I arrived at the building where Sean works for our 3 o’clock meeting, and he came down to meet me. On the way up to his office, he asked why I was so into “Arthur of the Britons”: was it Oliver? I said, no it was Michael. “Even then?” he said. Perhaps he thought a teenager would be more likely to fall for Oliver, though he did think that Michael was a very attractive man.

By way of background, Sean said that in the early 1970s, the smaller TV companies like HTV weren’t expected to do drama, especially on this scale, but Sean’s father, Patrick Dromgoole, decided that they should start. They had two crews, which produced a lot of great drama over the next 20 years, including "Children of the Stones" and “Robin of Sherwood.” “Arthur of the Britons” - along with “Pretenders”1 - was the start of this in many ways.

The story of Arthur, and the conflict between the Celts of Wales and Cornwall, and the Saxons in Wessex, was a natural choice for Harlech TV, which was based in the middle of those territories.

As we settled down to watch “The Gift of Life” together, Sean proved himself a man after my own heart by expressing approval for the 4:3 aspect ratio! He also said he loved Elmer Bernstein’s epic theme music.

Every now and then, as we watched the episode, he would press ‘pause’, and tell me something he remembered about what had just transpired.

The first thing he commented on was the horse Michael was riding. He said that either Michael wasn’t a natural rider, or the horses he’d been given weren’t up to the task, because he had been through about 3 horses without finding one that suited him. The horse wrangler, Ben Ford of Stroud, brought in the big dark horse with the wide irregular blaze, and named it Merlin because “if this works it will be a miracle.”

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As it turned out, this horse did suit Michael, and was very … stable.

As Krist and Elka stick their heads up on the boat, Sean drew his colleague’s attention to his first appearance: “I’m in show business!”

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He then pointed out that much of the conversation between Arthur and Kai about what to do with the Saxon children – nearly a whole minute – was filmed in one take.

Then when Kai is getting ready to leave the village with the children, he drew my attention to a great shot of Michael.

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He said there would have been huge polystyrene reflectors just out of shot, directing bright lights at Michael’s face; he would have been bravely keeping his eyes wide open to avoid squinting.

The riding scenes were filmed near Woodchester. Sean could ride already, as his mother had been very keen that he and his siblings should learn. It was alright for Tamzin riding in front of Michael, but very uncomfortable for him, riding at the back, where there was no saddle. Bumping along when they were cantering was agony!

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The conversation between Krist and Kai about the scar on Kai’s neck would have been filmed by a tracking camera mounted on a vehicle, driven alongside the horse.

I mentioned how tall the bracken was, in the scene where Krist and Elka go missing. Sean said the problem was, trying to make sure the crew didn’t trample it all down!

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When Kai was calling for the children, Sean said, “I did find Michael slightly scary – there was a threat about him. He was tall, distant, and rather magnificent.” He was also “moody” but Sean also recalled that he was “very kind, very patient.” He and Tamzin often screwed up a shot by, for example, looking straight into camera, but Michael understood that they were just learning. “In dealing with me and Tamzin, he was brilliant.”

When Kai teaches the children the secret whistle, Sean admitted that he couldn’t do it; that was the only part of the sound that wasn’t recorded live on location, but looped in a sound studio. The sound recordist, Mike Davey, a close friend of Sean’s, is deaf in one ear!

During the next scene where they were riding, Sean pointed out the vehicle tracks where the horse was trotting. I protested that they were cart tracks, but he said carts didn’t make tracks like that!

Where the children are sleeping, he said he remembered the feel of the sheepskin against his cheek.

I commented on Kai’s furry boot-covers, and Sean revealed that they were a lot of trouble, as they were always coming off.

As they walk into the Saxon village, Sean said that Heather Wright, who played Hildred, was a lovely girl. He commented once again on the wonderful cadence of the theme music.

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He wondered what was the point of “putting fur on a guitar” (the minstrel’s lute).

In the scene where Kai is sitting in the hut, tied up, Sean pointed out that the wattle and daub panels, from which the walls were made, were actually moulded plastic! They had one real panel, and poured plastic onto it, then peeled it off, painted it, and poured some more on. They looked terrible in real life.

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He thought Stephan Chase was a good actor; “You need to know who your villain is.”

