I wouldn’t normally go near a show like Camelot, the latest historical sword-and-sex-fest from the Starz channel in the US. Something drew me in though. Perhaps it was the enduring magic of the Arthurian saga, of growing up as a huge fan of the John Boorman masterpiece, Excalibur, and wanting to see how a modern spin on the tale would play out. Perhaps it was a fascination with the work of Chris Chibnall, the series’ head writer whose work now has a sore tooth fascination for me where I continue to stick my metaphorical tongue into the pain to see if it still hurts. Perhaps it was the connection with Starz and a desire to see if this could be as bad as their other recent fare. Whatever it was, it dragged me in. Regrettably.
I had begun to think there was some sort of hope for Mr Chibnall, normally not only a rather uninspiring hack but one with a tendency towards rather juvenile delusions of “adult” writing involving lots of sniggering references to sex. It seemed he had turned a corner by providing us with the rather thoughtful and reasonably well crafted United (see my review of it here) but sci-fi and fantasy are his real pitfalls and it seems that once he has left the grounding of reality in a drama he quickly darts offs in a direction which leaves the characters shouting a lot – usually about things he presumes schoolboys will find sexy.
Of course, I should have realised that the teaming-up of Chibnall with the Starz channel would multiply these problems further (their most recent fighting historical production being the lamentable Spartacus, which has become a byword for puerile raciness mixed with over the top violence) and that the addition of Michael Hirst’s name to the list of executive producers and writers would send the whole thing spinning out of control with his career nosediving from the promising beginnings of screenplaying Elizabeth to overseeing the not-so-joyful hokum that was The Tudors. This unholy trinity brought together is something of an anti-pedigree in TV terms and so the warning signs were there to be seen. Written in mile-high letters of fire, in fact. But still I was attracted to it, kicking all sense of reason to the wind.
First of all, it’s only fair that I point out that it would be unreasonable to damn this series by comparison to the movie version of the Arthurian tale, Excalibur. Boorman has given us what is perhaps the definitive reworking of these familiar tales where Alex Thomson’s majestic cinematography combines with a cast including Helen Mirren, Nigel Terry, Patrick Stewart, a young Liam Neeson, Gabriel Byrne, Cherie Lunghi and, best of all, Nicol Williamson, as the perfect portrayal of Merlin, to produce an epic which seems only to grow in reputation as the years pass by. It’s unlikely we’ll see a better version but new attempts are always welcome, just as the forthcoming BBC/HBO reworking of I, Claudius won’t detract from the original and is worth looking forward to in its own right. Recent versions of the Arthurian legend have included the American Mists of Avalon, based on the women in the tale, and the British Merlin, aimed more at a Saturday tea-time family audience. Tellingly, Chibnall had apparently been trying to develop an Arthurian series for the BBC which ended up being rejected. After going their separate ways on the project the BBC opted to greenlight Merlin while Chibnall took his efforts to Starz and, while I wasn’t hugely bowled over with Merlin, I do think the BBC chose the better part on the evidence of the first few episodes of Camelot.
You can see the kind of series that Camelot is trying to be from the pre-credits sequence as Uther Pendragon meets his returning daughter, Morgan, and we discover that this is going to be a show with people engaging in lots of macho snarling. Before Morgan has got very far with confronting her father he has already punched her in the face and then attempts to do so again before she predictably catches his wrist and snarls something back at him. This meeting is all the incentive Morgan needs to engage in a little regicide/patricide by taking on the form of a serving girl and poisoning her father, the king. This is intercut with footage of Merlin haring across the countryside to meet the king before he dies and, because this is an Arthur myth for the 21st Century, he isn’t some wise old mage leaning on a staff but an action man leaping over rivers and ditches. And because it’s made by a channel which places more emphasis on style than substance he doesn’t just leap but does so in the slow motion favoured by so many shallow dramas of today accompanied by “whoosh” noises. An inauspicious start then before we’ve even hit the credits.
The casting of the two regular characters we’ve met so far is typical of the failure of this production. On paper they’re big names – Joseph Fiennes as Merlin and Eva Green as Morgan. They’re not even particularly bad actors, serviceable enough and commanding of big Hollywood contracts. However, they just don’t inhabit the roles in any meaningful way that particularly makes you care. Green is more at fault here, giving a pretty clichéd evil villain performance which makes you suspect at any stage that her next line might be “Har! Har! Har! Nothing can stop me now!” and whose screen presence also seems to rely too heavily on her copious eyeliner for support. Fiennes is alright, but alright isn’t really what we’re looking for in a drama like this. Merlin is, in many ways, the central character, guiding and shaping Arthur and events at every turn. I said at the start that it would be unfair to compare Camelot to Excalibur but when Nicol Williamson brings to the screen a portrayal of Merlin imbued with energy and character it’s rather hard to watch Fiennes half sleepwalking his way through this with a slightly blokey take on the character being the only thing worth noticing, and even then it not being particularly welcome.
