Broadcast in eight 30 minute episodes during October and November 1979, The Legend of King Arthur contains all the familiar story-beats you’d expect, but Andrew Davies’ adaptation still manages to throw in a few twists along the way.
Merlin (Robert Eddison) and Arthur (Andrew Burt) have established a new enlightened age, thanks in part to the mighty sword Excalibur which is used by Arthur to subdue his rivals. But this hard-won peace is short-lived as his vengeful half-sister Morgan le Fay (Maureen O’Brien) has vowed to avenge her father’s death and only Arthur’s demise will satisfy her. Well versed in the dark arts of witchcraft, she uses her powers to convince Arthur that his bravest knight Lancelot (David Robb) and Queen Guinevere (Felicity Dean) are enjoying a passionate affair. But Morgan isn’t the only danger that Arthur faces and the treacherous Mordred (Steve Hodson) proves to be the one who fatally halts Arthur’s reign.
Long regarded as one of the best adaptations of the Arthurian legend, once you can get past the rather low-key production values (the VT nature of the studio scenes gives everything a rather stagey feel) there’s much to enjoy.
The central performances of Andrew Burt, Maureen O’Brien, David Robb, Felicity Dean and Steve Hodson are all first-rate. Burt (the original Jack Sugden in Emmerdale Farm) might not be the sort of actor that would instantly spring to mind when considering the perfect Arthur, but his rather stolid persona is just what the production needed. Maureen O’Brien is compelling as Morgan, eschewing cackling villainy for something much more low-key. David Robb and Felicity Dean are both strong players whilst Steve Hodson gives Mordred the sort of slowly increasing intensity which serves the character well.
And if the main cast are pretty faultless, there’s also strength in depth to be found with the supporting players. Denis Carey, Kevin Stoney, Richard Beale, Geoffrey Beevers, Peter Guinness, Hilary Minster, Ivor Roberts and Margot van der Burgh are amongst those who help to enrich the production. A young Patsy Kensit, playing Morgan le Fay as a child, is another actor worth looking out for.
The story opens with the King, Uther Pendragon (Brian Coburn), deciding that he wants a Queen to bear him a son. He declares that the wife of his trusted ally, Goloris (Morgan Sheppard), will fit the bill nicely. Both Goloris and his wife, the lady Igrayne (Anne Kidd), are horrified, but Uther is not a man for compromise and tells Goloris that if he doesn’t comply, “however strong you may make this castle, I will have you out of it and roast you like a badger!”
Goloris and Igrayne have a daughter, Morgan (Patsy Kensit), who calls on divine help to strike down Uther, but Merlin appears instead. He tells her that “you have the gift, but not the knowledge of the gift. You see a glimpse of the forbidden things, but only a glimpse.” Merlin may stand by Uther’s side, but he doesn’t serve him, not fully. Goloris’ death at the hands of Uther sets in motion Morgan’s life-long hate of her half-brother Arthur (born of the forced union between her mother and Uther).
Kensit might have only been eleven at the time, but she was already something of a television and film veteran (her first credit came when she was just four years old). She’s appealing as the innocent who finds herself consumed with loathing for the boorish Uther (a broad, but effective turn from Coburn) and Arthur. Morgan’s transformation from good to evil is sealed when she fails to aid the choking Uther. That he dies after a glutinous feast rather sums up his character.
Episode one then moves ahead some fifteen years, as we see the young Arthur (Richard Austin) pull the sword from the stone, the act which confirms he is the true King. Sadly it’s a rather flatly staged moment, lacking any sense of magic or wonder. Much better is the following scene where Arthur makes a decent impression with some of the nobles. Others are less convinced, so there will be war. But first there’s another key moment – Excalibur needs to be retrieved from the Lady in the Lake.
