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Wednesday 24 Sep 2014

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Robin Hood returns to BBC One – Toby Stephens as Prince John

Toby Stephens as Prince John

The charismatic actor Toby Stephens, known for roles as diverse as Mr Rochester opposite Ruth Wilson's Jane Eyre in the BBC's version of Charlotte Bronte's classic (2006), to his memorable super villain Gustav Graces in the Bond film Die Another Day (2002), knew immediately that he could have some fun with Prince John.

Toby's tyrannical royal makes his debut in episode six and is perhaps the most dangerous egomaniac and fiendish baddie who has ever appeared in BBC One's rip-roaring hit, Robin Hood.

"I read the scripts and thought the writers had done a really great job on him. He's written as a paranoid mess and just leapt off the page. I felt he required theatricality and could be played full throttle all through the three episodes he's in. Prince John's first words are, 'Do you love me?' and believe me if you don't do the whole fawning, supplication thing with him, you're in big trouble," laughs Toby.

"This makes Prince John such fun to act because he veers from being someone who seems very charming to being someone who is deadly at the turn of a coin. I could really play with him being sinister one moment then really funny and wickedly sarcastic the next."

In short, says Toby: "He's a hornet's nest of paranoia and neurosis."

Now, while not suggesting for a moment Robin Hood has any aims other than being popular, peak-time family entertainment, did Toby look back into Plantagenet history at all to the real Prince John?

"Thank goodness the scripts aren't trying to be academic tomes," says Toby, but adds that from what he's gleaned there are aspects of Prince John's life reflected in the scripts.

"He's shown to lead a very peripatetic, itinerant life and it's true he was always touring around England and never stayed in one place very long."

"Prince John's existence was extremely insecure and had to be self servicing," adds Toby.

"As in the scripts, he must have been paranoid, always looking over his shoulder for enemies and assassins and plotting to strengthen his own position. That's pretty much the way things were.

"At one point Prince John says his father, Henry II, preferred him to Richard and that's true. Richard was his mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine's, favourite and when their parents split up she took Richard with her back to her native France.

"The father and brothers literally warred against each other – there's a terrific film about their family feuding called The Lion In Winter. Prince John's older brother, Godfrey, was a total lunatic and a complete sociopath. Even by our modern standards they were a seriously dysfunctional lot!"

Summing up, Toby says he had a great time filming his episodes with the team out in Hungary but felt a bit guilty at times when the others were doing amazingly physical stunts as well as learning lines.

"Prince John just lounges around commanding everyone else to do his dirty work or ...die," says Toby. That's perhaps another plus to being a baddie, especially when the weather was swelteringly hot.

Toby is presently playing Thomas in a new version of Ibsen's A Doll's House at the Donmar Warehouse, London.

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