So I was watching Merlin the other week – specifically, series one (Yes, I know I’m very far behind. I only just finished Battlestar Galactica. Don’t hate me). And there was one episode in particular – the one where they all go back to Merlin’s village and Arthur leads the defence against some evil robbers led by the bloke from Deep Space Nine – that reminded me of something. It took a couple of days, but I suddenly realised that the plot was a very clear echo of an episode of a series from 1956.
The Adventures of Sir Lancelot was a series of half-hour episodes, co-produced by English and American companies and filmed in England, which ran to 30 shows. I first heard of the series when I was researching adaptations of Arthurian legend for a dissertation at University. At the time the series was unavailable – although I did watch Merlin & The Sword, which may be the worst film ever made – and it wasn’t until I happened upon the DVD set a few years ago that I finally got to watch it.
Written largely by scriptwriters who had been black-listed by Hollywood, I was very pleasantly surprised by the quality of the show. Yes it has clunky moments, but there is a sense of fun and wit to the writing that still feels fresh and modern now, and the production values are remarkably high. Often shot on location, and all on film, for someone used to watching 60’s Doctor Who the show looks amazing. For the latter half of the run the American producers, mindful of how successful the show had already been, decided to fund colour production. I understand that the colour versions weren’t broadcast in the UK, but the DVD’s I watched do contain them, and they are glorious.
You can tell that those involved were more than a little wary of the standard Arthurian legends. There’s no magic in this series. It is resolutely grounded in ‘reality’, and Merlin is depicted as a tricksy scientist who bamboozles most people into believing his power comes from the heavens rather than his knowledge (Lancelot works him out in five minutes, of course). There’s more than a whiff of discontent at the accepted wisdom of ‘knights and nobility good, peasants bad’ – in one episode Lancelot convinces Arthur that he has no idea what it is like to be poor, so they go undercover and get mistaken for thieves, and are very nearly executed. There’s more than one episode where a penniless knight turns up to Camelot, is mocked by the other knights and eventually proves his worth, with Lancelot his only supporter. A young woman is left a castle on the death of her father – she is pressured to marry, as most believe that she cannot possibly look after her people by herself, but she (and Lancelot) believe that a woman can do anything that a man can. You can understand why the writers were accused of being left-wing!
But the thing I really want to write about – and the reason I enjoyed the series so much, I suspect – is the acting. Taking the lead role was the then fairly-unknown William Russell, who would go on to be cast as one of the first Doctor Who companions. If you’ve ever watched the early episodes of Who and seen Russell’s portrayal of Ian Chesterton, I really really want you to go and buy this series. You’ll see just how good an actor Russell is – charming, funny, able to handle action or humour – and realise just what a coup it must have been to cast him in an unknown low-budget sci-fi series.
Cyril Smith as Merlin, Ronald Leigh-Hunt as Arthur (and Bruce Seton as Arthur in the first three episodes, for some reason…), Derren Nesbitt as about 8 different villains, often with unconvincing make-up. The very very funny David Morrell as Sir Kay, who appears to have wandered in from Carry On Film. Oh, the whole thing is just fun. Not for everyone, perhaps, but I loved it.
And the episode that Merlin reminded me of? Here’s the synopsis:
A band of renegade knights is preying on the shepherds in the area. Sir
Lancelot decides to champion the shepherds’ cause, and masquerades as a
shepherd to teach them how to fight the knights off.
Not identical, perhaps, but having seen both episodes I believe that there’s more than a casual link. If you like Arthurian legend, swashbuckling adventure and fancy a series of done-in-one, no-over-arcing-plot romps, then please give this a go. You can buy the DVD set quite cheaply.
Or, of course, you can watch some bits on the internet. Here’s the first half of the first episode:
and here’s a complete episode from later in the run:
Let me know in the comments if you enjoy it, or have fond memories of it!