It’s a pity that we don’t spend more time in the company of young Arthur, as by the start of episode two Andrew Burt has assumed the mantle. It’s not too surprising that the long battles he had to fight in order to prove his legitimacy happened off-screen (budget considerations I’m sure played a part in this). Maureen O’Brien now takes over the role of Morgan. She claims to Merlin that now she serves only God ….
It quickly becomes clear that Arthur is not the man his father was. Arthur is fair and conciliatory, but events prove this to be a weakness rather than a strength. After he pardons a bitter rival called Accolon (Anthony Dutton), it’s obvious that he’s simply delayed an inevitable confrontation. Arthur and Guinevere are married and Lancelot offers to be her champion, to stay constantly by her side and do whatever she bids.
Merlin disappears after the second episode, which is a shame as Robert Eddison had a teasing, impish presence. Merlin’s absence forces Arthur to take control of his own destiny, which you sense is not going to end well. And Morgan’s arrival at Arthur’s court, with Mordred in tow, sets in motion the long endgame that results in Arthur’s death.
The middle episodes develop the relationship between Guinevere and Lancelot. Whilst the arrival of the elderly King Pelles (Denis Carey) dispossed of his lands and with a daughter laying stricken under the curse of a powerful witch (who has to be, unknown to any at court, Morgan) adds another layer to the narrative. Carey, an actor of dignity and subtlety, always enhanced any programme he appeared in and this one is no exception. Pellas tells the court that only one man can save his daughter and that man is Lancelot.
As the serial progresses, both Morgan and Mordred continue to manipulate Arthur. Amongst some of the riper turns, Steve Hodson offers something more nuanced. When we first meet him he appears to be Arthur’s man, but his alliance with his aunt Morgan and his own ambitions slowly rise to the surface to reveal his true nature.
Morgan suggests to Arthur that the love between Guinevere and Lancelot is the sort of love shared between a husband and wife, whilst Mordred spies an excellent opportunity to blacken Guinevere’s name even further. Mordred and Morgan had intended to poison Guinevere with a piece of fruit, but the Queen innocently decided to offer this treat to someone else. When Guido de la Porte (Tim Wylton) drops dead after a single bite, the Queen is suspected of murder.
Lancelot would be the man to defend her honour, but he lies injured and isolated from the court. And Lancelot’s standing amongst his fellow Knights (already shaky due to the innuendo about his possible affair with the Queen) diminishes even further when the dead body of Eleanor (Amanda Wissler) comes drifting towards them. Eleanor loved Lancelot, but he couldn’t return her love. When Lancelot and the others realise that the spurned Eleanor has taken her own life, it’s amongst the most powerful moments in the serial. By the time we reach the final episodes, Galahad (James Simmons) arrives, as does the Quest for the Holy Grail, Lancelot and Arthur become bitter rivals whilst Mordred, in Arthur’s absence, usurps his kingdom.
Even with eight episodes, given the amount of ground covered in The Legend of King Arthur there’s the sense that an even longer running time would have allowed some of the secondary characters to be fleshed out a little better, as well as allowing more time to linger on certain themes. For example, when Lancelot heads off to avenge King Pellas, he’s able to do so with almost indecent haste. He may be the bravest Knight in the land, but this still seems a little perfunctory!
Produced by Ken Riddington, directed by Rodney Bennett and with incidental music by Dudley Simpson, The Legend of King Arthur is a treat from start to finish. Those used to the glossier production values of modern television may find it to be lacking in places, but Andrew Davies’ layered adaptation, an attention to detail and the quality cast all help to compensate for the fairly low budget.
There are some production missteps (for example, as the characters age unconvincing wigs and beards are pressed into service) but there are many positives as well. Andrew Burt is entertaining as the thoroughly decent but doomed King, whilst Felicity Dean is terribly appealing as the winsome Guinevere. Add in the smiling manipulative villainy of Maureen O’Brien’s Morgan and it all combines to produce a heady brew.
The Legend of King Arthur is released by Simply Media on the 10th of October 2016. RRP £19.99.