‘Merlin’ conjures up Camelot, ‘Smallville’ style

Aug. 20, 2009 | 11:04 p.m.

Juliette Funes, a young writer for the Los Angeles Times, makes her first contribution to the Hero Complex with a piece on Anthony Head and “Merlin,” a trans-Atlantic import that airs on NBC on Sunday nights.


King Arthur, “Smallville“-style?

That’s one way to frame the British import “Merlin,” the series now airing on Sunday nights on NBC, which takes the once and future king from Camelot and presents him as a still-learning prince, just as “Smallville” has, for nine seasons, given viewers a young Clark Kent still being forged into the Man of Steel.

“What happens if we look at Arthur and Merlin before they become the men that they become?” is how the premise is summed up by Anthony Head, who stars as King Uther Pendragon, the father of Arthur. He added: “How do they affect each other when they grow up?”

Head is familiar with the portrayal of mentor and powerful protégé in a fantasy setting — for many fans, Head will always be known as Rupert Giles, the Sunnydale high school librarian who is the Watcher for Buffy Summers in Joss Whedon’s cult classic “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”

“It isn’t Buffy, but it has that same breadth of appeal that Buffy had,” Head said of the BBC1 series. “It’s lighthearted and somehow appeals to all ages.”

“Merlin,” based on the Arthurian legend, follows the adventures of a troubled Prince Arthur (played by 24-year-old Bradley James, a Devon, England, native) and the young wizard Merlin (played by 23-year-old Irish actor Colin Morgan). The show reaches its double-episode season finale this Sunday here in the States while Head and company are at work on Season 2 right now.

The Knights of the Round Table have been taken for a spin again and again in pop culture. Not only is there the famed 1960s Lerner and Loewe musical “Camelot” (and the film adaptation in 1967 with Richard Harris) and the 1963 Disney feature “The Sword in the Stone,” there’s sterner stuff such as John Boorman’s startling 1981 fantasy “Excalibur” and 1995 romance “First Knight” with graybeard Sean Connery (Arthur) jousting with Richard Gere (Lancelot) for the love of Julia Ormond (Guinevere).

Head said more than five years were put into crafting a Camelot that was rooted in the tales of Arthur but also fresh enough to stand apart from the many previous versions.

“Because the Arthur legend as we know it has been done to death, everyone knows what will happen next,” Head said. “The point is to see how things are made up that will eventually be the legend and the story that we know.”

Amidst the unicorns, wizards, magic and mythical Camelot, the 13-episode series illustrates Arthur’s coming of age and Merlin learning to be a sorcerer while living under Uther’s ruthless laws banning all forms of magic.

“This is a great way of opening up the whole idea of Camelot and just adding a dash of sword and sorcery to color it up,” Head said. “It’s a long way away from the original Arthurian legend.”

Despite having traditional elements like Excalibur and familiar characters like Guinevere and Lancelot (who in the legend eventually have an illicit affair), the story also converges on Uther, who has usually been a fleeting figure on the periphery of Camelot stories. 

Uther plays a more pivotal role here, Head said, as the old-fashioned father and ruler dealing with a country that is falling apart. Although an antagonist, Uther gives Merlin access to Arthur, makes Morgana his wayward ward and lays the foundation for his son to be future king of Camelot.


A few heads may have to roll in the process, though. Having a profound hatred for magic, Uther has banned it from the kingdom for 20 years.

“People who turn to magic and sorcery are inevitably drawn to the dark side and are eventually pulled to the dark side,” Head said. “He wants to eradicate magic and anybody who uses magic or consorts with anybody who has to do with magic are put to death.” 

“Merlin” is the first British drama in more than 30 years to bypass PBS and BBC America and head straight for a major American network, NBC. The show has not been a ratings sensation by any means, but its steady viewership of 4 million still puts it ahead of well-regarded genre shows on cable.

“There’s much more readiness to try stuff out,” Head said. “NBC bought the show on the spot, sight unseen. When you look at that show you think ‘Why the hell didn’t anybody think about this before?’ It’s beautiful and so magical. It’s the romance of knights and armor. It’s the thing that as a child I loved knights and chivalry and things that went with it.”

Talking from the set, Head offered a little taste to what Season 2 holds, including the onset of a blossoming romance between Arthur and Guinevere.

Head was elusive about what the audience can expect, saying only that a mysterious sorceress, an antagonist to Uther who was influential in Arthur’s birth, will show up and cause mischief. He added: “It’s darker in place, funnier, and they extrapolated the family problems and problems with magic and sorcery.” 

— Juliette Funes




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PHOTO CREDIT: Andrew Head in “Merlin,” NBC 



4 Responses to ‘Merlin’ conjures up Camelot, ‘Smallville’ style

  1. victoria says:

    I am thrilled that the LA Times has finally deigned to notice "Merlin."
    However, keep in mind that the first season has not yet finished airing on NBC. The spoiler, "Head was elusive about what the audience can expect, saying only that a mysterious sorceress, an antagonist to Uther who was influential in Arthur’s birth, will show up and cause mischief," seems to refer to the final episodes of season 1 rather than to season 2.

  2. JRW says:

    Yes! Finally! An LA Times acknowldgment (and industry acknowledgment??) that "Merlin" exists and that it HAS FANS! I'm one of them. Love the show, love what it's doing. Not "Smallville" exactly, but as inventive and unexpected as "The Once and Future King" must have seemed when it was published.
    PLEASE, NBC…. understand that this show is good, and has fans. I'm so glad LA Times, even if "just" online, did a piece on this. Someone in PR is doing their job and caring about this, which is fantastic.
    And to follow up on my post about "Avatar," it's worth pointing out that "Merlin" has more heart, more excitement, more character, more charm than anything I saw in those 16 minutes of "Avatar." LOVE this show and hope NBC will keep it going next summer!!

  3. cinnamon barks says:

    I watched the pilot as a lark but got hooked. No it's not by-the-book "le morte d'Arthur" but it is a great fun series. Good production values, great (for tv) fight sequences, and good special effects! It's fun watching the young actors learn as they go (and grow).

  4. Robert says:

    I like the show Merlin, and am glad that NBC bought the rights to rebroadcast it here in the U.S., in fact, I'm glad that is all they did. There is no doubt in my mind that if NBC had produced the show, it would have been canceled, or produced in a way that would have been inferior to that of the BBC's version.
    Merlin appears to be much more popular across the pond than it is here in the U.S., which means that it probably will see a season 3 filming.
    American networks are quick to produce new shows, then turn around and cancel them at the slightest hint that the show won't be popular.
    I've been burned this way too many times .

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