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February 06, 2013

‘Merlin’ co-creator Julian Murphy on series’ emotional conclusion

Posted in: TV

Bradley James plays Arthur Pendragon, left, and Angel Coulby plays Gwen in "Merlin." (BBC / Syfy)

Colin Morgan plays Merlin, left, and Bradley James plays Arthur in "Merlin." (BBC / Syfy)

Merlin (Colin Morgan), Princess Mithian (Janet Montgomery) and Morgana (Katie McGrath) in "Merlin." (BBC / Syfy)

Colin Morgan as Merlin, left, and Katie McGrath as Morgana in a scene from "Merlin." (Syfy)

Katie McGrath as Morgana, left, and Terence Maynard as Helios in "Merlin." (Nick Briggs / Syfy)

Julian Murphy, left, and Johnny Capps co-created "Merlin," based on the Arthurian legends. (Shine Ltd.)

The fantasy adventure “Merlin” might have enchanted English fans for the last time in December, but the series continues to charm American audiences.

Created by Johnny Capps and Julian Murphy, “Merlin” provides a fresh take on the Arthurian legend. Irish actor Colin Morgan plays Merlin, a servant to King Arthur and a wizard-in-secret in a realm where magic has been outlawed. The show was massively popular in the U.K., rivaling “Doctor Who” in viewership, before wrapping up on Christmas with a tragic, two-part season finale.

Morgan was named best actor in a drama by the U.K.’s National Television Awards earlier this year, beating out “Doctor Who” star Matt Smith and “Sherlock” actor Benedict Cumberbatch.

In the U.S., the fifth and final season of the BBC original series is airing on Syfy. In Friday’s episode “The Dark Tower,” the sorceress Morgana (Katie McGrath) kidnaps Queen Guinevere (Angel Coulby) in a two-fold plot to — you guessed it — bring down Camelot and its once and future king, Arthur Pendragon (Bradley James). We won’t reveal all the details, but here’s a hint: Not everyone gets out of this episode alive.

Hero Complex caught up with Murphy to talk about telling ancient stories to a contemporary audience, working with a young cast and ending the show after five years of magic.

But a warning to the uninitiated: Many major spoilers lie ahead.

HC: Why do you think this series has been so popular?

JM: That’s been fascinating! I’ve never made anything that — we’ve made stuff that’s been popular in the U.K., but we’ve never made stuff that’s been popular all over the world, and it’s a very gratifying experience. Every year now we did Comic-Con, and you sit down with the people who are just supporting the program with a genuine affection for it, and it’s a lovely thing. When we film in France and we turn up at the chateau, there used to be hundreds of people there by the end of the program, and that’s extraordinary and gratifying. So it’s lovely to know that people care about it and enjoy it, yes. And you can’t wish for more than that. You don’t always get it, so to get it in such a big way and across so many countries, that is incredibly gratifying.

Julian Murphy, left, and Johnny Capps co-created "Merlin," based on the Arthurian legends. (Shine Ltd.)

Julian Murphy, left, and Johnny Capps co-created “Merlin,” based on the Arthurian legends. (Shine Ltd.)

HC: Can you talk a little about your cast?

JM: They’ve been a truly lovely cast to work with, and I guess that’s not always the case. We’ve been blessed with four young actors that have risen to a huge task, and I think everyone forgets that when we began this series, Bradley and Colin were virtually unknown actors, virtually out of drama school, and we were asking them to lead a prime-time international series, and they stepped up to the mark. We were lucky. We were so lucky to have them, because it wouldn’t always have worked. And to watch them grow as actors — and they grew very fast, actually — is a very enjoyable experience. I guess we had [Anthony Stewart] Head, and we had Richard Wilson, and they were good, wise mentors to the young cast. They really were, and they set out to be just that, and they gave them lots of great advice and lots of help and lots of support. We were lucky to have two guys who were very generous like that. But the credit must go to the young cast because to ask them to carry a big international show with so little experience was a big ask, and they delivered. They more than delivered.

HC: How did you balance contemporary story lines with source material that’s been around for ages?

JM: I mean, that part of it was written more than 1,000 years ago in many ways, but the rest of it I think it is a fantastic story, and I think that’s why it’s captured people’s imaginations for so many centuries, and I think we were lucky to have that material to work with. I guess you try and give it your own twist. You try and make it fresh and yours, otherwise you can’t write these things. The art is to somehow make it yours and make it feel something new. And some of the time, I hope most of the time, we managed to do that. But it is powerful material, and we’re very grateful for that.

HC: Did you find any inspiration from other adaptations? “Camelot” or “Excalibur”?

JM: “Excalibur” a little bit. I think it was a very good film. It’s very different, a very violent, adult, sexual film. It’s a very violent, adult, sexual legend in many ways. I think visually we took inspiration from “Excalibur,” definitely. There are things that John Boorman did in that I think were very, very good. It certainly sat in our minds. Mary Stewart’s books on Merlin I think were inspiration to us. They tell a very different story, a very different Merlin, but the way they reinvented the legend was an inspiration, definitely.

HC: Had you planned for this five-season arc?

