Interviews in Sherwood

COUNCILLOR LEON UNCZUR
The Sheriff of Nottingham (2009 - 2010)

Conducted and transcribed by Allen W. Wright

Councillor Leon Unczur, Sheriff of Nottingham, 2009-2010Born and raised in Nottingham, Councillor Unczur had spent over 25 years in retail management and travelled around the world as part of his duties. Since 1993, he has been a city councillor serving the ward of Aspley. He has had a very distinguished career in local politics. In May 2009, he became the Sheriff of Nottingham. During his term of office, Councillor Unczur has led the Sheriff's Commission - a group dedicated to increasing tourism to Nottingham and promoting Robin Hood's image. In September 2009, the sheriff toured America to study tourism opportunities abroad.

This interview was conducted by phone on Feb. 24, 2010.

AWW:    How does it feel to be "The Sheriff of Nottingham"?

LU:      Absolutely wonderful.

AWW:    You've been the sheriff since last May. I guess we should discuss the general duties of the sheriff first. I gather since the 70s it's been a ceremonial position.

LU:      That's right. It doesn't have any judicial position anymore.

AWW:    So, you serve as a cultural ambassador to the city?

LU:      Partly that. But I'm an ambassador for the city on many things. It depends on what subject they want me to promote and I'll be an ambassador for it. If it's tourism, then I'll be so on tourism. If it's culture, they will put me forward for culture. It's a little bit like mini-royalty in that respect.

AWW:    I know, having spoken to a couple previous sheriffs, they meet with people sometimes in character. Have you done that?

LU:      Yes. I've opened up the sheriff's role. I now have a throne in the Nottingham Castle in the Long Gallery and I actually hold court.

AWW:    I know I've seen pictures of your ceremonial robe. Do others also dress up?

LU:      I have a medieval robe. The Sheriff's Lady, Adela, also dresses up and the Deputy Lord Mayor dresses up, but he dresses up - not in medieval garb - but his official Deputy Lord Mayor's outfit which is still quite ceremonial.

AWW:    Do you get into the character of your more legendary .. predecessor?

LU:      [Laughs] Yes, I have been known to. Yes. I think it's fun. I think it's what people really want. People from all over the world visit Nottingham Castle, and they are absolutely amazed to find that there is a Sheriff of Nottingham. And they like you to play up a little bit to the role. So, sometimes I play up to it, but not in a serious way, obviously.

AWW:    No, although the sheriff - particularly in the modern films - has been a great role for injecting life into some of the more staid Robin Hood films.

LU:      Absolutely! Alan Rickman was a superb sheriff for that, wasn't he? Although I think on your website, you thought he was in a crap movie.

AWW:    Well, I think there are good things and bad things about that film. I've probably mellowed.

LU:      I got the feeling that he read the script and didn't think much of it. Sometimes you pick up a script and don't read it that way and the film just becomes great. There have been other times where it's been totally the opposite. I thought he was fine.

AWW:    I'd agree. My suspicion is that he said "I'm going to inject life into this".

LU:      Alan likes playing characters that are slightly overboard. So he did. And the director, having a lot of common sense, let him.

AWW:    He's certainly the most quoted character in the film.

LU:      He would be. He's the juiciest part. When I was a child, I always wanted to play goodies and baddies. And always when I watched the Errol Flynn version I didn't want to be Errol Flynn, I wanted to be Basil Rathbone.

AWW:    He was a very suave Guy of Gisbourne.

LU:      Wasn't he though?

AWW:    Do you have a favourite Sheriff of Nottingham?

LU:      I suppose I don't. I like them all in their own way. Alan Wheatley - I thought he was a very good Sheriff of Nottingham in the Richard Greene TV version. He was a believable villain, wasn't he?

AWW:    Yes, I think they were going for the political corruption, and also a bit of the McCarthyist feel of the time from the American writers.

LU:      Yes, well they would do. Of course a lot of them were blacklisted weren't they when they worked on the Sheriff?

AWW:    I think Wheatley was really one of the ones to pioneer that sort of oily, politician sheriff.

LU:      Well, that's why I like him. I'm not actually an oily politician in reality but it's just fun. And if you've seen pictures of me, somebody actually said "You look like a sheriff, Leon. You look like a bastard." And that was a colleague of mine.

