The Sheriff and his merry band of PR men

These days, Robin Hood's arch-enemy only plays the bad guy at charity events. Cole Moreton reports
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
Boo! Hiss! The Sheriff of Nottingham is one of the great villains of English mythology, a dastardly symbol of corruption who oppresses the people, pursues their hero, Robin Hood, and makes unseemly overtures towards Maid Marion.

But there is more to the Sheriff of Nottingham. Did you know that he grins like a Cheshire Cat or that he is a retired railway worker whose real name is Roy Greensmith? Between the Dark Ages and the Leisure Age, the role of sheriff has changed from vicious lawkeeper to jovial civic figurehead. Roy Greensmith is a Nottingham councillor who took on the role of sheriff after several colleagues turned it down.

"You have to act as historian, public relations man, meeter-and-greeter, actor and pantomime villain all rolled into one," he says. "My job is to advance the city in all its facets: industrially, in commerce and in tourism, in this country and abroad."

This is a long way from raising taxes and chasing outlaws in the forest. "The Sheriff was a wicked character, no question. He was there to do a job for King John, and he did it very well. Hundreds of people went out to live in the green woods because they couldn't stand any more of the floggings and the torture, and the fact that their homes were destroyed and taken from them.

"It is not a proud legacy, but it is one that we carry quite happily these days, because of the importance it has for the city. The legend brings in an awful lot of money."

He is happy to ham up the role. "We went to a Lawn Tennis Association dinner. When I stood up, the Americans hissed. So I said: 'I shall tax you. And if I find the culprit, he shall be taxed double.' They all roared."

Later this week, he will fly to Canada to be guest of honour at a medieval pageant in Quebec. "If people want fun, we'll give it to them. I shall be the wicked sheriff, if I can keep a straight face. But I'm out there to do a job too: it's a million-pound opportunity to promote Nottingham."

He speaks of the Robin Hood legend as though it were fact, then admits it is probably 70 per cent fiction. Nobody knows who the real Robin Hood was. The earliest tales of his exploits date from the 1500s and describe him as leader of an outlaw band, living off the King's deer.

History shows Nottingham actually had two sheriffs, representing the Saxon and Norman parts of the city. One of the sheriffs was dropped in the mid-1800s and the other lost his legal powers when the Crown Court system was established in the early Seventies and the High Sheriff of Nottinghamshire became the senior legal figure in the county. It was then that the sheriff became a ceremonial role, like that of the Lord Mayor. "He's more important, but I'm the famous one. That makes him jealous."

Cllr Greensmith's year as sheriff began in May. It takes up to 60 hours a week and is unpaid, except for a clothing allowance: the uniform is a black suit and chain of office, but he also loves to dress up in a velvet and gold-braid replica of the original sheriff's outfit, with a large, bejewelled sword.

More than 1.5 million tourists stay in Nottinghamshire every year. It can seem like a theme park, with the Visitors' Centre in Sherwood Forest, several interactive exhibitions, and even visits to the original sets of Prince of Thieves. This week there is also the Robin Hood Festival, held around the Major Oak under which the merry men are said to have rested after robbing the rich.

With hundreds of performers in town pretending to be the figures of legend, it can be tough being the real thing. As the Sheriff meets children at Nottingham Castle, drawing his sword and handing out autographed photos, it is clear that they do not believe he is any more than another actor in a silly costume.

"For one year I'm a very famous man," says Cllr Greensmith, seeming a little hurt by their doubts. "On Friday afternoon you're the Sheriff of Nottingham, and on Friday evening you're just Mr Nobody again. It must leave a void when you finish."