❉ Andrew Davies’ retelling of the classic tale of the knights of the Round Table comes to DVD for the very first time in the UK.
Simply Media TV Ltd are to be commended for the number of classic BBC dramas that have given us access to distantly remembered slices of our lives. This year alone, they have brought smiles to the faces of ‘Doomwatch’ and ‘Softly, Softly’ fans. ‘The Legend of King Arthur’ takes you back to Sunday evenings in the autumn of 1979 on BBC1. Later in the evening you could have watched the hit comedy ‘To The Manor Born’ and the new detective series ‘Shoestring’. ITV was on strike which gave the BBC a complete monopoly for a couple of months. So, if like me you don’t actually remember this, there must have been something good on BBC2.
‘The Legend of King Arthur’ is an early classic serial Andrew Davies adapted, produced by Ken Riddington, with whom he will collaborate many times in the future. With this production, they have a problem. This is a late medieval romance set within the Dark Ages between the Romans going home and the Saxons invading, a generalisation familiar from that time that will get modern historians screaming, as I probably have.
Davies opts for the medieval of the original romances, and features monasteries, castles and chivalry.
Davies opts for the medieval of the original romances, and features monasteries, castles and chivalry. The theme of the story is the right to kingship and how usurpers are brutally crushed. In other words, watch your place. Geoffrey Beevers played one such doomed fellow, having usurped sweet King Pelles from distant lands, who walks all the way to Camelot to ask for Sir Lancelot’s help. Lancelot comes to the rescue and interrupts a spot of child cruelty, as a young lad is dancing on the table while Beevers and his merry men stab at his feet with daggers with gentle ferocity. ‘Bring me more boys, I want more boys!’ he cries without laughing, reminding you how Davies will one day put the sex into the classic serial the original authors could only hint.
Director Rodney Bennett, will in 1980 be one of those few BBC directors to have directed ‘Hamlet’. You can see why he got that job as he is a very theatrical director, working from a script where the dialogue is medieval in tone and delivered in standard Shakespearean mode. The nobles have their received pronunciation and anyone from the countryside puts on his broadest mummerset accent. The girls simper and fall in love with Lancelot at the slightest glance, but he doesn’t do that sort of thing. Not peasant girls, anyway, not with those accents. One kills herself following his rejection, leaving a fellow Knight to scream in rage: ‘But I fancied her.’ New characters are introduced and launch into a speech and are quickly ushered away, they may return only to get killed off. ‘Game of Thrones’ this isn’t. The whole piece is directed like a stage play rather than a television piece. Bennett forgets this is television, so much impact is lost, nuances overlooked, the camera doesn’t like to go in too close too often. Even for its time, this is old-fashioned and would be a thing of the past by the end of the following decade.
What could have been impressive and mystical set pieces are reduced to ordinary moments. Young Arthur pulls out the sword from the stone, a famous, iconic moment from mythology, every kid knew that. Here it is just steam-rollered through, with young Arthur looking mildly surprised when he is informed that he was adopted and is in actual fact the king of England. ‘That’s nice,’ the young Arthur nearly says as his fake father and brother kneel before him.
Merlin takes Arthur to pluck Excalibur from the water, the ‘moistened bint’ as Monty Python memorably called her. She beckons to Arthur to climb into a boat to reach the visual effects man patiently waiting, submerged under the lake to pull him across and give him a sword. With straw hair, she resembles Worzel Gummidge’s sister. The boat in which he and later Merlin stand in to be taken away is a standard rowing boat, you can almost see a number painted on the side. The director tries a few effects with these lakeside scenes, a bit of dry ice, a superimposed light over the sword, but it still falls flat.
Worse is the vision of the Holy Grail, the quest for which takes about fifteen minutes in Episode 6. A few theatrical flashes of light, a badly superimposed cup, and miscued actors falling to the ground in awe. Video effects were so advanced by 1979, it is a shame they were not utilised to give the audience a bit of spectacle. Some of the lighting tricks Bennett employs are similar to those seen in his ‘Doctor Who’ stories a few years earlier.
Facial hair is quite impressive in this production, but at this end of the 1970s, everyone was a bit hairy.