These casting mistakes don’t help the series but they were certainly capable of being overcome. Green’s Morgan may be a little hackneyed but there have been plenty of enjoyable adventure series featuring larger than life, OTT or moustache-twirling villains which succeeded not only despite such characters but because of them, with Robin of Sherwood springing readily to mind. No, the real damage is done by the casting of Arthur. Even if the rest of the series was some sort of masterclass in every department (and it’s not) it would no more be able to overcome this handicap than a wonderful footballing side like Barcelona would be able to win anything if they went out and played every match without a goalkeeper. There are many elements to creating a successful drama but one of them is obviously to “get your central casting right” with a weak script or lacklustre production values often being well hid behind a truly magnetic performance from a central lead. It’s truly staggering to believe that anyone could therefore have cast Jamie Campbell Bower in such a crucial role.
It’s hard to know what was going through the executives’ minds at the casting sessions but perhaps they wanted some sort of boy band pop-rock star look for Arthur to engage with a new generation and reach out to a particular demographic. If so, then he appears to foot the bill with his wispy bum-fluff hairs around his mouth and his flowing blond locks hanging over slightly startled eyes and vaguely elfin features, but only if young girls also enjoy wet blanket acting into the bargain. His portrayal of Arthur is wimpish and crushingly disappointing as you know from very early on in the proceedings that Bower lacks the screen presence, clout or anger to do the role any justice or pull the show along through sheer force of will. You’re not going to squirm in your seat as this character faces a terrible foe in dreadful circumstances as you just won’t be able to care what happens to him. While some sort of snarling, yelling, snorting He-man was to be avoided at one end of the casting scale, surely it should have been obvious that this rather sapless and insipid version with slightly bucked-teeth was as equally undesirable at the other.
Despite appearing rather like a very unmemorable minor character in Neighbours Bower would probably be fine in a teenage angst drama along the lines of some kind of Dawson’s Creek clone and I can certainly see what they’re trying to do by having Arthur filled with moments of doubt about his kingship after having being plucked from obscurity to unite his nation, but he just looks lost, adrift in a production where the producers have written and cast the character terribly wrong. And it doesn’t help at all that he is made to look even more ordinary every time he shares the screen (which is often in the opening episodes) with Peter Mooney as Arthur’s brother Kay, who doesn’t have half as much to do but does it twice as well with a stature that would have made him a much better pick as Arthur. But he doesn’t have blonde hair, which was presumably important. It’s actually easy to believe that the wrong scripts were handed out on Day One to these two actors resulting in them playing each other’s parts and everyone being just too embarrassed to point it out.
It’s not all a disaster on the casting front though, to be fair. Tamsin Egerton (who, strangely enough, was also in the American Arthurian series, Mists of Avalon, playing Morgan as a young girl) is an enchanting Guinevere, more at the beautiful and girly end of the scale than the beautiful and noble we might have expected in the past, but she’s fine enough and probably ticks all the right boxes for Starz in their bid to get teenage boys watching, wasting no time at all in removing her clothes and cavorting naked on a beach even before she properly appears on-screen, achieving this through a dream sequence of Arthur’s fevered imagination. Similarly, you can imagine that Eva Green’s contract probably stipulated a certain minimum number of nude scenes when she signed it and handed it back into the sweating hands of the Starz executives.
James Purefoy is the other wise casting move with his excellent performance as Mark Anthony in HBO’s Rome obviously allowing the production team to believe that he could bring a certain number of viewers with him, confident of enjoying another heroic but slightly arch interpretation of a fighting political schemer. Purefoy was wonderful in Rome, a leading man with real poise who sent the character up but never made the mistake of falling to the wrong side of the tightrope walk between knowing and pantomime. He certainly gives it his all here but, sadly, Purefoy is wasted on the material he is given as the oafish King Lot. Regrettably, his character is a brutish and misogynistic fool whose purpose seems to be partly to up the quota of sex scenes Starz seemed to demand. One can only imagine Purefoy rolling his eyes while reading the script before doing what was required and getting the hell out, especially when King Lot witnesses an argument between other characters and grumbles, “Aww, fuck this!” before getting up and storming off. Real life probably mirrored fiction. Other dialogue beauties from the pen of Chibnall include a bed scene between Lot and Morgan where the sorceress asks him if he was there at the death of his parents to which he replies, “Yes, I killed them”. At moments like this you almost wonder if you’ve strolled by mistake into the classic episode of Blackadder where a group of evil super assassins all boast about how they’ve killed their own parents. One of the two series is actually intended to be funny though.
It’s not just the casting though which lets down Camelot. Far from it. Just (as I mention above) a bad production can hide behind some great performances it’s also true that some dreadful casting can hide behind a superb production and still make for a watchable show. Once again, Robin of Sherwood springs to mind where Jason Connery was so badly mis-cast in the title role as to almost evoke pity for him every time he appears on-screen, and yet the series remained essential viewing. While the production of Camelot looks nice enough and the scenery of the locations in Ireland is well used, it’s the writing and the whole direction of the show which really crucify it and combine with the casting in a one-two combination punch to floor the viewer.