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When Kai springs out of the bracken to break the Saxon villager’s neck, Sean said he would have had his face smeared with Vaseline, to make it look as if he were sweating. By the time they filmed these scenes, they were losing the light.

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Sean remembers being fascinated watching Peter Brayham organising the stunts, and by just how simple they were, up close. When Horgren surprises Kai, near his horse, it was Peter who buried the axe in the tree trunk, not Stephan Chase.

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He remembers feeling the sticky “Kensington Gore” (theatrical fake blood) on his face after Kai palms his cheek as he rides away.

During the scene where Kai is lying on his sickbed, we speculated on where Arthur would have obtained the huge bunch of grapes Kai has in front of him. Sean suspects the cameraman was referencing Carravagio’s “Boy with a Basket of Fruit.”

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The fire would have been made using a gas tube under some stone that had been painted to look like logs.

After the credits had rolled, Sean asked whether I had any other questions. I started by asking how he got the job!

He had acted before, in school plays and the like, but never in front of a camera. As soon as word got out about a new production, people in the business would be looking out for roles for their children. There was an audition: five boys and five girls, and a lot of those auditioning, like the Nevilles, were family friends.

The episode Director, Pat Jackson – a lovely man - must have auditioned them, but as the audition was held in Patrick Dromgoole’s office, Sean, and his younger brother Dominic and sister Jessica, were at something of an advantage. Sean himself was credited as “Sean Fleming” – his mother’s maiden name – because they didn’t want to give away the fact that he was in his dad’s production!

Sean got the part of Krist, partly because he was blond, which made him a better fit as a Saxon boy than his brother, Dominic whose hair was dark. Dominic got the part of Col’s son Frith, in “The Slaves.” He didn’t like the fact that at the end of the episode, he had to be lifted – almost thrown – high in the air by Dave Prowse. Jessica appeared in another episode as an extra.

They took the men Dominic

Sean took it very seriously; he remembers rehearsing at the kitchen table with his mother. “I was the little pro – turned up with all my lines learnt!”

Being one of the youngest cast members was, “terrific! Everyone spoiled me.” People fell over themselves to look after them, especially the make-up lady, Christine Penwarden, on whom he had a crush. She used to show them how to make fake scars with Bostick, and shock their families.

When they went for the costume fittings, they were fascinated by the axes with rubber heads, used during the actual fight scenes. Saying, “This is a real one”, Oliver picked up an axe, took a swing at one of the posts in the Saxon village, struck into it, and also hit one of the female crew members - possibly the costume lady, Audrey MacLeod - on the head! She was okay though.

There were very small crews in those days – 30 or so – so everyone was racing about the whole time, but because of people like the cameraman, Bob Edwards and the director, Pat Jackson, the atmosphere was relaxed and very friendly; there seemed to be plenty of time. “It was great fun – a real confidence-booster. They made it so easy.”

Nevertheless, not being a ‘morning person’, Sean was “beguiled” by how early in the morning they started work (dawn). They only shot 3 and a half to four minutes’ worth of film each day, unlike these days, when 8 minutes is the norm. It took about a week to film each episode.

When asked how much direction he was given, Sean said, “Not enough, watching it! I think the idea was to keep us as relaxed as possible – not do take after take, which would have been intimidating for a child.” He thought he could have given a better performance. It was hard to know how much direction any of the adult cast received, because a good director would speak to the actors privately.

He didn’t see the rushes. There would be a lab. report the next morning, and the rushes would be seen the following night. Some directors invited the actors; the more experienced ones didn’t, because they didn’t want them to be distracted by thinking about what they’d done before.

Sean thinks he was paid for the performance, but has no idea what happened to the money; it didn’t end up in his pocket! He was present for the filming of some other episodes but didn’t appear as an extra, which was boring: not like being the centre of attention!

It rained, half the time, and the cast and crew would either stand under tarpaulins, film indoors, or just got on with it, pretending it wasn’t there.

Tony Shaffer – the writer of “Sleuth” - suggested that John Hurt should play Arthur; the series would have been “different”. But Patrick cast Oliver Tobias, who they already knew really well. Oliver used to bring his Haflinger 4 x 4 to their parents’ place, and drive them up an almost vertical hillside, making them all scream!