AWW:    What's the most fun you've had in your job as sheriff?

LU:      I think the most fun is actually going out and just talking to people. You can't stop me from talking to people. I love it. Whether it be in my medieval costume going into the castle and the castle grounds, talking to a child from Argentina - I asked her what she liked about the castle and she said she could run around on the grass. When she asked me what I liked about the castle - she was eight years of age, I said "throwing people off the top of it". Her mother looked slightly horrified at the time and then shrugged her shoulders and said "Well, he is the Sheriff of Nottingham."

         So, I love talking to people, seeing people from all over the world getting a kick about coming out and visiting the city. Talking about the city I was born and bred in and I actually love living here as well. So, talking to folk, promoting the city - both in America and Russia as I have done this year. And pursuing the Sheriff's Commission which, of course, I know you're going to ask me questions about.

AWW:    You have the advantage of both your city and your specific job title being known by virtually everyone in the world, certainly everyone in the English-speaking world.

LU:      Well, it's the most wonderful thing. I'll give you a slight example. My partner - we have a home in Manchester, and that's where my partner lives - and I were to a luncheon. And of course, my partner knows an awful lot of people in Manchester and he's well known up there. I'm well-known down here. But I was talking to somebody who was a director of a housing association - which is charitable housing - and I think he was rather surprised because he didn't know who I was. He just knew who my partner was, but I knew so much about housing. After 20 minutes, he said "what job do you do?" And I said "I'm the sheriff of Nottingham." And he looked at me as if to say "we've just had a reasonably intelligent conversation for 20 minutes, now you're taking the rye." And then my partner had to point out, "No, Gerald, he really is the sheriff of Nottingham. He really does exist." And I think that's often the case. People here - at first they laugh and then they're bowled over by it. And particularly in the States because they naturally assume you must be responsible for law and order. And they find it much better when they find out a) that you're not going to be able to arrest them and lock them up and b) you're able to tell them a good ol' yarn.

AWW:    Did you find when you were touring the States that there was any confusion between your kind of sheriff and the western sheriff?

LU:      Tremendous. It's a natural confusion. I was invited by several sheriffs in America to actually come look at prisons or the town jail or whatever. And I thought "that's not really what the job is." I did on two occasions do that because they had been so helpful. And then when we actually met them, we explained and they just got a kick out of it. And we learned something from a different angle. I think many people on the whole just thought that Nottingham was a mythical place similar to Camelot.

AWW:    I was wondering if you would have got that sense in America. People around the world are familiar with the modern London and don't associate it with Jane Austen's time or such. But Nottingham is so famously associated with a medieval legend.

LU:      They know London exists. They don't think Nottingham exists. They think it's a storybook. That's the feel we got from the majority of people - what I would call "ordinary folk" that we spoke to. Of course, the people we actually dealt with on the main were people who were in charge of big attractions or big organizations like the Getty Museum. They were more than aware of what Nottingham was about. But when talking to ordinary folk, their concept on the whole was the Robin Hood of the Walt Disney version. We expected it to be the Kevin Costner. We didn't expect it to be Errol Flynn - we weren't surprised at that one. We were very much surprised at how many people knew about the Richard Greene TV show. They were not as old as I thought they would be. There were lots of younger ones there, but of course that's the beauty of cable TV, isn't it? You can find a good yarn, a good programme, through cable eventually.

AWW:    It has been rerun a lot. I know several people who were children when it was first on or some years later with the early reruns and they've said their personal morality has been shaped by that TV show.

LU:      Yes, they have and because they were extremely well-written often by blacklisted folks from the States who actually had talent. So I'm not surprised. And Lew Grade, to be fair to him, was passionate that the product should be good. They've stayed the test of time.

AWW:    Getting back to the perception of Nottingham, do you find it's a problem that...

Robin Hood Statue outside castle groundsLU:      It would be a problem in this way. What we need to do is to get Nottingham on the map and firmly based on the map as far as American tourists are concerned. That's going to be helped by the UK tourism industry focusing in on Nottingham this year because of the film. That will help get across the fact that we are real. We are a city worth visiting. To actually get people to think about coming here when they come to London if they've got a spare day. It could be a real pull in and of itself. And to do that, we've got to do a great deal more than a statue at the bottom of the castle. And the castle itself [the only medieval element of the "castle" left is the gatehouse], which we can't do anything about because of English heritage and you'd need a Parliamentary act. And that's not going to get support - not in the next few years anyway because we are going to be in a lean, mean time politically.

