Tuesday, September 16, 2008 by

Magic for Saturdays

Magic for Saturdays

Britain doesn’t have a particularly deep well of folk myths to draw from, so it’s not surprising TV screens have for so long been empty of even low-key attempts at tales of myths and legends.

The story of Arthur and his overblown feats involving recalcitrant swords, rowdy dragons and, to coin a phrase, strange women lying around in ponds is too hoary for revisiting. It’s also currently being milked to death in the West End. All the more reason, then, to welcome this adroit side-stepping of all that King of the Britons baggage and recast history from the point of view of his sorceror-in-chief, Merlin.

The BBC need to throw everything at this production, both to do it justice and to to match its own hype. On the basis of the first episode, the big guns/big budget approach has worked. This is really quite thrilling television, a country mile ahead of its stable-mate Robin Hood in terms of coherency, structure and acting.

It’s nicely-paced, dispenses with the boring scene-setting very quickly, and unfurls Merlin’s wizardry in wisely staggered moves. For once we’re given a Young Hero whose naivety isn’t embarrassing to watch and whose humanity (perversely, for a magician) is plausible. Colin Morgan, whenever he’s not pulling gawky faces and being given poor stage directions, is persuasive in the title role. The supporting cast – Richard Wilson, Anthony Head, Angel Coulby – all do the job as you’d expect. Inevitably, the leading member of the BBC Wales repertory company, Eve Myles, turns up, but she’s killed after two minutes (this isn’t giving anything away) so that’s fun.

There are a few weak points. The incidental music follows the pattern set by previous BBC Wales fantasy dramas (Doctor Who, Casanova) in turning one too many scenes from functional storytelling into a Tex Avery cartoon; there’s a lazy preponderance of women looking suggestively from high windows; and the dialogue falls down the same mantrap as Robin Hood in shuttling disconsolately between a Blackadder-esque vernacular (“Yeah, what?” “My fans are waiting!”) and an unconvincing grope at authenticity (“A hand to hold, a voice to guide…”).

In addition, Camelot perhaps looked a bit too stylised and well-scrubbed. Confining the action – exciting as it was – to a very limited number of interiors couldn’t help but focus attention on the upholstery at the expense of the acting.

Even so, watching the episode, there’s something about the Merlin legend that returns again and again to override any grievances you might have. Maybe it’s just that it’s never been properly told on television before, unlike the life and times of Merlin’s future employer. Depicting Arthur, at this point in his life, as thoroughly unlikable adds to the charm of proceedings. It’s always good to see a hallowed icon brought down to earth.

There’s much to enjoy here, and much potential. Hopefully the series will conjure up enough swagger and imagination to render its early flaws forgettable.

Merlin begins on BBC1, 7.30pm on Saturday


2 Responses to “Merlin”

  1. Mark H Wilkinson on September 16th, 2008 9:09 am

    Britain doesn’t have a particularly deep well of folk myths to draw from

    Yes, we do. It’s just that most of us don’t read much about it beyond what we learn via popular adaptations of (usually) Arthurian myth or Robin Hood. The amount of stuff that could be taken from Welsh (ie. pre-Christian Britain) folklore is, on its own, quite staggering, but it doesn’t seem to be taught in schools; nor is it the subject of many adaptations.

    Where’s this generation’s Alan Garner? Perhaps he/she got sidelined when J K Bloody Rowling and the Muggles brigade took over most of the internet.

  2. Andy Elms on September 16th, 2008 9:39 pm

    Sounds well worth watching. But yes, there are plenty to mine in the Welsh bardic tradition – Mabinogion, Hanes Taliesin. The Misfortune of Elphin could have a suitably impressive apocalyptic opening episode… Whatever happened to studying the years between the Memorable Dates of 55BC and 1066 other than those bl**dy cakes.

    And don’t get me started on the great missed opportunity of the lack of a Sunday teatime version of The Dark is Rising…