Every era needs its own version of the Arthurian legend according to Chris Chibnall, head writer of America’s latest nonsensically Medieval Brit-flick Camelot. In that case, we can count ourselves rather lucky because we’ve now got two to choose from. But Starz’s new show is aimed at a slightly more experienced slice of the TV viewing public than the BBC’s long-running and uber-successful Merlin. Anyone who watched The Tudors will know the score immediately. Historical details that would have Starkey foaming at the gills, plenty of generous sex sessions, swordy violence, a smattering of ye olde boffery and a silly but lively plot. We are now entering the guilty pleasure zone.
Despite a couple of decent slayings, the real violence hasn’t really kicked-off yet (even American historamas need to introduce characters to some extent) but the plot is already moving with whip-like rapidity. One thing you certainly can’t accuse these shows of is starting slowly and risking a losing viewers. We have already witnessed the murder of King Uther at the hands of his sinister and shape-shifting daughter Morgan by the time the opening credits roll. Eva Green (Casino Royale) steals the show as the shark-eyed manipulator of men, but she does have some great lines to play with. If she wasn’t intimidating enough for a rather wide-eyed young Arthur then he’s also got her new fella to deal with. James Purefoy plays a violent, ambitious, sex-mad, hedonist. Or if you’ve seen Rome, almost exactly the same character as his Mark Anthony..
While Morgan is politicking, Merlin is in the countryside informing the precociously young King-in-the-making that he is no commoner but heir to the English throne. As good-looking as Jamie Bower-Campbell is, he doesn’t look, act or sound like anyone who hasn’t spent half his life at a very expensive public school, so at this stage I am unconvinced. Making him clean and naive was probably an intentional plan to show him growing into a man as the series progresses but he still seems more Twilight than Games of Thrones unfortunately.
Our latest version of Merlin on the other hand is anything but coy. Joseph Fiennes has done away with the Gandalf look (so last decade..), adopted the Mark Strong ‘cue-ball’ and turned everyone’s third favourite old wizard* into a young war-mongering king-maker. Fiennes himself has likened him to a cross between Obi Wan-Kenobi and Donald Rumsfeld. We would previously never have thought that this pair could be credibly combined, but after watching episode one we see what the actor is getting at.
It’s all great fun, but I can’t help but feel that while the immediate gains of getting out of the blocks quickly are obvious to all, the one down side to that approach is that Camelot has a rather shallow reach. Comparisons with Game of Thrones are difficult to avoid and where the HBO drama oozes rich textures and slow-burning arcs, this Starz production offers quick pay-offs but little ethos. Both are entertaining and more enjoyable than most of the stuff on TV, but I know which one I prefer..
*You know who we’re talking about..