Oliver was hugely popular, “an utter delight.” He maintained friendships with all levels of the crew, to the extent that, years later, when he played the villain, Bertrand de Nivelle, in the “Robin of Sherwood” episode, “Lord of the Trees”, and had to fight Michael Praed, who played Robin, the crew were all cheering for Oliver: “Come on – give him what for!”

Bertrand de Nivelle

When the episode was broadcast, on 13 December 1972, Sean’s whole cub scout troop – all in their uniforms – came to their house in Somerset to watch it. “I was a fucking star!”

Though he hasn’t been back to the locations where they filmed, Sean sometimes feels drawn to visit them. His involvement with “Arthur of the Britons” was a very intense experience, and his attachment to it is deep set. He asked me what I thought of the series when I saw it again on DVD after nearly 40 years; I said it was better than I remembered, and he agreed. The series has stood up well.

He wanted to take up acting as a career, until his first professional auditions, which were so ugly and intimidating, he wondered why anyone would ever put themselves through the process. He probably should have gone to drama school, but his parents didn’t believe in it. He flirted with the idea of becoming and engineer, but decided it would be too dull, so he studied Philosophy at University, where he also did 22 plays, and had his own punk band, The Ripchords.2

When he finished his studies, he spent a number of years behind the camera, working for his father as an Assistant Director.

1 A costume drama set in 1685, about two children during a rebellion against King James II.

2 Their sole release, an eponymous EP with four tracks, “Ringing in the Streets”, “Music is...”, “Peace artist”, and “Television television”, was championed by John Peel, and quickly sold out. "Punk 77" described their music as “Tuneful punk with sepulchral vocals and deep growling bass”, and "My Life's a Jigsaw" as “Great garage/DIY punk.” Sean Dromgoole was the vocalist.
A.S., the daughter of one of Michael Gothard’s close friends, visited the set of "Arthur of the Britons" around the beginning of November 1972. Soon after this first visit, she received a letter from Michael, which included the following:

“I am so pleased you enjoyed your visit to Scruffy Camelot! … I write this at the end of another very long day. I am somewhat saddle sore and bruised, but this is great fun to work on and restores my faith somewhat in this very shallow business I find myself in. I do enjoy working with “The Boys”! It is all very hectic and we are losing track of what we are doing and where we are, what with swapping between episodes.

This week I have been involved in several fights, which of course I won, I have been tied to a tree...and very cold it was too, then we went back and did some knife throwing that if I remember rightly we did right at the beginning ... .which seems a LONG time ago. Oh, I have also thrown a glass of fake wine over Oliver (again) which I enjoyed. We have also done a lot of riding, hence me needing a squashy cushion whenever I sit down. … It will be an early start on Friday morning, and you will get to spend a little time with the horses, as we are scheduled to be involved in plenty of riding during that day.”

The fights he mentions being involved in may have been the ones in the woods at the end of “The Prize”, which was the episode in which he was tied to a tree. They may also have included some of the sparring from “The Pupil”, and the final fight with Corin.

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The knife-throwing and wine-throwing scenes which were re-shot were from the beginning and end of “Daughter of the King.” However, only the new version of the knife-throwing scene was used. Judging by the appearances of the actors - especially Michael Gothard's hair - the wine-throwing scene broadcast was clearly the original one, filmed during the same period as the bulk of the episode.

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There were not many whole episodes left to be filmed by this time: “The Prize”, “The Games”, “The Girl from Rome”, “The Swordsman”, and “The Treaty.” None of these involved substantial amounts of riding for Kai. However, the racing scenes in “Arthur is Dead”, which were also used in the credits, were definitely filmed in autumn – there are autumnal trees, hips on the bushes, dead thistles, and lots of fallen leaves on the ground – so these must be the scenes to which he was referring, when he says they are scheduled to be doing a lot of riding when A.S. visits next time.

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It is good to see that Michael found filming “Arthur of the Britons” such a positive experience.

1 More recollections from A.S. can be found here.
Gerry Cullen, who was employed as an extra on "Arthur of the Britons", offered these insights to the filming of the series.

By a series of total coincidences, I was running low on money in Bristol when I heard that Harlech TV was having open casting sessions, to find extras for "Arthur of the Britons." I was hired, and worked until the end of the series. I remember often being there six days a week. Extras were only used when they need villagers to “fill in” of course, but I was very lucky; I seemed to get most work, probably because I looked the most scruffy.

