This article appeared on page 6 of Wednesday 19 July's Western Daily Press.

Is this the real court of King Arthur?
by Nicholas Walker


The wattle and daub village rising among the trees in Woodchester Park is very definitely NOT Camelot. And the Arthur who lives there is no king.

He is an ale-drinking, wench-chasing warrior who’s not on very good terms with the Church.

In fact, he lacks all the traditional Arthurian equipment: Shining armour, Guenevere and the Round Table.

Generations of children have listened with awe to the mysterious tales of Avalon, the Holy Grail, Excalibur and Sir Lancelot.

Now HTV is trying to shatter the myth with a new television series about the great Briton.

Clobbered

Called Arthur, it is being shot on location around Bristol.

The new-look Arthur is being played by Oliver Tobias, fresh from a leading role in the London production of Hair.

Gone are the castles, plumes and Medieval trapping of Tennyson and Swinburne. HTV’s Arthur lives in a hut and wears drab, Celtic clothing. This breakaway from the established Arthurian image is much nearer the historic truth.

But realism can go too far. In a battle scene shot in Compton Dando last week Arthur was clobbered in the back of the head by a spear. Celtic remedies for the wound were dismissed and Oliver Tobias spent two days in the Bristol Royal Infirmary recovering.

Arthur was soon back in charge of his warriors, and next time the battle scene was shot he won.1

“I think Arthur was a gutsy young man, a battle leader and a tactician. The legend is rubbish,” said producer Peter Miller. “We have tried to rationalise the legend. Take Excalibur – of course there was no magic in the sword. It’s just Arthur had a long sword and the Saxons had short axes so he always won his fights.”

“We’ve gone to a great deal of trouble to create a factual setting for the series,” he explained. “A hell of a lot of money has been spent providing the right farm animals for the village.”

Museum

“Some long-horn cows were sent to the highlands of Scotland to grow the shaggy coats typical of the cattle of the period.” A herd of near-extinct sheep are also getting star treatment. They share a special field with the cattle not far from Arthur’s camp. “You see, it has to be real. All the animals came from a cattle museum about 20 miles from Woodchester.2 So far they’ve cost us £600,” said Mr Miller.

Arthur’s camp is near Woodchester Park’s lake. A small sapling3 had to be cut down before work started on the camp – and HTV had to get special permission from the Forestry Commission before it was removed.

A Saxon settlement is being built on the gentle slopes of north Mendip. The Saxons were farmers, so wooded Woodchester would not suit them.

All the legend bashing has left Merlin intact4 – but not as a potion-brewing wizard. He is now Arthur’s political adviser.

Peter Miller: “A Saxon warship is being built in the Bristol studios. It’s based on a real Saxon ship discovered preserved in a swamp in Norway. A special crew of forty oarsmen have been trained to sail it on the lake and in the sea. We plan to stage some battle scenes on West Country beaches.5 But Arthur won the land battles because his men had horses and he understood cavalry techniques. The only thing the Saxons did with horses was eat them. We’re producing fiction based on fact. Educationally it’s as accurate as we can make it – but it’s still a drama.”

The theme of the £500,000 colour production is Arthur’s struggle to unite the warring Celtic chieftains against the invading Saxon hordes.

The 24 episodes will be screened early next year.6

Is this the real court of King Arthur sharp

The captions to the pictures read as follows:

HTV’s log cabin Camelot: Gone is the legendary splendour and the Round Table
Oliver Tobias: King Arthur from Hair
A ragged, rugged funeral procession from Arthur’s woodland camp

1 This is not very accurate. See this entry.

2 This may have been what is now known as, "Cattle Country Adventure Park", situated in Berkley, near Stroud.

3 According to the Director of the first two episodes, "a small sapling" is a considerable understatement. He remembers: "on arriving in Bristol and being taken to see this village set, all I’ve seen in the middle of the forest were a great number of trees with big chalk marks and numbers on them. "That’s where the village WILL BE BUILT!" I was informed."

4 It is interesting to see that at this late stage, when three episodes had already been filmed, Merlin was still meant to feature in the series.

5 It's a shame these ambitious plans never came to fruition; budgetary constraints may have got in the way.

6 The 24 episodes were eventually split into two blocks of 12 for UK airing.
In, in response to a request in the Chew Valley Gazette, Mrs Barbara Hatherall offered these memories.

Barbara Hatherall knew the Maxwell family who owned Woodborough Mill Farm, where much of “Arthur of the Britons” was filmed; the "Giant’s Dam" - seen in the episode, “In Common Cause” - is the weir at Woodborough Mill Farm, where they used to play when they were kids.

Barbara’s son Robert helped his uncle to build the village on a field near the River Chew, dragging logs and such like from the nearby woods to make the buildings, etc.

