Feature: The Making of Merlin
The legend of Merlin and King Arthur has long held film makers under its spell, inspiring works from Camelot to Lancelot, Excalibur to Monty Python & The Holy Grail.
So when producers Julian Murphy and Johnny Capps came up with the idea of re-telling the legend for a new audience they faced a daunting task: finding a fresh approach to a story that is inextricably woven into British culture.
“It was a challenge. This is a story that’s been rewritten throughout history. Every generation has wanted to tell its own version,” says Murphy.
The duo, the leading creative lights at the independent production company Shine, had just finished working on Sky’s hit teen horror show Hex when the idea first took shape.
“We had enjoyed doing a high concept show and it cemented our feeling that we wanted to do more of them,” says Capps.
“We started looking at different worlds and mythologies and were soon looking at Merlin. Nobody had attempted it for a while. The last version starred Sam Neill as Merlin, a decade or so ago.”
The pair were clear from the outset that theirs would be a fantastical Camelot that would stir the imagination.
“We didn’t want to make a 15th century version of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. We wanted to produce something that merged the legend with big, family entertainment.
“We wanted to set it in the past but in a fantasy period, the world of Narnia, Harry Potter and Lord Of The Rings,” says Murphy.
After watching the success of the American series Smallville, about the early years of Superman, Murphy, Capps and writer Jake Michie began imagining a series which set Arthur and Merlin in a Camelot that existed before its golden age.
This approach allowed the team to present seemingly familiar characters in an unfamiliar setting.
“Just as in Smallville we wanted to subvert expectations. So Camelot is a land where magic is banned. Merlin, rather than being an unbelievably old and wise wizard is a young boy who works as Arthur’s manservant and has to hide his abilities. He saves Arthur on a regular basis but always has to keep his magic a secret,” explains Capps.
“We also wanted to subvert the expectations of Arthur. He is not the heroic king of legend. He is a young man, rather like Prince Harry, who likes to party, enjoys his status but who also shows kingly qualities,” he adds.
“That then gave us great possibilities for taking the story on. We could follow the two of them to see how Arthur unites the land of Albion and Merlin becomes the great wizard.”
With a youthful audience in mind, Murphy, Capps and their colleagues were keen to create characters with which their young audience could identify easily.
“Being 18 feels the same in this world as it does in our world. We have tried to make it accessible. There are moments when Arthur and Merlin are adolescents,” explains Murphy.
And at the heart of the drama is the relationship between Arthur and Merlin, two boys from very different backgrounds.
“Arthur is boorish but brave and he is the son of Uther, so he is going to be king one day. Merlin is a more working-class boy. At first they don’t like each other but then Merlin becomes Arthur’s servant and they develop an odd couple relationship.”
For all the original twists to the familiar stories, the series remains true to the spirit of the Arthurian legend, however, with storylines that foreshadow its timeless characters and imagery.
“We’ve kept certain things from the legend, Mordred and Excalibur, Guinevere and Lancelot and elements of Uther,” Murphy says.
The team spent a year developing scripts before showing them to the BBC. Excited by what she saw, the BBC’s Julie Gardner, the producer widely credited with Russell T Davies for reviving Doctor Who, agreed to develop the scripts further.
If Gardner has learnt anything from Doctor Who it is to give Saturday night shows an epic scale – both visually and emotionally.
“Drama on BBC One at seven o’clock on Saturdays needs to be fun and it needs to be entertaining and engaging which means you need characters that you can empathise with. Not necessarily characters who are nice all the time but ones whose trials and tribulations you want to follow,” she says.
“It also needs a scale that is largely achieved through the emotions of the characters. It’s really important that they are written large, that every big decision characters make really really count, that the consequences of the choices they make are significant.”
Gardner drew on the support and advice of Russell T Davies during the development of Merlin.
“I learnt so much about the seven o’clock slot from Russell T Davies’ Doctor Who scripts and from his approach as an executive producer to that particular slot.
