Merlin (TV, 2008)

A review of the BBC TV series’ first season, from Death Ray 16.


Director: James Hawes

Writers: Julian Jones, Jake Michie, Johnny Capps, Julian Murphy

Starring: Colin Morgan, Bradley James, Angel Coulby, Michelle Ryan, Anthony Head, Richard Wilson

Arthurian myth is the silly putty of the narrative world. You can stretch it, bend it, pull it until it snaps, but by golly, it still goes back into shape.

Despite the forgiving nature of Arthur’s legend, BBC’s Merlin is a a purist baiting concoction; a youth friendly, clean Camelot with a soap-opera’s sprinkling of ethnic faces serves as a backdrop to a teen Merlin’s adventures. This is an Arthurian high school, its pupils Guinevere, Arthur, Morgana, Lancelot and Merlin who, contrary to all prior versions of the legend, rub shoulders from an early age. Under the watchful eye of grumpy headmaster (or, if you prefer, ruthless king) Uther Pendragon (Anthony Head) and Dumbledore/ Charlie from Casualty hybrid Gaius (Richard Wilson), they get up to all manner of hijinks.

This isn’t the first time Arthur’s world has been yoofed up. T.H. White made a virtue of a boy Arthur in his The Sword in the Stone, while Hal Foster used the same mythology as the backdrop for the still-running newspaper comic strip Prince Valiant. Both these takes on Camelot worked well, as, within its limitations, does Merlin.

Without a definitive version of the Arthur story, the “Spider-man would never do that” kind of debate is hard to kindle, so few will be offended by Merlin. It helps that Merlin is very well put together, a far more competent hour of TV than the BBC’s execrable Robin Hood. Nor is it entirely safe. Despite the well-scrubbed cast, there is death and here, with Head’s Uther proving, at times, shockingly callous. But it is callousness without consequence, he’s always making harsh judgments, then apologising to his more noble, if priggish son Arthur. Teens win out, naturally, with their good hearts and earnest ways.

What teens too, a likable bunch. But for a show snatched up by the Americans (the first BBC series to be screened on a national US network for many a long year), they are not a pretty lot. Merlin (Colin Morgan) himself, full of good-natured modern backchat, has something of the pixie about him, while Guinevere – no princess here, but a mixed-race blacksmith’s daughter – is played by the feisty and expressive but unconventionally pretty Coulby. That’s a good thing, most of us don’t look like Californian babes, and youngsters have enough poor messaging about body image. It’s a welcome change to the facile world of the telly-box.

The episodes themselves are sleek things that run to well-known formula. Something happens to put Merlin or Arthur in harm’s way, Uther makes the wrong call, then Merlin or Arthur sort it out with some help from their friends. There’s a dash of peril in each one, and a smattering of effects that range from the not-so-special to the pretty damn good. There’s a good number of CG beasties, and even some traditional monster suit work, which is top notch. Further plusses are the magnificent Chateau de Pierrefronds, where the film was shot, and a rousing score. There is no doubt that it succeeds admirably in BBC Controller Peter Fincham’s aim for it to be “three generational TV”, fit for granny, mum, dad and the nippers.

But, but, it’s all a little bit too clean. The deaths are the medieval version of “one gunshot and down” of yesterday’s westerns. The dungeons have nice clean straw, and going in the stocks is a bit of a laugh involving some soft tomatoes – no-one chucks rocks at you or stuffs a turnip up your arse, as was the norm in ye goode olde days. Fair enough, that’s the audience profile, but it’s too sanitised, the Hogwarts version of King Arthur, only Hogwarts feels a damn sight darker.

And it’s bland. There’s no sense of the tragedy of the myth. With all the main players on campus more or less from the get-go, we miss the impact of Arthur’s first meetings with Lancelot or Guinevere, while the complexity of his relationship with Merlin is reduced to a servant/master-but-secretly-great-friends comedy routine. The most significant Arthurian tales deal fully with the rich complexity of life, they are instructive stories that deal with inter-generational relationships, loss, responsibility, defiance, friendship, love… Merlin chooses not to present these powerful lessons, instead it panders to the contemporary, presenting the sixth-form version of life, where tomorrow is just another day of larks for its pre-adult characters; characters who have just enough independence to go the pub, but who know their mum will still do their laundry. You could say this also fits the profile, but if The Sword in the Stone managed to be family friendly, yet still significant, why couldn’t Merlin? The result is well-made, well-targetted fluff, little more.


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