Graham Upton, Oxford Playhouse President and High Sheriff of Oxfordshire, talks about getting to know his rival: Robin Hood's Sheriff of Nottingham.
As well as being President of the Playhouse I am currently High Sheriff of Oxfordshire so this year's panto has a special interest for me given the key role played by the Sheriff of Nottingham.
Sheriffs – who are they? The role of High Sheriff is the longest continuously held public office in the country, and possibly even the world (outside the British monarchy). The first High Sheriff in Oxford was appointed in the year 995 and if you go into the Crown Courts at the bottom of St Aldates the names of all the High Sheriffs of this area are listed from Wynsige, who served in 995, through to me.
For centuries the High Sheriffs pretty much ran the country - collecting taxes, administering law and order and raising armed forces on behalf of the King or Queen. But the Sheriff of Nottingham is usually the only one that anyone remembers because of the part he plays in the story of Robin Hood.
In former times any High Sheriff who entered the bailiwick of another High Sheriff would present themselves to them before venturing any further. Even today I would expect a High Sheriff from elsewhere in the country to let me know if they were in the county on formal business. So, both in terms of my role at the Playhouse and as High Sheriff, I was keen to meet this Sheriff of Nottingham and see what he was up to.
In the event we met three times. First at a panto rehearsal, second at Oxford Castle where we did a photo shoot for the local press and third, during last Sunday's performance.
The rehearsal was fascinating and makes seeing the real thing on stage even more interesting as you realise how far it has progressed and sometimes changed. The photo shoot was great fun and we took some really good photos using the castle and the old cells as a backdrop. If you didn't catch the publicity that followed take a look here.
Meeting the Sheriff on stage last Sunday was fun of a different kind. As far as I was concerned our family trip to the panto with 3 children of various ages and 3 grandchildren was just part of our normal family Christmas celebrations – we go every year. What I didn't know was that my wife and the Playhouse staff had plotted for me to appear on stage as the 'Good Sheriff' to imprison the 'Bad Sheriff' of Nottingham, to release Maid Marian and to knight Robin Hood.
I should have twigged something was going on when so many people we knew ‘happened’ to have decided to come to the same performance as we had and not only that but also ‘happened’ to have chosen seats so close to our own. But no, I sat there naively thinking ‘wasn’t life strange that such coincidences could happen’ and thought nothing more about it. Until … half way through the second half the cry went up from the cast for a ‘Good Sheriff’. Next thing I knew, there were cries of ‘Over here!’ and fingers pointing at me and I was whisked from my seat on to the stage briefly and then out to one of the dressing rooms where my Sheriff's uniform was waiting, spirited there by my wife, ready for me to change into.
For those who have never seen it, think of Black Rod at the opening of Parliament and you have got it - black patent leather shoes with silver buckles, tights, black velvet knickerbockers and coat with more silver buttons and braid and an extraordinarily elegant sword. Ten minutes later I was in the wings waiting with a set of cue cards in my hands and then I was on stage, in the full glare of the lights (and I hadn’t realised just how little you can see into the auditorium because of those lights). My costume clearly went down well, it was certainly more luxurious than that Nottingham fellow’s, and I think I may even have outshone the Dame! The best moment though was when someone offered me a sword to knight Sir Robin, which I declined and instead drew out my own sword to a bit of a gasp from the audience – it’s a very old and beautiful dress sword, but it does have a very sharp point and is very shiny.
I’m not known as someone who likes surprises, but this one was great fun and I did enjoy my moment of unexpected glory.
PS The panto was good too.
Robin Hood has set both critics and audiences aquiver and, as tickets are selling fast, you're advised to book now. Just click here to book. It 'Sher wood' be a shame to miss it.