“It’s not just about the scripts or production process, it’s about thinking about the audience’s viewing experience at that particular time.
“Russell’s been a huge supporter of Merlin. He immediately saw its potential and proved invaluable in early discussions about how to shape the series for Saturday night,” she explains.
When the show was given the go-ahead early this year, Capps and Murphy, along with director James Hawes, were immediately faced with a race to meet the deadline for transmission in September.
“The biggest challenge was having to turn the show around so quickly. We had a small window of opportunity and had to go for it. Julian and I had a very short timescale and we were making huge decisions very quickly,” explains Capps.
“Everything had to be designed. You can’t just walk down the street and find every costume, insignia, prop and piece of armour. We had to have everything made.
“For three months we were making massive decisions which we knew we would be stuck with for as long as the show lasts,” explains Capps.
“What is the crest of Camelot? How big is it? What should this world look like? Can you be historically accurate in a period where you also have talking dragons? It was a tough time, but because we had been working on it for so long we responded to these creative challenges instinctively.”
Casting was an epic production in its own right. “We saw hundreds for all the parts, especially the younger roles,” says Capps.
“We were looking for actors who were larger than life rather than naturalistic. This is an epic show, with epic dialogue which sounds ridiculous if you do it like EastEnders. We were looking for young actors who could carry it off.”
The key piece of casting was Colin Morgan, as Merlin. “You need Merlin to have intelligence, charm and humour. There is lots of humour in the show and that comes from Merlin,” Capps says.
“You are also asking people to believe that he becomes this extraordinary wizard. Colin has all the qualities we needed.”
The casting of experienced stars Anthony Head and Richard Wilson added gravitas and experience to the young cast.
“Having starred in Buffy, Anthony totally understands the high concept shows. He knows how to handle dialogue and emotions that are epic in scale. He also brings a great sense of threat to the drama as Uther,” says Capps.
“Richard Wilson brings a huge breadth of experience and great warmth and vulnerability to Gaius,” he adds.
As well as the established cast, Merlin will feature guest appearances by star names from both sides of the Atlantic including Santiago Cabrera, from Heroes, Michelle Ryan from EastEnders and the Bionic Woman, Julian Rhind-Tutt from Green Wing and Eve Myles from Torchwood.
Perhaps the hardest part of all to cast, however, was that of Camelot. The production team scoured castles all over Britain and Europe for a building that evoked the right atmosphere and look.
“We looked all over Scotland, Wales, England and Eastern Europe, everywhere in fact. But we couldn’t find the right place,” explains Murphy.
“We didn’t want a main location where we would need to add CGI all the time. We wanted something that looked unbelievably photogenic and vast already. We were looking for something in line with the Disney imagination.”
Eventually, however, they were led to the stunning Chateau de Pierrefonds, an hour or so north of Paris. “It’s not easy to secure a French national monument. It was an interesting negotiation,” smiles Murphy.
“But they have let us do all sorts of things. The other day we rode a horse into one of the great halls.”
With filming now near completion, the fruits of Murphy and Capps’ three years’ labour are about to be unveiled to the demanding Saturday night BBC One audience.
Competing in the slot that Doctor Who has made its own is daunting, they admit.
“We are in a very difficult spot. We will have a very large magnifying glass put on us. Some people who love the legend of Merlin will be horrified when they see that he and Arthur are contemporaries in this.
“But this is an epic family show. It’s Raiders Of The Lost Ark. We’ve got big stories; we’ve got Lancelot fighting griffins, a talking dragon. But within that you also have to have small human stories and universal emotions. We want it to appeal to mums, dads, brothers, sisters, there is something in it for everyone. Hopefully we’ve created that,” says Capps.
The series has been sold to NBC in the United States who are planning to air it on one of their prime weekend evening slots.
The future is bright for Shine – provided, that is, viewers tune in and like what they see.
“We have big plans for Merlin but you never know,” says Capps philosophically.
“There is huge expectation and if it touches people’s hearts then it will be a success. But it will in the end be in the hands of the audience.”