Source: The Daily Mail (UK)
May 21, 2010
How Robin Hood got me all a-quiver!
By Jane Fryer
As my eleventh arrow - just like the ten before it - flops feebly into the grass, I begin to dislike my beautiful, hand-made, 5ft-long, solid yew longbow. And Russell Crowe. In equal measures.
The longbow because it's hurting my shoulder and bruising my wrist, and isn't doing what I want it to. And Russell, because I'm sick and tired of hearing how much better he was with his.
"Russ was a natural," trilled my (and Crowe's) archery teacher, who is called Steve Ralphs, sports a pair of rock 'n' roll sideburns, plays in a band called Shaved Horse and has a lot to say about Crowe.
"He was a perfectionist - utterly committed, and extremely competitive. He's torn both Achilles tendons, he's had two operations on his shoulder, he's got a rib that pops out in his back and he'd say: "I'm going to get this right if I have to stand here all day, every day, and shoot a thousand arrows." And he did. He wore the bows out in training - that's how intensive he was."
Steve, 55, would know. He was the brave chap who jetted out to the famously short-fused Russell Crowe's farm in Australia and spent weeks in the scalding heat teaching the actor how to shoot a longbow like a master archer for his starring role in the new Robin Hood film, directed by Ridley Scott and co-starring Cate Blanchett and Mark Strong.
"Russ was brilliant. He has huge, huge big arms - he's enormous, he's in great shape. In fact, his left arm is so big the string kept hitting his biceps, so we had to make him a special bracer to protect him from bruising. There was a whole team of us staying there - we were like his merry men - and every day he'd do two hours of sword fighting, then two hours of archery, then a break, then more archery, then maybe some yoga, or a 37-mile bike ride, and then a game of football. And he smokes!"
Over the years, Steve has taught countless Hollywood stars to shoot a longbow without catching their fingers, pinging their wrists, injuring their shoulders, swearing filthily under their breath and, most importantly, shown them how to look vaguely like they know what they're doing in all manner of historical epics.
As, I soon discover, does Steve. "I talk way too much - you should tell me to shut up," he says cheerily. "If there was an Olympics in talking, I'd win a gold medal. I love talking." But not quite as much as he loves longbows. Or Robin Hood. "For me, Robin Hood is an attitude. Some of us have a little bit, and I have far too much," he says.
We start on a 30lb bow. Bows are measured not on size, but on the amount of power it takes to pull the arrow back over a given length - 28in for men, and 26in for women. They range from 30 to 35lb for women and 45 to 50lb for men, though Steve's been known to shoot a 120-pounder.
"Your one's a baby, but if it catches you in the arm, you'll end up with a massive egg, which really hurts, believe me."
So I wear a bracer, or leather forearm protector.
"You're about the same size as Emily Blunt, I've got hers in the shed, she wore it in The Young Victoria. Hang on a second and I'll go and get it."
Was she any good? "Oh yes, she was lovely, absolutely gorgeous."
Steve's love affair with longbows and Robin Hood started when he was given the book Robin Hood, aged five.
"I remember thinking: 'This is fantastic, this man had a bow and arrow and a girlfriend who lived in a castle and hated being told what do to.'"
Two years later, Steve's father, who'd inherited his bow-making skills from his own father, and he from his father, and so on and so forth, found a nice piece of yew and made the young Steve his first longbow.
"Seven was always the age of reason when you started with a longbow, and I was always the boy with the bow and arrow. I spent the rest of my childhood re-enacting the battle of Agincourt, lobbing loads of arrows down a field, picking them up and lobbing them back up again."
The place smells of leather, beeswax, wood shavings and oil, and is piled high with dozens of bows, arrows, beautifully carved ox-horn bow tips, piles of turkey feathers ("they used to be brown geese, but we're a bit short these days"), a harness of armour ("it's called a harness - there's no such thing as a 'suit' of armour"), replica shields and a sign that reads: "No B****y Swearing".
"This is my world. I'll be out here from eight in the morning 'til midnight. I love it." As well as film sets, he supplies the ever-burgeoning battle reenactment community. "I can't really see the appeal of dressing up on the weekends, and some of them really do lead the life. I know Vikings who've never washed . . . But it's a big market for me and I must be careful, because my next door neighbour's a re-enactor, and very nice, too."
And his wife Lindsey, what does she make of it all?
"I don't think she'd care if she never saw another bow and arrow as long as she lived." While Crowe, of course, was a model student ("I couldn't believe the work he put in - he'd seen all the old Robin Hood films, read all the old medieval ballads and he knew so much"), not all his famous pupils have been quite so eager.