AWW:    One of the weird things was The Tales of Robin Hood closing at the beginning of last year. At the time, that was the only specific, strongly branded Robin Hood thing in the city. [Since then, many of its costumes and props have been on display at the Galleries of Justice.]

LU:      You do know we are under negotiations with that re-opening.

AWW:    I had heard that there was a private enterprise working on that one as well.

LU:      At the end of the day, there needs to be a mixture of what city council can do and what private enterprise can do. Together, I'm sure we could come up with something that would be absolutely amazing. The kind of thing we're actually looking at the moment is to get the Tales of Robin Hood back but improved. Because the ride was good, but it had been around for a wee bit and it needs an overhaul and a bit more of an injection of thought behind it. And while that's ticking along quite nicely we need to build a huge attraction-cum-venue or whatever it is that we finally decide that will actually produce real dividends. And we're talking about mega-bucks on that one.

Now-defunct Tales of Robin Hood in 2006AWW:    I saw that there's a long-term schedule going up to 2018 and the bid for the FIFA World Cup.

LU:      Yes, that's in parallel with what we intend to do with Robin Hood. So when people come here for the World Cup, they can see something that's well worth seeing.

AWW:    Why do you think, up until now, there have been so few Robin Hood things in Nottingham? It seems such an obvious worldwide brand.

LU:      Let's be honest about this, Nottingham didn't need tourism or never even thought of tourism up until 30 years ago. Most cities in Britain didn't. The tourism industry was very much London, York, Winchester and Canterbury - those kind of areas really. Nottingham still is a thriving city, but it now has an angle to it that sees tourism is a huge potential. The hoteliers are waking up to it. And now people are quite rightfully saying you've missed your greatest asset for so long, why don't you do something about it? I think it's just been so blindingly obvious that nobody actually picked up on it. There's also been another side of it. People say Nottingham's a great deal more than a legendary character. We've got characters like Byron, D.H. Lawrence, we have the birth of the Salvation Army created in Nottingham by William Booth. There's so much more. But the huge puller is Robin Hood, and let's concentrate on that so when they come to Nottingham, they can find out a great deal more than Robin Hood. And of course, there's the start of the [English] Civil War.

AWW:    I remember there being some very nice bits of Civil War history around Nottingham even in one of the pubs, the Salutation Inn, with its Charles and Cromwell rooms.

LU:      Yes, we need to do more with that as well. Nottingham is where the standard was raised - the flag - to say all us hail to the king. Kind of ironic, of course, because the first thing we did was actually to get on the Roundhead [Parliament's] side which wouldn't have made the king very happy. Nottingham's got an amazing amount of history. But at the end of the day, you've got to focus. Get people here for Robin Hood and you can get them here for other reasons. Because thinking you can get them here for other reasons has worked to a certain extent, but it hasn't been the whole picture.

AWW:    Besides history, Nottingham also has geography. I mean the wonderful caves which have a sort of Robin Hood feel to them. I mean it feels right that there are tunnels and caves.

LU:      You're right. There's everything there that says it isn't one thing, we've got to concentrate on the experience of the city. Come and see the Robin Hood legend, find out how he and others would have lived at that time, find out how the caves were actually lived in, because they were lived in and worked in. None of them are networked, by the way, they all just in isolation. So that's got to be thought out as well. But there's so much more we can work out and also the Civil War. Great connection. And the most valuable piece we found in our trip to the States was, of course, Plymouth.

AWW:    I was going to ask about Plymouth. I saw on the blog about your trip about the actors that I think were being paid really small wages, but really into their characters.

LU:      They wouldn't call themselves actors. That's the thing. I don't know what they would call themselves, because I think I mentioned the word actor and they took quite a bit of umbrage to that. Because they actually believe the part. They do it for very little money, you're right. I think they do it just to keep going.

AWW:    There seems a real love in it.

