It’s just as anachronistic as the Beeb’s “Robin Hood” ever was but somehow it has managed to annoy me far less. It just doesn’t jar or set my teeth on edge the way that RH did. Admittedly the “Merlin” costume dept. hasn’t seen fit to deck the Knights of Camelot out in Clint Eastwood style duster coats (as worn by the Merry Men in one famous RH episode) or dragged the invention of gunpowder across a few continents and up a few centuries.
I also suspect that there is something “looser” about the King Arthur legend. It’s not as tightly pinned down historically as Robin Hood. It is rife with magic and magic gives a writer carte blanche to take a few liberties and bend the facts a little… It’s to be expected and acceptable. And at the end of the day the “facts” around King Arthur have all been bent out of true anyway. Our present day take on the legend is a hundred miles away from that of the original (?) Welsh legend. Sir Thomas Mallory, lawd bless ‘im, was the Barbara Cartland of his day.
“Merlin” is also perfect Saturday night teatime family viewing. It knows its place and is happy to settle in there like a Phoenix plumping its nest. It’s got legs aplenty and I’m sure it will run and run whereas I feel that the “Robin Hood” production team rather shot their bolt prematurely with the last series of RH and have left themselves nowhere worthwhile to go.
The effects in “Merlin” are a little on the dodgy / cheap side but acceptable – i.e. they’re good BBC standard but would be laughed off the big screen. The castle is suitably grand and whimsical – far too European to be British, of course – and occasionally borders on the Walt Disney but I can overlook that. I’m also prepared to overlook the chain-mail armour which I’m sure wasn’t around for a hundred years or so after Arthur’s existence and the fact that even the poorest of peasants seem to live in substantial stone walled dwellings that would fetch a fair price on the modern day property market.
This largesse from one so normally picky and pedantic is due in some small part to the actors. Don’t get me wrong, there’s no performance here that is going to win someone a Bafta or an OBE – the script just doesn’t have that kind of range – but it’s all very well done and the actors are obviously committed. The tongue-in-cheek-ness that so ruined RH and made it a virtual pantomime is gratifyingly absent and instead we have full-on “BBC costume drama earnestness”.
And that is not a complaint.
I suspect “Merlin” is going to be a jumping board for a new batch of British TV stars who will go on to bigger and better things. Colin Morgan and Bradley James give good value as Merlin and Arthur respectively – they’re kind of an Arthurian version of Charles Ryder and Sebastian Flyte only without the man hugs and Aloysius the teddy bear. Anthony Head is pretty good as Uther though I can’t take his moments of gravitas seriously at all. I don’t know what it is – God knows I was never a Buffy fan – but whenever Mr Head talks I just feel like I’m listening to him present a voice-over to Heroes Unmasked or a Channel 5 documentary about the pervy religious rites of the Mayans.
And then there’s Richard Wilson as Gaius. What can I say? He’s so damned good I’d actually stopped making “I don’t believe it” jokes by the end of the second episode. Nuff said.
For me though the biggest pull (as if you haven’t guessed) is Katie McGrath as the poised and lofty Morgana. Hey, she’s a brunette, OK? And she steps neatly into the Saturday night TV totty void created when Lucy Griffiths’ Marion was insanely killed off in the last series of RH. Karen gave me a raised eyebrow when I purred my approval of Morgana and suggested that Gwen (Guinevere), played by Angel Coulby, seemed a far more fiery and passionate a prospect for a young man’s desire than Morgana who was plainly much too much of a “lady”. “Lady” said with a haughty, hoity-toity down-the-nose sneer.
And I have to agree. Gwen is far more of a wench than a lady and, yes, she’s comely enough (sire) but, in my (sadly) limited experience, wenches tend to be mere ladies in bed while ladies are definitely, most definitely wenches…