In a land of myth and a time of magic, the destiny of a great kingdom rests on the shoulders of a young boy, his name…Merlin. Every week, fans of the hit BBC fantasy TV series Merlin look forward to hearing those opening words and the start of a new episode. Using the Arthurian legends as a jumping-off point, the show is based on Prince Arthur’s friendship with the wizard Merlin and eventual succession to the throne of Camelot following the death of his father, King Uther Pendragon. From the very beginning, series co-creators and current executive producers Johnny Capps and Julian Murphy knew the story they wanted to tell and how they wanted to do it.
“We’ve always enjoyed making high-concept shows,” notes Capps. “Before Merlin we worked on a show called Hex, and one of the problems we had with that is that we created the mythology ourselves. So when we began work on our next project, we thought instead of creating an entire mythology, let’s find one, and at the time, Merlin was ripe for reinvention. We felt that the Arthurian legend and the story of Merlin were fascinating as well as a rich pot in which to explore.
Adds Murphy, “I think the main thing for us is that if we were going to do this, we wanted to do it our way and, I guess, a slightly different way rather than just telling a straightforward version of the story, albeit a terrific one. We’ve always been fascinated by coming of age stories and I think that type of drama and the established legends met in our minds and the result is the take on the Arthur/Merlin legend that we’ve come up with.”
Longtime Merlin watchers have no doubt noted just how well-cast each of the show’s characters are, from the noble and compassionate Arthur (Bradley James), to the loyal and self-sacrificing Merlin (Colin Morgan), the strong and caring Guinevere (Angel Coulby), the wise and gifted sorcerer Gaius (Richard Wilson) and the beautiful as well as duplicitous Morgana (Katie McGrath). The key, however, to the program’s initial success, or potential failure, depended on the casting of one role, in particular.
“The part of Merlin was the one that scared us the most,” admits Capps. “We’ve cast a number of shows in our careers, and with this one it was important that we find an actor who not only had an extraordinary playing range, but at the same time was also incredibly likeable. Because Merlin is a young character, we were looking for an actor who wasn’t a [big] name or had much experience.
“That was quite a daunting prospect, especially because we knew that if we didn’t find the right actor, the show wouldn’t work, no matter how good the special effects and the scripts were. If you didn’t care about the actor playing the role of Merlin, then the whole thing would fail. It was a pretty stressful time and there was plenty of heated debate about who was right, who was wrong and exactly what we were looking for. We saw lots and lots of actors for the role, and we auditioned poor old Colin Morgan more than once. Fortunately, our instincts were right and he turned out to be an amazing actor and absolutely perfect for the role, so we were thrilled.”
Morgan and his fellow castmates made their Merlin debut in the series opener, The Dragon’s Call. Written by series co-creator Julian Jones and directed by James Hawes, it finds a teenage Merlin being sent by his mother to Camelot in the hopes of finding a better life. Once there, he becomes Prince Arthur’s personal servant as well as a page to Gaius, who teaches Merlin not only medicine but also how to hone his magical abilities. Unfortunately, King Uther (Anthony Head) has forbidden the use of magic in his kingdom, which causes all kinds of complications for Merlin as he secretly uses his powers to protect Arthur from harm. Not surprisingly, the episode was a big undertaking for all those concerned.
“That was the first time we tried to create Camelot, and I won’t pretend it was easy, because it wasn’t,” recalls Murphy with a chuckle. “We went to a big chateau in France, and it was our plan to create that world there, but I think you enter these things without realizing the true extent of what it means to create a fantasy world on television, with a television budget and on a television schedule. It’s a very tough thing to do, and I think now we tackle similar such tasks with far more experience and knowledge than we did back then.
Says Capps, “I think the other thing that was really hard about The Dragon’s Call was judging the tone of the performance and, like Julian said, making that fantasy world believable while at the same time getting the acting tone right so that you believed in that world. American actors are much better in high-concept shows than British actors, and by that I mean British actors tend to be quite sort of naturalistic in the way in which they perform. So we needed to find British actors as well as a British director that could take our characters and put them in this fantasy world where they would inhabit that world in a real way. I think tonally shifting the performances was really hard and quite stressful during those first few weeks.”
Continues Murphy, “I think we were very pleased with how the show’s humor worked. That was a vital part of our story, especially the humor between the two central characters, Arthur and Merlin. They had rather a difficult relationship in the beginning, but that has since become a genuine odd couple friendship, which is, for us, the heart of the show. If we didn’t get the chemistry and feel of that right, and if the viewers didn’t want to be with that odd couple, then, once again, the program wasn’t going to work. The confidence that slowly grew into that relationship along with the strength and emotion that Colin and Bradley both brought to it was a real highlight for us. We knew we had this strong buddy story at the heart of everything and it made writing the show easier.
Adds Capps, “I also think that our confidence grew very quickly when we started making Merlin, so by the time we reached season two we were more ambitious about what we could do story wise and tell even more epic stories with more sort of life and death situations. That was really pleasing for us as storytellers. At the end of the second season we had the big dragon attack [in the season finale The Last Dragonlord], which was hugely ambitious. At the time we didn’t know how we were going to do it, but, again, there was sort of a confidence that we had built over the two seasons to have that kind of climatic end to season two, and at the same time tell a really, really emotional story.
“I guess the thrill about the storytelling was that the format was so tight that we could have the humor that Julian was talking about, but also explore epic stories and big emotional themes between characters.”