In the summer of 1972, Barbara would go up to the shooting location nearly every day, for one thing or another. She appeared as an extra on many occasions, and they all thought the pay they got as extras was brilliant.

The family had a caravan in their back garden and the production rented it from them for the summer, for one of the crew who had to be there early. It came back spotless.

She had a shop that sold odds and ends in her front room. The cast and crew would come in to buy chocolate, etc. Patrick Dromgoole, the Executive Producer who also directed five episodes, used to come in and sit in her chair, and put his cup of tea on the arm (there was a little wooden stand to put things on) and say what a nice chair it was. She got it for £12!

He’d ask her to recommend people who lived in the area for particular parts. At one time, he wanted a man of a certain age. She said, “Well, my husband’s free that day,” so Patrick had a look at a picture, and cast Barbara and her husband as the jeweller and his wife in “The Penitent Invader.”

Well, her husband went into the make-up caravan, and when he came out she didn’t recognise him! They put him in a wig and a beard, and – later on, after he was supposed to have been robbed by Rolf – Patrick gave them some dirty old rags to bandage his head. Patrick kept screaming at her because she was laughing so much at silly things her husband was saying to her while they were trying to film.

In the scene where Rolf had attacked a young girl on the river bank, Patrick was telling the victim to spread her legs out, and look like she’s been raped, but she said “I can’t, there’s all stinging nettles there!”

Barbara was also in a banquet scene as a serving wench, and they had to do the scene over and over, because she had to take a tray of food to where Oliver Tobias was sitting, and he would stab a dagger into the table, making her jump back.

In the scene in “The Penitent Invader”, where Clive Revill, as Rolf, has to walk across hot coals as penance, he was supposed to put his feet in gaps which had been left between the coals, but ended up actually walking on hot coals because he kept missing the gaps. And he had to do it again, because Patrick shouted out “someone’s got a watch on!” and that was Barbara, with a watch under her hessian dress!

Hot coals (31) Hot coals (35)

Barbara’s daughter also appeared in a scene1, walking across a bridge.

One day, Patrick Dromgoole had asked the agency to send a lot of dark (meaning “dark-haired”) extras, but when the transport turned up, it was full of black people! They couldn’t be used for filming, but they got a free meal at the canteen.

The production really brought the village to life, with all the horses coming in, in big wagons, and all the cast and crew. There were a lot of people involved. It was good fun, and the actors would all chat to you. Barbara couldn’t remember anyone being stand-offish – everyone mucked in and worked together.

1 Possibly in “The Gift of Life.”
This article, courtesy of composer, Paul Lewis, from an unknown publication - probably a paper produced for the Bristol area - describes how Oliver Tobias was injured by a spear while shooting the episode, "The Challenge."

The End Column

Extremely mortifying for King Arthur

It wouldn’t have done for Tennyson. King Arthur would never have been put in such a mortifying position.

But television is a different matter. Which explains why a hero of chivalry had his wounds treated by the National Health Service yesterday.

King Arthur, played by actor Oliver Tobias, was filming a scene for a Harlech TV series at Compton Dando, Somerset.

As he fought a desperate duel with the war lord Kai – played by Michael Gothard – Kai aimed a spear thrust at Arthur’s head. The king parried with his shield, but slipped and the spear cut open the back of his head.

The Master of Camelot was carried in an ambulance from the field of conflict.

“I can’t understand it,” said the crestfallen champion at Bristol Infirmary later. “I must have parried a thousand blows during the filming.”

Producer Peter Miller, said “We take every precaution, but this is supposed to be a fight to the death, and it has to look good. Obviously there is some risk.

We will have to film the last piece again. At the moment we have the wrong man winning.”


There has been some use of artistic license in the article. Arthur should not have been referred to as "King", nor Kai as a "war lord." Also, according to Oliver Tobias, it was not Michael Gothard (playing Kai) who threw the spear which he failed to dodge, but a javelin expert who had been brought in for the shoot.

What is true is that Oliver was hospitalised, and the article plays down the seriousness of the injury he sustained. At a meeting with fans in 2010, Oliver Tobias said of the accident: “When it hit me, it was like a ship running aground.”

Though - according to cameraman Roger Pearce - the spearhead was very hard rubber, and not metal, it was nevertheless very dangerous with the weight of the huge spear behind it, and being hit was no laughing matter. Oliver was knocked unconscious. He needed quite a few stitches, and time away from filming to recover, though he returned to work as soon as he was able to.


The End Column small
Cameraman Roger Pearce remembered filming "The Challenge" at a location near the Compton Inn, Compton Dando, on the River Chew, in Somerset. This is how the locations looked in May 2014.

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