The few knights who go end up at King Pelles’ place are just in time to see three white clad nuns walk past carrying a covered cup. ‘Oh, that’s the Grail,’ says Pelles, who has been waiting for a pure Grail hunter to come and cure him of plague. Another five minutes and Sir Galahad has taken the cup, cured the dying with a miracle touch and then said, ‘Well, that’s my part in the plot over,’ and keels over to die. Galahad is so lacking in character in the script he is almost an automaton, which given his character, is appropriate.
The filming cries out for Dartmoor or Cornwall or the great hill forts of Dorset, somewhere Arthurian and magical by its own existence and still be safe from anything modern intruding. The location is an anonymous un-atmospheric wood in early spring, a few hillsides to scramble up and down, and a reservoir; however, there are a couple of excellent set-pieces. When Lancelot fights Bors, his fellow Round Table knight played with a much needed gusto by Patrick Godfrey, it is very well done. As it was not a contest to the death, it was quite an amusing scrap. Several sword fights are staged in the studio, usually a recipe for disaster, but these are excellently arranged by B.H. Barry, who features in the best fight himself opposite Lancelot, playing the brother of a man he thinks was murdered by the Queen with a poisoned peach. The final civil war is filmed with as many extras budget can allow, and cut in a way not to suggest gore and too much violence. In two years’ time, ‘Excalibur’ was released. It had the budget and the scope and the shagging in full armour (which, aside from the gore, is all the film is remembered for these days).
The designers try not to go for a Norman or Saxon look if they can help it. Amy Roberts, the costume designer, swamps her cast with an amazing array of coarse cloth. The Knights of the Round Table do not wear suits of armour, only leather tabards. The helmets shout Sutton Hoo, and the white robes and style hats worn by Arthur and Guinevere suggest Roberts found something different in her history books. Whether these are supposed to be Celtic or Romano-British royal dresses even I would like to know. Classic Serials never came with a commentary or production notes back then. They don’t now either.
Merlin, who we meet for two episodes, is swamped in white robes so he resembles a druid, and with so much make-up the actor can barely speak through his the beard. Facial hair is quite impressive in this production, but at this end of the 1970s, everyone was a bit hairy. Merlin is 300 years old, getting on a bit as he points out to Arthur before he sails out across the lake, making the most of his final lines in a cliff-hanger which more raises a smile than anything else.
O’Brien plays the role quietly and precisely, a master-class in how to play the sinister without raising your voice.
The acting honours go to Maureen O’Brien who plays Morgan le Fay in adulthood. The child was a very young Patsy Kensit, who can also be seen in 1979’s ‘Prince Regent’, also being released by Simply today. Very good she is too, spitting out her hatred to anyone and everyone who she blames for the death of her father, kissing Baby Arthur on the forehead while thinking out loud she will one day kill him. O’Brien takes over in Episode 2 and plays the role quietly and precisely, a master-class in how to play the sinister without raising your voice. She is content to remain behind the scenes, unnoticed. The only hints of magic within the story come through her, as she directs a battle and a few fights from her rooms in Camelot. Hers is a life consumed by hatred. By Episode 6, the make-up department have aged Arthur and his knights to look like old men. That it took her so long to carry out her plans suggests she was pretty lame as a witch to begin with, regardless of the protection Excalibur was supposed to give Arthur. When Arthur is finally put into his boat and paddles off into the mists, she allows herself a little tear of regret that it took eight episodes to finish him off.
King Arthur is played by Andrew Burt, physically imposing and with a strong and commanding voice but you swear there is the merest hint of Graham Chapman, cinema’s funniest Arthur, peeping through at times. He isn’t as dominant in the proceedings as you would suspect since a lot of the story revolves around his half-sister and nephews plotting to expose the chaste love affair between Guinevere and Lancelot.
I have now come to the end of my quest. Is this DVD worth buying? Of course it is. It is still enjoyable, but so lacking in ambition. ‘The Legend of King Arthur’ would have worked better with more mystery and magic, and gone for a fresh recipe with this medieval corn.
❉ ‘The Legend of King Arthur’ was released on DVD by Simply Media on 10 October 2016, RRP £19.99.