In season two’s penultimate story The Fires of Idirsholas, Morgana joins forces with her half-sister Morgause (Emlia Fox) in an attempt to end King Uther’s reign. Thanks to Merlin’s intervention, they fail and are forced to retreat, albeit temporarily. In the show’s third year, their hated of Uther and Camelot intensifies, and Morgana becomes an even greater threat to the kingdom. What were some of the initial creative challenges for the show’s producers and writers when deciding to take Morgana down such a dark and destructive path?
“To be honest we had always planned to do that,” says Murphy. “We planned to start Morgana out as a character on the cusp who was conflicted and could do either way. So we always understood her motivation for taking the dark path that we knew she would, and it was just a matter of being patient.
“One of the lessons we’ve learnt from past TV series we’ve done is to always be patient with characters. Even though the audience might be clamoring for a character to become, in this case, the villainess they want, and even though your instincts might be to speed up that character’s development, just be patient and let the character grow.
“So by the time we got to the third season, we were right on the edge and could take Morgana down this path. It was actually a massive release for both us and the actress, Katie McGrath, to be able to explore all these new facets of the character. It was one of those factors that took the series as a whole to another level in many ways, but, again we had planned at the beginning of season three to take Morgana across to the other side, and viewers got the first hint of that at the end of season two.”
In Merlin’s two-part third season finale The Coming of Arthur, Morgana finally succeeds in ousting Uther from the throne and crowns herself as the new Queen of Camelot. Using the legendary Cup of Life, she and Morgause are able to summon forth a seemingly unstoppable army to fight against Arthur, Merlin and the recently-formed Knights of the Round Table.
“That was a very exciting episode to write,” says Capps. “We wanted to create a situation where we began the legend of the Round Table. At the same time, we’d learned a great deal technically during that season about using the massive program that generated the [CGI, computer-generated image] army. So there were big Arthurian legend story moments that we were excited about, and we also wanted to put all the technical knowledge that we’d learnt to good use with the season three finale.”
Arthur and his faithful followers manage to thwart Morgana’s plans and banish her from Camelot, but her defeat only makes the witch all the more bitter and hungry for revenge. In the season four opener The Darkest Hour, Morgause sacrifices herself, allowing Morgana to unleash the spirits of the dead, the Dorocha, on Camelot. As with the aforementioned The Coming of Arthur, this episode had its own set of creative challenges as it went before the cameras.
“This two-parter was really tricky because it was something we’d never done before in that it was about creating tension and dread,” explains Capps. “So we filmed this episode in a slightly different way than we normally do and it was quite a tough shoot because, again, it was all about creating a sense of dread. We weren’t showing a monster and then the repercussions of it. Instead, we were creating a feeling of unease, and I think that was a real challenge for us as well as the director [Alice Troughton] and the actors.”
With Morgause gone, Morgana gains a new ally at the start of Merlin’s fourth season, Lord Agravaine, played by Nathaniel Parker (The Inspector Lynley Mysteries). The brother of Ygraine Pendragon (Alice Patten), Uther’s deceased wife and Arthur’s mother, Agravaine comes to Camelot to advise Arthur when he is crowned king after his father’s death. In fact, he blames Uther for his sister’s death and is eager to help Morgana bring about the downfall of Arthur and Camelot.
“The Agravaine character was ‘stolen’ from the Arthurian legends and then slightly changed for the purposes of our story,” says Murphy. “We were interested in Arthur’s motherless childhood along with the bonds that he made during that time, and his sort of blind trust of those bonds where his uncle, Agravaine, is now concerned. I think that works very well because it’s a part of Arthur’s character and who he is.
“Nat Parker was actually someone who we originally thought of for the role of Agravaine. We didn’t go looking or trawling for him – he was in our minds. Nat has done quite a bit of TV here in the UK, so he is a familiar face and you know what he can do acting-wise. Curiously enough, he has rarely played a villain, and he did it very well as Agravaine.
While the villainous ranks have grown in Merlin’s fourth season, so have those of the good guys with the increased presence of the Knights of the Round Table – Sir Leon (Rupert Young), Sir Percival (Tom Hopper), Sir Gwaine (Eoin Macken), Sir Lancelot (Santiago Cabrera) and Sir Elyan (Adetomiwa Edun).
(L-R): Sir Leon (Rupert Young), Sir Gwaine (Eoin Macken), Sir Lancelot (Santiago Cabrera), King Arthur (Bradley James), Sir Elyan (Adetomiwa Edun) and Sir Percival (Tom Hopper). Photo copyright of Shine Ltd. and FremantleMedia Enterprises.
“We always imagined that when Arthur became king, the adventures of the knights would become a part of the series, and that’s what’s happened,” says Murphy. “They’ve turned out to be wonderful characters and the actors we’ve cast in the roles have worked out very, very well. What I like about them is that they’re becoming more and more convincing warriors and knights, which is lovely to see. Also, with the knights we have that many more ways to access stories as well as further explore the dynamics between the characters.”
Currently, Murphy and Capps are hard at work in post-production preparing for Merlin’s fifth season, which begins shooting next month. Are there any hints they can offer up as to what viewers might be able to expect?
“Well, season five is going to be good,” enthuses Capps. “We’ve got some great twists and turnings coming up and we’re bringing in a few more characters from the Arthurian legend.”
As noted above, all photos copyright of Shine Ltd. and FremantleMedia Enterprises, so please no unauthorized copying or duplicating of any kind. Thanks!