JM: We planned on having the five seasons, and we had some sense of where we were going to end up at the end of each season. Things change, of course. Things grow. It’s an organic process, but we broadly saw it as five seasons.

HC: Which brings us to the finale. What a heartbreaking end!

JM: Yes, it is quite sad, but it’s quite a sad legend, to be honest, so it’s only a reflection of that. But yes, it is quite a sad end.

HC: Is that what you had planned all along?

JM: Pretty much, in all honesty. What we decided to do was to tell the legend how it was in many ways. And I suppose we’re both very sad that Arthur had to die, and that is a massive part of the legend. We tried to sort of soften it and give it a sense of hope that he would one day rise again, and that Merlin even to the present day was waiting for that to happen.

Bradley James plays Arthur Pendragon in "Merlin." (BBC / Syfy)

Bradley James plays Arthur Pendragon in “Merlin.” (BBC / Syfy)

HC: And so now it’s airing in the U.S., but you’re done. What’s it like now that it’s over in the U.K.?

JM: It’s been a very fulfilling and exciting journey. It genuinely has. And to be honest — you can’t say this about everything you make at all — this one has been really a joy from beginning to end. For all of us who were involved in it, and far more than just myself and Johnny, but everyone, there was a sense that it was right to end it here, that we’d told the story that we set out to tell, and you know, when you get to that point where you have that feeling, it’s important to end the story.

HC: Can you tell us about the last day on set?

JM: It was quite emotional. It was quite emotional writing it. The worst was shooting the end, which wasn’t actually the last day on set — it never quite is, is it? — that was very emotional for everyone. It was actually quite difficult to work on the last story because you’re killing a character you’ve lived with for five years, and that’s an incredibly emotional experience, and going through that with Merlin, that’s an incredibly emotional experience. I think there’s a sense of sadness, real sadness, but there’s also a sense of this is right. It feels right. If it feels wrong, I think it’s not a very potent experience, but if it feels right, then yes, it’s sad, but it also feels right.

HC: Why did you decide to wait so long for Merlin to reveal his sorcery to Arthur?

JM: Because I think a lot of the fun we had in the program, a lot of the tension we get from the program, the humor and the tension come from the fact that Merlin lives a secret life, and you never want to take the tension out of your story, or the humor out of your story. I think we knew that instinctively, and we knew that in the last episode we’d do it, but we wouldn’t do it before then.

Bradley James plays Arthur Pendragon and  in "Merlin." (BBC / Syfy)

Bradley James plays Arthur Pendragon and Angel Coulby as Gwen in “Merlin.” (BBC / Syfy)

HC: Also in the finale, we discover that the monarch who will lead Camelot in a golden era of peace is Gwen, not Arthur. Was that a decision that came as the result of Arthur’s death? Or was it something deliberate you’ve been planning for a long time?

JM: It was, actually. We’ve had that in our minds for about three series. We felt that with Gwen, to take Gwen from a servant girl to a powerful and strong queen, a person who can bind the kingdom together, was the journey we wanted to do, and I think Angel delivered that brilliantly. And some of the most moving scenes in that last episode are with Gwen as she realizes who Merlin was, and that the king, the love of her life, is going to die, and that she must then take the kingdom forward. And she plays it in no more than three or four scenes, and that whole story is told. It’s a real credit to her.

HC: Morgana was another strong female character on the show. She’s the biggest obstacle to a peaceful Camelot, but she starts out as one of the most sympathetic characters on the show.

JM: Yeah, that was very deliberate, and Katie had to be very patient, because we spent a long time building her. We didn’t want her to be a villain. I think it’s too easy to set up Morgana and say, “Here is the villain of the show.” I don’t think anyone will ever be intrigued or care about a character like that. So she had to begin as somebody we cared about and become somebody who I guess was the villain, but to me, all the time, she sort of had a case. She had been very wronged. The fact that she became bitter and vengeful about that was a product of circumstance; it wasn’t what she was born as. I think a character that’s born like that is boring, and a character who grows like that is interesting. We had to play that slowly, and sometimes that’s difficult to do on TV. We stuck to our guns so that by the end, Katie, yes, is a villain in every sense of the word, but Morgana is also a complicated, broken, wronged character, and I hope that makes her so much more fascinating and so much more interesting to be with.

HC: You mention she has a case, and fans definitely see her side. There’s a strong Team Morgana faction out there.

JM: There really is, and so it should be. Villains are often the most interesting characters, often the characters you love the most. And that’s a sign of a good villain.

Colin Morgan plays Merlin, left, and Bradley James plays Arthur in "Merlin." (BBC / Syfy)

Colin Morgan plays Merlin, left, and Bradley James plays Arthur in “Merlin.” (BBC / Syfy)

HC: So much of the show is based on relationships between characters. Do you have a favorite pairing?

JM: Merlin and Arthur. To me, that’s the heart of the program. It’s a story of friendship, it’s both very funny but very touching and very real. And to go from two characters who in many ways in the first series began hating each other to two characters who profoundly respect and care about each other is a great journey. Those simple journeys are always the best, and the heart of the program is not dragons and swords and myths and legends, it’s that story, that friendship.

– Noelene Clark
Twitter.com/@NoeleneClark

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