Steve says: "Some of them, and I'm naming no names, come down, smack their arm and that's that. They don't want to know. Men are the worst - they assume they can do it because it looks easy, but archery is 70 per cent technique and 30 per cent luck. If they were playing an Olympic swimmer, they'd want a bit more training, but not as a master archer." Women tend to be better. "I think it's because they actually listen. You should have seen Judi."
"Oh yes. I trained her for The Importance Of Being Earnest. She was superb. I had probably 15 or 20 minutes with her and she got it (he clicks his fingers dramatically) like that!"
"She just draws up and . . . Whap! - straight in the bull's eye. And the next one . . . Whap! into the bull's eye. And she turns round and says: 'Oh goodness, this is such fun, why didn't I do this years ago?' and . . . Whap, a third goes straight in the bull's eye. She's standing there and doing the dialogue and casually powering them in, one by one, and everyone else's still fiddling about with their arrows."
Gosh, good old Judi. And did any of his actor students ever ping their arms and swear a lot?
"Oh yes, all the time. The air turned blue a few times when Russell Crowe was learning."
Steve is full of the talk, but can he actually hit anything? If a rabbit ran across the field, could he kill it?
'Don't be silly, you wouldn't shoot a rabbit.' No?
"Of course not! You wouldn't waste a tuppence arrow on a rabbit. You'd net it. But in any event, you'd never shoot at a rabbit, because it moves. You'd practise shooting the hole and then hit it when it goes back in."
OK, so what about a deer?
"Well, for starters you wouldn't shoot anything over 50ft away. And as a traditional archer you'd have dogs with you - it takes up to 20 minutes for an animal to bleed out - so the dogs would round it up. But to answer your question, I can shoot. I'm not the greatest, but I'm no idiot."
He is also a stickler for historical accuracy. "Don't watch a film with me! Never! None of my family will. I have to put a bulldog clip on my lips. I don't criticise; people think I'm the grumpiest man in the universe, but I'm not. I'm just pointing out that it could have been done better. If I see the wrong bow, or the wrong quiver, or the wrong stance, I think: Why didn't they ask someone who knows?"
But do people really notice?
"I do. And it drives me mad." Even when he's watching films he's worked on, such as the 1991 Kevin Costner epic, Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves. "I made 30 of the background bows for that and I wish I'd made them all. It was rubbish. They used Victorian bows, they used all sorts of strange bows. It was just a complete mishmash of equipment."
Although, to be fair, he didn't see it all.
"When Friar Tuck - who, incidentally, was played by an American comedian - turned to Robin of Loxley and says (here he rolls his eyes and puts on an American accent) 'Robin of Loxley, you've got balls of solid rock', I turned to Lindsey and said: That's it, we're off."
Even his favourite Robin Hood film ever - Sean Connery's Robin And Marian - doesn't escape his beady eye.
"You've got one of the best fight scenes ever - Sean Connery and Robert Shaw chopping chunks off each other outside Sherwood forest - and it's just brilliant. And then Connery picks up his bow and holds the arrow with his thumb and forefinger, like a little boy. A child! What were they thinking? Apparently he decided not to have any lessons."
But the recent BBC TV series of Robin Hood, costarring Keith Allen, hit a new low. "It was absolute pants. They had ridiculous shiny armour, the girls had Page 3 make-up and the bows were rubbish. Robin had a Hungarian bow and was far too young - he was supposed to have come back after spending five years in Palestine. He must have gone when he was nine."
Back in the paddock, I can barely pull the string back on my 30lb "baby", and certainly nowhere near the all important "anchor point", where my right hand fingers need to be in the corner of my mouth.
"Further back. Further back. FURTHER BACK!" he barks, before declaring me "over- bowed" , muttering about my "power triangle" and downgrading me to Emily Blunt's teeny-weeny bow and diddy little arrows "from the set of The Young Victoria".
It goes without saying that Super-Russell started on a 50lb bow.
"Not many men start on a 50-pounder. But Russ kept saying: 'That's not powerful enough, that's not powerful enough. I need something more powerful.' I ended up giving him one of mine."
"Right, now try again. Eyes open, arm out, always pull the string and not the arrow. Where's your power triangle? One, two, three . . ."
Another painful ping on my wrist. And then, suddenly, just as I'm about to hurl the bow on the floor and start jumping up and down on it, one of Queen Victoria's flimsy arrows hits the target. The blue ring, no less. And everything feels better.
"Not bad. Not bad," says Steve. "You might even hit the bull's eye if you keep on trying."
And maybe I would. But my wrist hurts and my shoulder aches and, unlike Russell Crowe, just hitting the target is good enough for me.