This article contains some spoilers for part one of this ten-part series to establish the premise.
I often find myself trying new tv series. Some samples come from friends’ recommendations while some derive from the time of year that is television pilot season. The excitement of finding a story that draws me into the lives of it’s characters and silently marks itself in my calendar as a weekly highlight is special. However, to find the gems you must dig through the mud. One series in particular that has been on my radar for the last couple of months is Camelot. With a stellar cast, a great deal of behind the scenes talent poached from the concluded The Tudors, and a premise that ticks all my boxes it was difficult not to notice Camelot.
I thought it could be a fun experiment to write a blog about my first and perhaps lasting impressions on this new series from creators Chris Chibnall and Michael Hirst. My rule is to always allow at least three episodes for a new series before making any judgement. However, at the time of writing this article, only two are available. Close enough.
The legendary tale of King Arthur and Camelot has been told countless times through all forms of entertainment. Arthur himself has been portrayed by actors both previously unknown and knighted in real life (Sir Sean Connery). However the retelling of this story on the screen is often very clean and fantastical, even family-friendly.
In reality, the late 5th century in Britain was no picnic. Violence, war, disease, young kings and illegitimate children were commonplace. Camelot‘s interpretation of this world realises that and generates a dark and gritty time in Britain’s history.
We are introduced to the world of Camelot with the return to the kingdom of Morgan Pendragon (Eva Green), King Uther’s banished daughter. Her confrontation with Uther is an impressive opening scene with Green’s performance showing her accolades for Casino Royale were not unique to her Bond girl. Uther’s immediate decision to turn his back on Morgan costs him his life as she is shown to use her dark magic to disguise herself and poison the King, thus initiating Morgan’s callous ambition for her father’s throne.
In Uther’s dying minutes a hooded man runs through the forest toward Camelot. As he reaches the kingdom he is revealed as Merlin (Joseph Fiennes) and promptly approaches the King on his deathbed. However, Merlin appears to have little empathy for his dying King, instead convincing him to sign a parchment “for Britain, and the boy” before unceremoniously leaving with an understated “his time is done”.
So begins the unravelling of where the young Arthur (Jamie Campbell Bower) fits into the kingdom of Camelot, unbeknownst to him. Merlin walks into Arthur’s peaceful life with the revelation he is the late King Uther’s son. Merlin reveals he had entrusted the raising of Arthur to an old friend, Ector (Sean Pertwee), when Arthur was less than a week old, beginning Merlin’s long-term plan for the kingdom of Camelot. However, any notion that Merlin’s motivations are selfish are questioned as we begin to understand his power as a sorcerer with visions of disaster for Britain.
Before Arthur embarks on his journey back to Camelot, he enlists his brother, Kay, to be by his side. It is clear that Kay will become a trusted advisor and possibly one of his first knights. A relationship I look forward to seeing develop, and possibly break apart.
Arthur’s return to Camelot throws a spanner in the works for Morgan who quickly pledges an allegiance with Uther’s enemy King Lot (James Purefoy) through the age old ceremony of mind-blowing sex. With Arthur having a legitimate claim to the throne and the strategic support of Merlin, Morgan and King Lot make some aggressive moves against him.
And so begins the whirlwind of a treacherous beginnings for a young King Arthur, and this is only the first half of the pilot episode. A great deal more develops over the first two episodes of this series illustrating the intent of fast-paced and intriguing writing. To go any further into the plot of the first two episodes would be unfair. This ten-part series deserves a keen group of followers and is a rewarding experience with some of the senior cast members leading the way.
The clear stand-out and cornerstone to the story of King Arthur is Joseph Fiennes’ Merlin. A blend of motivated and unsympathetic, we are given the impression that Merlin is no ordinary man with objectives spanning well before and far beyond that of the current period of Camelot. Fiennes’ portrayal is intense and mysterious with Merlin appearing more like a monk than a classic wizard in robes carrying an old book of spells. With Merlin’s apparent long history comes the reluctance to use his magical abilities, even when prompted to save lives. No doubt this will develop into a personal struggle for Merlin.
Jamie Campbell Bower’s casting as the young Arthur was an interesting choice. He’s better known (in some circles) for his role as a pasty ancient vampire in the Twilight films, so hanging royal robes on his scrawny frame seemed a little ambitious. This casting choice may prove to be pivotal as this 22 year-old actor allows Arthur to grow into his role. Bower’s innocence and youth is ideal for the early adaptation of his character from simple farm boy to King of Britain. After all, in reality King Arthur was crowned King at the age of fifteen.
This Camelot is not the light and airy version illustrated by screen adaptations such as Merlin or A Knight’s Tale. The lighting and atmosphere is very dark, it’s rare to see much colour on anyone’s clothing, even the King himself, and evenings in the King’s court resemble celebrations of victory of a warlord with ale, a dirty feast and whores.
The story of Camelot has so much to offer and this new twist is a refreshing take. However, it will be interesting to see if it can hold a captive audience. With Game of Thrones fast approaching to claim the fantasy crown, Merlin having already set it’s place at the fantasy table (albeit at the far end of the table) and the lack of hype and promotion for this series has me a little concerned. I’m confident the people behind this series can create something special. The question is, will anyone see it?
Camelot is a ten-part series currently airing on the Starz network in the US and Channel 4 in the UK.