I have a weirdly niche reason for welcoming the Simply Media DVD release of the 1979 BBC TV series The Legend of King Arthur. You see, in 1979 when the drama was being made I was nearly 4 years old and had a new baby sister. My mother was friends with someone working on the production and when the call went out asking if anyone knew anyone with a new born baby my Mum’s friend got in touch. And lo, about six weeks after she was born my sister was in a crib in a studio at BBC TV Centre playing the baby King Arthur.
It was shown once on TV and, curiously, was never repeated. It wasn’t even released on VHS (in the UK – there was an American 90 minute edit) and this DVD release 37 years later is the first opportunity my sister will have to see herself on screen.
Here she is with Merlin:
It seems very odd that this production hasn’t received a release before, because not only is it a solid telling of the tale of King Arthur, the round table and knights of Camelot, but it was also the debut TV adaptation by Andrew Davies. Davies has gone on to write some of the most highly regarded adaptations broadcast on British television, including the Pride and Prejudice featuring Colin Firth as Mr D’Arcy and, probably most notably now, the astonishingly original take on Michael Dobbs’ book House of Cards. Such is the power of Davies’ adaptation of House of Cards that the remake starring Kevin Spacey currently being made by Netflix states in its opening credits that is based on his adaptation as well as the novel.
This production is an impressively economical bit of storytelling. Over 8 half hour episodes we see the birth, long life, battle, betrayals and death of the fabled King, never feeling rushed, but also never letting anything drag like a lot of older TV drama. The drama in modern terms may seem wordier – it is for the most part focused on scenes shot on video in studios with occasional filmed excursions – but each half hour is almost a self-contained vignette. And in fact, the way the characters talk and interact is exactly how something genre based like Game of Thrones would probably have been done back then. But it’s fair to say that the style and scale of television drama has changed somewhat in the modern era – this comes from a time when all TV drama was closer in nature to stage plays than the scaled down version of cinema we have now, and some might find that troublesome to get on with.
I was surprised to discover Andrew Burt as King Arthur was only in his mid-thirties when the programme was made; he ages incredibly convincingly, as do all of the other characters. It has to be said the make-up work by Joan Stribling is incredibly good throughout, and the performances really sell it. Burt is statesman like, open and friendly (the majority of his battling and killing takes place off screen). It is a fine performance to centre a programme on, even if the inherent goodness of the character makes him a little dull.
David Robb, as the more interesting character Lancelot, has a world weariness which is quietly affecting and Maureen O’Brien as Arthur’s evil half-sister Morgan le Fay is nicely malevolent. In fact it’s the unusual lack of histrionics from the character which makes her so unsettling. An 11 year old Patsy Kensit plays the character as a child and the hatred for Uther Pendragon killing her father is palpably understandable (and eerily similar to Maisie Williams’ performance as Arya Stark in Game of Thrones).
Merlin is a tremendous performance by Robert Eddison. It’s weird to think that he’s most famous now for playing the ancient knight who guards the Holy Grail in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, seeing as here he’s playing a similarly ancient and worldly wise figure with mystical powers. And my sister of course, in the single scene which marked her television debut, does sterling work asleep until she’s bothered by the other actors.
These eight episodes may not be the most exciting television ever, but they are a neat retelling of the traditional myth of King Arthur. And it’s nice to finally get a chance to see them.
The Legend of King Arthur is out now on DVD, and for those who are unfamiliar with the myths of Camelot, Excalibur and the hunt for the Holy Grail, it is an educational introduction.