LU:      Yes, we would call them re-enactment groups. They are very much on a similar line - they do this for the love of it. We could do something similar. Because the one thing we learned from the States, the voluntary network, so to speak, 600 people working voluntary for the Getty Museum. People again working for the Plimouth Plantation and the Mayflower Experience and those two joining together so when people come everything is connected.

AWW:    One of the things I had wondered about with Nottingham was a tourism split between the historical, the educational and to some extent the real Middle Ages versus say, the fun Robin Hood of the Disney cartoon or the Errol Flynn film.

Caves in Nottingham, 2003LU:      But you can do all that. If we get this right, we can get people who come to Nottingham to have some fun, to lighten the character up, but it doesn't become Disneyesque. You can't do that, and that's not what people are looking for. It isn't a theme park. The castle won't be a theme park. But they want to actually get the feel of the characters and how they would have lived and perhaps how Robin would have actually fought the sheriff and stuff like that. But then, that would be the educational side. There would be the fun side where we could have re-enactments and stuff like that. There's all sorts of possibilities. But it doesn't become Disney. No disrespect to Disney. Obviously. I don't want to get sued or anything. But it has a context - a real historical context. But you can do it in a way that people actually say "Wow! That was well worth going to! I learned a lot. I understood a great deal more about the Middle Ages, I've learned about how they would have lived. But I didn't get bored because it was all so entertaining." That's a very fine balance. And I speak as somebody who behaves like a five year-old at times - and I say that in a positive way - I can go and absorb and suck in information of any kind. And that's why the tour was so packed. We were all the kind of characters who can absorb that kind of information and get the feel of it. That's why the Natural History Museum in New York was an excellent example of that. You got the feel of a great place, but I didn't see children running around. I didn't see them going like lunatics as oddly enough you do see in the version in London. And that's the kind of feel I'd rather have. I'd rather have the feel of London where children and families are absolutely tired out at the end of the day. They've absorbed a great deal of knowledge, but they've had so much fun doing it.

AWW:    So, it's for both the children and the adults.

LU:      Yes. They learn in different ways. Adults will put up with things. How many times have you or I been on a tour and at the end of it you thought "there must have been so much information thrown at me today, but I didn't pick any of it up because I was bored." We've got to find a way that people don't have that experience.

AWW:    To open up the broader context of this, how did the sheriff's commission that started this tour come about?

LU:      Some good friends of mine who had known me for quite some time - professionals who would rather remain nameless - just said to me "it's about time somebody did something about Robin Hood. It's about time we got somebody as sheriff who would actually change the role of sheriff." I have changed it into much more of an ambassadorial role. Because it was, slowly but surely, becoming much more of a civic role. There's nothing wrong with it either. But I think the sheriff needed to be elevated. And we have elevated the role.

AWW:    And the commission was created to...

LU:      To look at how we make the most of what is probably Nottingham's greatest asset. And we could also see that the recession was about to arrive. It hadn't arrived when I was talking about the commission. So it gave us that extra impetus to actually move things forward. It also came at a time when the right characters were around. The people who sit on the commission are all professionals from the private sector, the voluntary sector or the public sector. They are all people who have achieved things in their own lifetime and still are achieving things for many of them and have taken time out to actually work with the commission. So we get a real sense of expertise. And they are all people who are actually doers.

AWW:    As a commission you went primarily to America to study the various exhibits there.

LU:      I actually wanted to dispel some myths. The one great thing about America is that it tends to do things. It knows that if you actually go into a museum - whether it be a theme park museum or a gallery - there is what I would call the package. You would eat there properly but at a reasonable price. They know how to retail there. The New York Natural History Museum is a classic example of about seven shops on every floor. And at the end of the day, if you're going to raise funds and keep things going, I would want to make an event/attraction for people with very low income to be able to go in or at certain times be free. But also to be clever enough and astute enough to actually make money out of retail parts of it and food parts of it. So you can actually - not make a profit - but subsidize what you do as a whole.

AWW:    You could almost say that's robbing from the rich to give to the poor in a sense.

LU:      I'd say it's taking from those who can afford to pay for it and returning it and injecting it. It's not quite the same thing, because it's voluntary. But maybe I'm more of a modern Robin Hood than I am of a sheriff.

AWW:    So, in the tour of the States, you mentioned Plymouth as one of the places you found most helpful.

