The Starz cable channel has gone full-on fantasy. And why wouldn’t they? Last January’s Spartacus: Blood and Sand and this summer’s The Pillars of the Earth miniseries were their two highest-rated series ever.
Now Starz is continuing along the same fantasy theme with a new 10-episode series, Camelot, coming in 2011, starring Joseph Fiennes as Merlin, Eva Green as Morgan, and Jamie Campbell Bower as Arthur.
But after literally hundreds of movie and TV adaptations of the King Arthur legend (one currently airing on the SyFy Channel!), is there really anything left to tell?
Maybe not, but the producers promise it’ll be unlike any Camelot-themed project so far: smart, sophisticated, and realistic to the Dark Ages in which it’s set.
“The magic really lies in the political essence of the piece,” star Joseph Fiennes told a gathering of critics at the Television Critics Association in Los Angeles last week. The characters have “very strong agendas politically, and that’s what I’m excited about, where the power lies rather than sort of slaying dragons and things like that.”
Still, Fiennes was quick to point out, “Yes, there will be some dark arts and we’ll see people changing shape and things disappearing!”
As most Camelot-themed projects do, Camelot uses Thomas Malory’s classic Le Morte d’ Arthur as its source material.
“We’re starting right from the birth of Arthur, and we’re going through,” said the show’s showrunner and head writer, Chris Chibnall. “We’re just about to [film] our version of the sword in the stone this week, which is not like any other version you’ve seen. And we’ll go through and kind of try and tell what might be the truth that lies behind the myth. What would have been the [real-life] events that could have contributed to these myths? What was interesting to me when we were talking about Camelot was excavating what it might be like to have lived then, and how these stories might have come about.
“We have a grand plan,” Chibnall said, “which, if we get things right, I hope we’ll have multiple episodes, multiple seasons.”
As for the all-important relationship between Merlin and Arthur, “Their relationship really is from when [Arthur] was born,” Fiennes said, noting that Merlin carefully plans the trajectory of Arthur’s life.
“I think of Merlin as a sort of cross between Obi-Wan Kenobi and Donald Rumsfeld,” Fiennes joked, referring to Kenobi’s mentoring qualities and Rumsfeld’s political agendas.
“Their relationship takes many different turns and shifts,” Fiennes said. “[Merlin is] sort of tutor. He’s a father figure. He’s a brutal headmaster. He’s got to give this boy all of the tools to be king in a ruthless world, and he has to do it in a very short space of time. So there’s a lot of ‘cruel to be kind.’”
According to the Chibnall, Camelot won’t have quite the sex or violence of Starz’ envelope-pushing Spartacus.
“This is an adult drama, of course, but I think we are our own show,” Chibnall said. “The amazing thing about Camelot is you can talk about political pursuits.”
That said, expect plenty of romance. “The extraordinary thing in all the versions of Camelot and the Arthurian legend is it’s all about the romance,” he said. “It’s all about the passion. It’s all about great ideals compromised by falling in love with the wrong person … And also, we have some beautiful actors as well, so, frankly — anyway, let’s move on.”
Said Fiennes, “There will be, I’m sure, scenes of intimacy, scenes of violence, but I think really underpinning that, and I think it’s a big difference in what I’ve witnessed, is that there’s a very deep sense of character and narrative.”
Interestingly, Fiennes actually grew up near Stonehenge, a place that factors into some of the Merlin legends.
“I used to climb those rocks, and there was some kind of myth that Merlin brought those stones and built that himself for some pagan ritual,” Fiennes said. “But I certainly, at the age of nine or ten, was climbing them — marauding all over them. And they’re very full of energy, so maybe there’s some lineage to that moment to where I am now. Who knows?”
The project, an Irish-Canadian co-production, started work in June at
Ardmore Studios, just outside of Dublin, which, for the record, is where John Boorman’s 1981 movie Excalibur was also shot.
But the producers say they’re taking strong advantage of the Irish countryside as well.
“”We want the richness and vibrancy, and we want a sense of reality to it,” Chibnall said. “Big and bold and cinematic and epic. It’s like the country has been waiting for Camelot to be there because the landscapes are perfect for the Dark Ages.”