Derwent are rubbing their arms to keep warm and Robin is wearing a winter cowl or shoulder cape around his shoulders. They also wonder if Tuck is sick from the cold.

Robin asks what’s bothering Tuck and the friar recounts the events of the episode. (For those fans who like to spot continuity mistakes, Robin’s cowl vanishes in the close-up shots – showing him with his standard open-necked shirt – and reappears when the camera cuts back to a wider shot.)

Robin inquires as to Sir Leon’s character and Tuck says he’s stern and strict. Robin asks “Do you mean he hasn’t even got one weakness?” “Not one,” Tuck replies, but then he mentions Sir Leon’s daughter “although you’d hardly call it a weakness.”

Robin: Aha. The Achilles heel. Well, it seems this Sir Leon needs a bit of a lesson in Christmas spirit. And that might be the way to reach him.  

When the episode returns from commercial break, Tuck is once again at Sir Leon’s castle. However, when Sir Leon dismisses Tuck’s final appeal for clemency, Tuck changes the topic from saving the goose to the best way of cooking it. Tuck says that if the cook kills the bird early he’s “a complete bungler who doesn’t know his business”. Before killing or cooking the bird, it first must be fed wine of the highest quality and only killed at the last second. Tuck mentions stuffing. Sir Leon’s cook has never stuffed a bird and Tuck entrances Sir Leon with his recipe. Sir Leon takes an almost orgasmic joy in the possibility of a fine dinner.  He’s delighted by Tuck’s offer to cook the dinner to show there are no hard feelings over their previous dispute.

Sir Leon’s servant announces a Sir Roger of the Dell is waiting at the gate. Sir Leon has never heard of him and wants the stranger dismissed as he has important things to do.  But Tuck say he’s heard of Sir Roger “I've heard he visits all his neighbours every year, distributing yuletide gifts.” “Gifts? Show the gentleman in!” Tuck also says Sir Roger is an expert in estate management – a subject close to Sir Leon’s heart. I’m sure the children at home could tell what sort of trap was being baited here

Sir Leon dispatches Tuck to the kitchen to delay the bird’s execution and take over the feast.  Tuck makes it to the kitchen just in time to stop the cook from slaughtering Matilda. Intercut with the scenes in the Great Hall, Tuck explains his theory that the bird must be given wine to drink.

When Sir Roger enters we find it’s Robin Hood but in a cunning disguise. He’s wearing a hat with a feather in it. No one would ever suspect a person wearing a feathered hat is really Robin Hood.

Sir Leon greets his guest and apologizes for not visiting his neighbours sooner as he’s been busy trying to manage his estate. “Very proper,” the disguised Robin replies. “Man can't learn his estate in a day. Or a year. Especially in this part of the country.” Sir Leon asks why that part of the country, and Robin responds

Robin: People, my dear fellow. Lowest grade of Anglo-Saxon stock. Like oxen and ought to be treated as such. Don't you agree?

Sir Leon: Oh yes, absolutely. Mind you, I believe in justice. Firm justice. Of course, I've made a very thorough study of all my rights and privileges.

Robin: Good for you. Man's got to look after himself and nobody else. You never have a crown if you don't look after your pennies, right?

Sir Leon: Oh right.

Robin: Even at Christmas, wouldn't you say?

Sir Leon: Oh, especially at Christmastime. Man has to be sharper than ever. No crops coming in. Winter can be a dead loss for man if he doesn't take advantage of everything that's due to him.

But with Sir Leon’s fine castle and finer foods he doesn’t feel the pinch of winter like his peasants do. Not that Robin points that out to him. No Robin replies that they think alike. Of course that’s not true. Robin’s lines as Sir Roger are a mockery of the racist and rapacious lines said by many of the evil lords in the shows. Robin’s Sir Roger speaks in nothing but clichés. And there’s such joy in the portrayal – Robin Hood is getting a kick out of sending up the upper class buffoons, and actor Richard Greene seems to relish the opportunity for comedy here to. Greene pitches delivery broadly, so no child would be confused and mistake Robin’s trickery for sincerity. But the performance enhances the show with a light comic touch. This Robin Hood is a far removed from the "full-blooded medieval brigand" (to borrow historian Maurice Keen's turn of phrase) but he's also more than - to use Stephen Knight's mostly apt description of Greene's Robin, "Squadron Leader Robin Hood." There's still a trickster spirit in this Robin Hood, even if it manifests itself as almost boyishness. Greene is like a child pretending to be a grown-up in the scene, and it's very appealing.