LU:      You got the feel there of the plantation and the Mayflower and how people ... First of all, Plymouth being a beautiful place, it wasn't devalued in any shape or form by having those activities. People were very proud to have those in the area of Plymouth. People were passionate about their history. You got a real sense of history, but you came out thinking "I enjoyed that today". And I spent far longer in Plymouth than I had anticipated. If something can grip me, it can grip others.

AWW:    Looking at the pictures of your time there, it just looked fun. And when you were in Boston as well on ships with people in period dress.

LU:      Exactly. At the end of the day, whatever experience you can have, computerized or this, that and the other. They're fantastic and people have a real sense of fun. But when you get home, and you start talking, the things we talked about were the ones with people connected. One of the experiences - and we took a real breadth of things to visit - was the Museum of Tolerance. The thing got out of it the most was actually talking to people who lived through the experience.

AWW:    Coming back to Nottingham after seeing all these sites, what are the short term goals?

LU:      The first thing we have to do, let's put it quite bluntly, is to make something out of the premiere of the film. [Robin Hood, the 2010 movie directed by Ridley Scott and starring Russell Crowe.] So, we are having a Robin Hood month in May. There will be jousting, archery. There will be all the sort of fun things that people actually want. So, the producers are in tune with folk. There will be a huge amount of events going off in May to celebrate Robin Hood. That will continue. That's both the city and the county working together which is probably the first time that's ever happened. As you know, there's the city government - the local government - and the county government.

AWW:    I'd say one of the problems I've experienced in the past, as a pedestrian who relies on public transit, is a lack of coordination between the city of Nottingham and Sherwood Forest.

LU:      We're absolutely working on that as we speak. We realize that and appreciate that. But of course, it's the chicken and the egg scenario. Because they always turn around and say there are not enough visitors who go to Sherwood Forest; therefore, it doesn't warrant putting on public transport. But if you don't put on public transport, the visitors who come turn around and say to their friends "by the way, it takes an hour before you get a bus. And then it takes an hour to get there. And then it takes an hour for you to get back on the bus." We've got to start getting this right. That's why America held its interest for me, because it's how people get to destinations. And when they get there, how they are actually professionally handled. Whether they sit down for a meal. How they get it right. It's about learning from others. And it's about getting back to the original point of wanting to see the thing in the first place. And then say, okay, I had three hours there and really enjoyed it. I really enjoyed the two hours there, but it took me four hours to actually get there and back. We need to get that right, don't we?

AWW:    So, it's not just one limited chunk of time, but the whole experience.

LU:      The whole experience. Everybody rising to the challenge. It's not just about Nottingham city council. It's about everybody. If we want this to work, we are going to have to educate people that we have to do much better.

2006 Robin Hood Festival in Sherwood ForestAWW:    It sounds to me that Robin Hood Month will be a very immersive experience with the tournaments. It's on a grand scale what Sherwood Forest does every July or August.

LU:      It's certainly bigger than that though. And we've decided if this works, instead of the August event and the November or October event we have, we need to look at this as something we can build up bigger and bigger and bigger. When people say to me "oh, festivals take time to grow", they do. But in my lifetime, I've seen the Notting Hill carnival - the big Afro-Caribbean carnival in London - grow to an absolute massive size. Sydney Mardi Gras - I was over there two years ago - and suddenly found out it was only its 30th birthday and it's one of the biggest festivals in the world. You can do it if you get it right and you get enough people behind it. And we've got all the ingredients to make it fun.

AWW:    I'm looking forward to hearing more about Robin Hood month.

LU:      Good. Watch our websites and see it come alive.

AWW:    Do you have anything else you'd like to talk about? Promoting Nottingham for both this year and in the future.

LU:      I've also gone out there and promoted it in Russia. Cos in Russia, Robin Hood's massive. The difference between the Russians and the Americans is the Russians didn't see Nottingham as a mythical place.

AWW:    What do you think it is about the legend of Robin Hood - the brand of Robin Hood - that works so well around the world?

LU:      There's good and bad. There's right and wrong. There's a theme of justice. There's a civic role. A sense of good overcoming bad. Robin generally does the right thing, doesn't he? He does it for the right reasons.

AWW:    I think you could say that even in the primal, outlaw-version of the original story, there is that sense.

