With every retelling of the legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table come the claims that this is a version unlike any ever seen before.
Whether it’s supposedly more historically accurate (King Arthur), a revisionist romance (First Knight), outright parody (Monty Python and the Holy Grail), or a lavish Hollywood musical (Camelot), there is an Arthur tale for every taste.
Enter the new Camelot, which premieres April 1 on Starz. It is not connected to the musical that starred Richard Burton on Broadway, then Richard Harris on film, nor is it a close sibling of the gleefully trashy Spartacus that Starz has ridden to great heights. Filmed on the beautiful vistas of the Irish countryside, this Camelot respects most the version of the legend told by Sir Thomas Malory in Le Morte D’Arthur, and plans to use the longer form afforded by television to delve more deeply into the story than ever before.
“What we’re looking at is what might be the truth that lies behind the myth,” says writer Chris Chibnall. “If you were there, if you or I were in the Dark Ages and transplanted there today, what would have been the events that could have contributed to these myths? Myths grow and change and shift in the retelling over time.”
Most of the familiar characters are present: Arthur (Jamie Campbell Bower), Merlin (Joseph Fiennes), Morgan (Eva Green) and Guinevere (Tamsin Egerton), along with some lesser-known figures from the texts such as Kay (Peter Mooney), Arthur’s foster brother, and Queen Igraine (Claire Forlani), his birth mother.
Arthur comes into the action only after his half sister Morgan has usurped the throne of her father, Uther, by way of a poisonous drink. She has taken up with Uther’s most hated enemy, King Lot (James Purefoy), banished Uther’s wife, and is preparing to begin her long reign. But Merlin has been dispatched to fetch Uther’s illegitimate son, a young peasant boy unaware of his royal lineage.
Playing the King
Bower doesn’t seem like the logical first choice to fill the armor of a legendary warrior king. With his long, blond locks and skinny frame, he’d be right at home playing a ’70s glam rocker. He’s had his toe in plenty of big projects, having played secondary roles in Sweeney Todd and the Twilight and Harry Potter franchises, but he’s making his leading-man debut as one of the most famous characters in Western literature.
His physicality is indicative of the approach that the creators — which include Tudors guru Michael Hirst — wanted to take with their version of King Arthur.
“They could have gotten a very big, macho, well-built, six-packed actor who could have held a sense of power from the word go,” Bower says. “But I think what Chris saw and what I envisioned the character as was something different. … We find this character as a young boy, torn from his home, from everything he knows, so I didn’t want to have that sense of immediate aloofness or immediate royalty or regality to him. He needed to be a person people could identify with and feel for. … I tried to approach it as what would I do if someone took me away from my home — how upset would I be?”
Merlin is the one doing the taking. He spirited the boy away from his birth parents and placed him with an ordinary family, with the understanding that one day he would return. Arthur’s existence has been kept secret from the kingdom, leaving him to live a carefree life that has been made most enjoyable thanks to his way with the ladies. His reemergence unleashes a struggle for the crown that Arthur is simply not ready for, and in order to stand up to Morgan and her army, he must assume the role of king and leader.
Such a transformation entails much posturing, as well as deadly swordplay and bouts against dark magic. While going through such tumultuous events is enough to change any man, Bower says his Arthur is able to stay true to himself.
“He still retains the boyish quality, that boyish sort of charm,” he says. “He makes a lot of mistakes. He becomes king, I can tell you that. We see our version of the Sword of the Stone. We see the beginnings of society as we see it today, a democracy almost. He doesn’t want to go in there and be a dictator. He enjoys the people and learning, so he constantly surrounds himself with the ideas of others. Yes, he does become more manly, yes he does become stronger, but all the while retaining the youthful quality that you see him have at the beginning.”
Fiennes cops a surly, ready-to-pounce demeanor in his portrayal of Merlin — a far cry from the classic long-beard-and-staff look. He plays the sorcerer as someone who has grown wary of magic, having seen the harm it can do. The Shakespeare in Love actor somewhat jokingly refers to his take on Merlin as a “cross between Obi-Wan Kenobi and Donald Rumsfeld,” alluding to the character’s dual role as wise mentor and cunning strategist.
“It’s more wit and intelligence and the political that Merlin relies on rather than magicking [Arthur] into power, because that would be deceitful,” Fiennes says. “He’s a great jokester and trickster. I think he’s got a duality about him. He’s never to be trusted. … He’s a sort of David Blaine politician.”
When magic does turn up in the series, it’s not as grandiose and, well, magical as in past versions. Wands aren’t a big component, but potions and spells do play a part.
“It’s more about the elements,” Bower says. “It’s very naturalistic. … It’s more about controlling earth, wind, fire and water than pulling a rabbit out of a hat or wearing a big robe and a goofy hat and a long beard. It goes back to the original religion of the time, which would have been paganism prior to Christianity.”
Whether this Camelot will emerge as a definitive take on the legend remains to be seen, but all those involved have already succeeded in making it feel fun and new. Not bad for a story that’s been around for more than a thousand years.