Robin now takes out the promised gift – the Christmas cake that we saw Derwent preparing earlier. Robin as Sir Roger claims that he has his wife back these cakes for each of his neighbours and Sir Leon is delighted to get something for nothing. That’s when Robin adds “Of course, I don't include her labour in the price. Just the cost of the ingredients.” Sir Leon is surprised to learn thathe’s selling the cake not giving it as a gift but agrees with Sir Roger to avoid looking foolish – and therefore seems all the more foolish. Robin says “Oh, I mean I could give them away, but uh, I think it weakens people's character, getting something for nothing, don't you agree?”

The bailiff comes in to tell Sir Leon that guests won’t be coming to his Christmas  party. Sir Leon is put out. “Not to come? But they're supposed to bring me my gifts.” Sir Leon realizes how monstrously selfish that sounds and adds  “And to have a little something to eat and drink afterwards.” The bailiff explains that the people are still upset about the goose. Sir Leon insists he acted justly, but laments that he won’t get any presents this year. Sir Leon turns to his guest for advice and Robin asks him to hell him about the bird.

Meanwhile we cut to Tuck and the cook in the kitchens. Tuck says that Matilda has a stubborn character, and they must lead by example. In other words, Tuck and the cook should encourage the goose to try wine by drinking in front of her.  Yes, Tuck is mainly doing this for the sake of young Davey and to teach a selfish earl the meaning of Christmas, but he’s perfectly happy to also scam some free wine.

Back to Sir Leon and the disguised Robin, Robin says if Sir Leon doesn’t make an issue of his peasant’s non-attendance “you may as well abdicate as lord of this manor.” Sir Leon asks if it’s really that serious.

Robin: Oh indeed it is. Now each tenant and serf on your estate was supposed to bring you some sort of gift at Christmastime, right?

Sir Leon: I think that is the custom.

Robin: And in return, you were going to give them, what? A nibble to eat and a wassail to wet their lips on? But clearly you were the one to benefit by the exchange, right?

Sir Leon: Well, I ... I think that's the way it works.

It’s clear from his expression that Sir Leon is only realizing just now how inequitable his relationship with his peasants is. Still he agrees with Robin but says if they don’t come… Robin slaps his riding crop on Sir Leon’s desk.

Robin: Make them come. (Stands up  and prods Leon with his finger.) Otherwise it's the thin end of the wedge. If they don't pay you your Christmas tribute, you may as well forget your Ash Wednesday and your Easter tribute. Your Whitsun tribute. Your Michaelmas tribute. And your All Saints Day tribute. The road leads downhill all the way.

Again I love how Robin uses the kind of vacuous clichés of the elite to make Sir Leon start to see how foolish and over privileged he is. Robin’s acting like a cartoon devil placing naughty thoughts in Sir Leon’s head. Except the point is to make Sir Leon see that these thoughts are naughty. Sir Leon still has no idea he’s being played and orders to have the serfs forced to come to his party.

Meanwhile, Tuck and the cook toast Matilda’s good health.

The peasants are let into the great hall and deposit their presents on the table. They leave whole chickens, large loafs of bread, baskets of eggs. Davey and his mother are among the visitors, and Sir Leon considers not accepting their gift, but Robin cautions against special treatment.  “I never let my feelings guide my actions. Not even at Christmas.”

Once all the peasants are inside the bailiff asks if he can serve them the mutton stew. Sir Leon agrees saying “As soon as they've had it and we can get rid of them, the sooner we can sit down to our Christmas goose.” Servants come out with large bowls and drop a few mangy scraps of mutton on the serfs’ plates with a tiny helping of what is likely equally foul sauce.

Then Sir Leon begins his speech, “Ah, friends! No doubt it seems strange to you to hear me call you that. You think of me as someone far above you, your lord and master.” Robin drops character and rolls his eyes at this fool. “In the eyes of God all men are as one. So, once a year on his birthday, we remember that this is true. So now, let's sing a holiday tune.”

Sir Leon starts singing Time to Rejoice, but no one joins in. They all glower at him. Even the bailiff has a look that says “what is he doing?” Sir Leon’s daughter Susan laments “Nobody’s singing father.” Sir Leon demands that people sing, and the bailiff sings a few words of the song, but trails off when no one else joins in.