LU:      And people can relate to it, and want to relate to it. My favourite version of Robin Hood, undoubtedly, because it had everything in it was the Errol Flynn version. It had superb actors, a well-written script, Korngold's fantastic music. The cinematography was amazing when they actually go through the woods. The shafts of light - and you think, wow, this was 1938. Claude Rains as Prince John -- hamming it up like nobody's business -- was amazing. Wonderful! And there was a very intelligent comedian called Dave Allen who said as children didn't you just come out of the cinema watching Errol Flynn as Robin Hood pretending your pen was a sword? And you'd fight with other boys because it would be fun and you'd all be exhilarated. Yeah, that's the kind of thing you did.

AWW:    Even for me as a child, when I first saw the film it was like that. And when I saw the first Robin Hood panto as a kid, we were all wanting to play Robin Hood.

LU:      Ah, you see there's the difference between you and I because I always did want to play the sheriff.

AWW:    [Laughs.] Also, I don't think I'll ever be Robin Hood.

LU:      But I have been the sheriff.[Laughs] And it is absolutely wonderful. For example, my partner - who because of work commitments has not had a great deal to do with it - everywhere he goes he shouts out "My partner is the Sheriff of Nottingham" and smiles. And they laugh. And he says it's great and said "what are we going to do at the end of the year?" And I said, "you'll say 'my partner was once the Sheriff of Nottingham.'"

AWW:    That is something you can say and everyone in the English-speaking world will perk up when they hear that.

LU:      Well, my surname name is one when you book into a hotel, it's always a conversation piece because it's very unusual. Now with the sheriff, it's another bit. I can be just at reception for two hours before I get to my room, and it's fun for those two hours. Because it's lovely to talk to people. I also do training for elected councillors - local politicians throughout the UK - and it's lovely when I just put my name is Councillor Unczur and I am the Sheriff of Nottingham. What a way to start a lesson.

AWW:    All the sheriffs I've talked to , and I've spoken to a few now, have all been wonderfully nice and socially progressive, but also get a big charge out of playing evil when they can.

LU:      Oh, you've got to have some fun. We have a thing called Nottingham By the Sea, where we pretend to create a seaside resort in the city centre, because of course we're nowhere near the sea. And I asked a lady if I could kick her son's sand castle down. And she said "Why not, you're the sheriff?" It's fun. You have a great deal of hard work. Believe you me, you get very tired at the end of it, because you're always in costume. And you're always on display. It's a great more than hamming it so to speak. In my period of office, I have met professors who are looking at replacing the cartilage by embryo science from India and working with Nottingham University. You get as varied as meeting folk like that to folk who just want to come up and shake your hand and say hello. Children with special needs and disabilities - you talk to. It's a great role. But of course, everybody wants to meet you. And at the end of the year, I think you're quite tired. And privately ... I don't care if the world knows about it anyway - maybe it's about time they did ... I was diagnosed with Parkinson's which means I don't have the energy levels. People who know are absolutely gobsmacked about the amazing energy levels I have anyway. But it does slow me down a bit.

AWW:    You've clearly pushed on this year. It's amazing what you've done.

LU:      Well, it's not bad. As my Sheriff's Lady said, "considering you keep saying you're knackered, you never stop doing it."

AWW:    There must be a lot of love in the job. Both for the job itself and for the city.

LU:      And also the fact that you get that smile from somebody you said hello to, and you think "wow, that's made my day." People are genuinely really, really pleased to see you. [Some clicks] We'll have to conclude this only because the batteries are running out on my phone.

AWW:    Okay, to sum up, what would you most like people to know about Nottingham?

LU:      That it's real. That it has a huge amount of history. Not just Robin Hood. And that the people of Nottingham are extremely friendly. You can enjoy the historical side of it. You can enjoy the nightlife of it. And there's something for most people, if not everyone.

AWW:    Thank you very much, Leon. You've been wonderful to talk to. And I look forward to coming back to Nottingham.

LU:      It's been a pleasure. And when you do, look me up.

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Interview text, © Allen W. Wright, 2010.

Please ask for permission if you plan to quote more than a small segment of the interview.

Picture of Leo Unczur from the website of the Nottingham City Council. Other photos of Nottingham (c) Allen W. Wright

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