Chibnall’s dialogue is rarely one of his strong points (witness some of the examples above) but even his basic plotting of key moments in the opening two parter are nonsensical to the point where it actually manages to take any thinking viewer out of the drama. Two examples: firstly, Chibnall attempts to put a new spin on the sword in the stone myth by not only having Arthur pluck the sword from a rock but doing so from a rock at the top of a raging hundred foot high waterfall with water cascading all around him. When shown his task Arthur has his brother impossibly throw a rope up almost the entire distance of the rocks and then climbs up into the waterfall risking death at every second while the viewer sits at home and asks why he didn’t just find some gentle walk up to the top of the waterfall and swim across? The answer, obviously, is because it wouldn’t look as good on TV, but for the character of Arthur it makes no sense whatsoever.
Secondly, and much more inexplicably, King Lot and Morgan turn up at Camelot with all their savage warriors, storm in to see Arthur and execute someone very important to him in front of him. They give him an ultimatum and tell him he must relinquish the crown within five days or they’ll come back and kill him. But the unavoidable question is why not just kill him there and then? He’s a wimp, he has very few men, they’ve already stormed his castle, he’s defenceless in front of them, killing him would be to their advantage and allow them to realise their ambitions, they’ve just murdered someone in front of him so they’re not particularly respectful of life, and they’re going to kill him anyway in five days’ time. So why not just do it now? Why give him time to raise an army, or get Merlin to magic something up, or barricade Camelot, or think of something else? Furthermore, Morgan has already killed the previous king, who happened to be her own father, so she has absolutely no qualms about killing either royal personages or family members and actually seems to prefer it if they’re both. Of course, the five days thing is the undoing of King Lot and you’re just left shaking your head at home asking yourself, “Why did he do that?” Again, the answer is because the writer thinks it is more dramatic, but from the point of view of the characters issuing the demand it makes no sense at all.
It unquestionably does look visually dramatic to have the famous sword scene located at the top of a waterfall so I can see why they’ve done this. I can also see that there might be some dramatic mileage in having the most famous magician/sorcerer in all of folklore not actually perform a single act of magic over the three episodes I’ve watched. It is hinted that using magic comes at a great price and that Merlin has now moved beyond magic while Morgan is caught up in its thrall. You’ve got to imagine that we will see terrible consequences of its use for her later in the series or that Merlin himself will be tempted back into the ways as a major plot point in some future storyline. However, one area where it’s hard to fathom why they’ve changed the original and familiar story is in the startling non-inclusion of Lancelot.
I’m not against myths being retold in new ways. These tales have evolved over hundreds of years already and it’s good that they continue to do so. To yet again use HTV’s 1980s drama Robin of Sherwood as an example, that show introduced a new element to the Robin Hood myth in the form of a Saracen warrior amongst his band of freedom fighters. So successful was this move that most subsequent retellings of the story have incorporated a Saracen into the proceedings as if that had always been a part of the story. So, it’s always possible to put new spins on old tales and get it right. However, by dropping Lancelot, one of the most famous names in the whole Arthur myth they’ve done something fundamentally stupid. The story of how Lancelot, Arthur’s best friend and champion knight becomes seduced by the beauty of Guinevere and betrays his friend before ultimately redeeming himself is so strong that you would need to be almost wilfully sabotaging any production of a new version in ignoring it. Instead, Chibnall serves us up a twist on this by having the King’s champion renamed for no apparent reason as Leontes and it is he who is betrothed to Guinevere and who marries her in the third episode, but not before Arthur has decided to do the dirty behind his newfound friend’s back and have his way with her first. It comes across more as sordid soap opera than some tragic and eternal tale of messed up love between friends and it just provides you with even less reason to actually like or care about Arthur when he is shown from the off to be so dishonourable and ignoble. Also, fans of Shakespeare will know that Leontes is the name of a character in The Winter’s Tale who becomes obsessed with a belief that his childhood friend is having a relationship with his wife before attempting to kill him and imprison his wife, so I guess we have an unsubtle hint from Chibnall about where this is heading and there can be no other reason for giving the character such an un-Celtic name.
With mistake after mistake in the creative decisions I found myself floundering badly by the end of the rather uneventful third episode. The two best actors in the opening episodes had killed each other by the end of the second so the third was always going to be choppy water for me and the ludicrousness of Arthur and Merlin accepting an invitation to have dinner with Morgan and stay alone at her castle following her mass murder of half of Arthur’s army and friends just days earlier (unsurprisingly she drugs their wine!) left me questioning if this was a series I wanted to continue with. In the end, the dullness of the episode made my mind up for me even more than all the poor dialogue, gratuitous sprinklings of sex for the teenage boy market or the continual appearances of a few seconds of slow motion dropped into a scene to make it look “cool” (if you’re an easily impressed idiot). I bailed out and have had little reason to regret it. I’ve since heard that Camelot has already been cancelled by Starz despite garnering very impressive initial viewing figures. Perhaps they just got bored with it as well.