“People only sing when they're happy,” Susan explains.

Sir Leon says it’s no use.  Robin has an idea.

Robin: Perhaps you should go back to the root of the trouble and correct the mistake you made there.

Sir Leon: But I thought you said to never admit a mistake.

Robin: Unless it's the mistake of too much kindness. You failed to beat the boy for trespassing. Beat him now I say. Be sure to take his shirt off. (Hands riding crop over.) Lay into him, Sir Leon, until your arm grows tired. (Susan looks concerned. Leon is hesitant.) Well, if you're not man enough to beat the boy (smacks riding crop on table) I am!

Robin gets up and escorts Davey behind a wooden partition. He tells Davey he is the friend that Friar Tuck spoke of, and then asks Davey how loud he can scream.

Davey responds by giving an ear-piercing shriek that mortifies Sir Leon and terrifies his daughter Susan.

Meanwhile, we see Robin raise the riding crop high, only to bring it down gently again his own leg. But the others cannot see this.  Susan shouts “This is a hateful Christmas! Make him stop!” And her father bows to her wishes, rushes to the partition and scuffles with Robin Hood.  Robin tells Davey he can stop screaming now.

Sir Leon realizes now that it was all an act. Robin asks why he intervened, and Sir Leon says

Sir Leon: My daughter. It's far too cruel.

Robin: Davey, what would you rather have had? A flogging or Matilda put to death.

Davey: A flogging.

Robin: So, you see, Sir Leon, what you did was more cruel than beating a little boy at Christmas.

Susan: I want a happy Christmas. The way it used to be.

Sir Leon: Yes, well I'll make it up to you somehow, Davey.

Davey wants Matilda back, and Sir Leon figures it would take a miracle. Robin replies “Miracles have been known to happen at Christmas. Watch!”

Robin flings upon the door and we see seasonably appropriate snow is now falling. Robin calls for the friar and Tuck comes out carrying Matilda.

 

An ecstatic Davey rushes to embrace his pet. Everyone starts wishing each other a Happy Christmas. Most go back inside, to the promise of a real Christmas party.

However, Robin and Tuck wave goodbye to their new friends and take their leave. They’re like the Lone Ranger and Tonto riding off into the sunset.

 

Not every episode of The Adventures of Robin Hood features all the regulars. One can presume that Patricia Driscoll’s Maid Marian was celebrating Christmas at Fitzwalter Hall during this episode. Archie Duncan is listed in the credits as having played Little John in the episode, but unless he’s the Merry Man dragging firewood with his back turned toward the camera, there’s no sign of him either. But the most keenly felt absence is Alan Wheatley as the Sheriff of Nottingham.

As good as he is in the role of sheriff, it’s not Wheatley’s performance that is missing – it’s his legal authority or rather lack of it. The show often established that the sheriff drew his power directly from Prince John, and that official injustices are the result of a usurper’s interference in the law of the land. But Sir Leon and his bailiff aren’t usurping anything. No one disputes their legal rights – not matter how unfair or amoral those rights appear to be. Sir Leon doesn’t appear to have a personal stake in the struggle between Prince John and Good King Richard.

Throughout the episode there is pointed and dripping criticism of the unfairness of the law. Pretty much everything Robin Hood says in his guise of Sir Roger illustrates how grossly unfair the system can be. And yet, this criticism is more implicit than explicit. Perhaps the writers were hoping the adult watchdogs would miss the political message that any child could see.

Ring Larnder, Jr. and Ian McLellan Hunter have written what surely must be one of the most subversive Christmas tales since Dickens’ original. And yet this episode is not a dreary lecture on the rights of man. It is brimming with life and humour.  It’s a fun Christmas tale, but perhaps the seeds it planned in the minds of children took root in the political upheavals of the following decade. I also wonder if any children in 1958 also turned away from their Christmas dinner, fearing that the goose or turkey before them was another Matilda.

This is not the only bird centric episode in the Robin Hood canon. 50 years to the month after “The Christmas Goose”, the BBC aired an episode of their Robin Hood series  which centred around the Sheriff and the Merry Men’s efforts to locate a very special carrier pigeon. By placing a message inside the bird’s “ring”, the message would be carried straight to King Richard. And the name of this bird with the powerful ring? Why – Lardner, of course.

 


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Text copyright, © Allen W. Wright, 2005.