When I came in, I was told they were making some changes (I don’t know what they were) and the series was half done. When I watched the DVDs, I saw that I was in some of “Season Two” and not in any of “Season One.”

Gerry centre

In this scene from "Rowena", Gerry is the person in the middle, standing next to Arthur.

For me, it was paid graduate school. The demanding schedule called for rotating directors, so I was able to observe their different styles and methods, and how they interacted with the actors. Most of the talk that I had access to was about blocking, director/DP discussions on camera placement, and lighting. I also got to see some of the very good character actors who bolstered the roster. That experience gave me solid confidence throughout my modest career as a camera production person.

The set was always very calm and orderly; very professional. It seemed to me that they were trying to keep to filming one episode per week, so there was a lot of pressure to hit the short deadlines for a quick turn-around; the actors and crew had a lot to do to make a half hour weekly action show. We worked long days; the extras would meet early, often about dawn, or before, at HTV Bristol, and usually come back late in the day, sometimes in the dark. The filming was extremely well organized and all the crew and actors created a friendly, but always moving forward, atmosphere.

Shooting wasn’t always in sequence; there was definitely some overlap between one episode and another. I remember hearing sometimes that a B crew was shooting cutaways and other footage at different locations, to help keep things moving.

Since it was all 16 mm film back then, all the good takes would have to be developed, and the dailies would have to be looked over. Film editing was very time consuming back then; the editor was dealing with many, many, short clips of film that would need to be physically spliced together, then the music mixed in the audio department, and titles added in the lab. I would guess a month at least from shoot week to air. If I remember rightly, it was airing during production, but I didn’t have a TV, and I only saw one broadcast episode while I was there.

Back then it was a big deal to have Arthur in the more primitive environment, rather than the glossy concept of shining armour and big gleaming castles and such.

I remember two main buildings, and some smaller ones to make the village for the Celts. The make-up area was in a tent; wardrobe was in there too. The Celts main building was often converted back and forth between sleeping quarters and also used for inside banquets. The series won some awards for the location set designs and costumes. The food was real, but no alcohol; the wine was grape juice. As I recall the boars were real but don't remember anyone eating them. I was a strict vegetarian for the about 5 years back then so I didn't pay to much attention to them even though I sat right near them in some scenes!

Speaking of the dining tent, the food was great but what I found intriguing was the afternoon tea break, where everyone had banana sandwiches; I had never heard of such a thing but they were very good.

With regard to stunts – from what I observed it was always Oliver and Michael doing everything; I don't recall any stuntmen standing in for either of them. When there was a group of riders I believe some of those were stuntmen. Oliver and Michael always did their own riding, and they both were very good at it.

Extras would get an additional £2 per day if they were involved in any stunts, or got pummelled. They probably don’t allow that today – too many lawyers – but it was fun then. In one episode, “The Marriage Feast”, a scene called for Mark of Cornwall (Brian Blessed) to storm off, mad because Arthur had just embarrassed him. It must have been my turn that day, as the director picked me to be thrown over Brian Blessed’s shoulder as he rampaged through the village, knocking people out of his way. We did at least 5 takes where Blessed literally threw me over his shoulder and into the air; he was a strong guy. Lucky for me, I studied jiu-jitsu in high school, so I knew how to land in hard falls, but it was still somewhat rough. I was disappointed when I watched the DVD; the take they used was the only one where he did not do that; instead, they used the one take where he just throws me down.

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I was involved in inside banquet scenes in two different shows. One was “The Marriage Feast”; I am sitting next to Brian Blessed, on his right. You can only see me in a quick wide shot at 14:45, and some back and forth over the shoulder shots in that scene, one is at 16:15.

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In the other, I sit next to Arthur in a scene where Arthur and an opposing group, I cannot remember which one, decided to make a treaty and be peaceful with each other, so they hold a feast to celebrate.1

While Arthur and the leaders of the opposing group are inside at the banquet, some of the villagers from both sides have a knife throwing contest at a target. There is an accidental death when a knife misses the target and kills one of the villagers, and things get tense. A messenger rushes into the banquet to tell everyone, and things get tense. I remember that one well. It was shot of course out of sequence. In the filming of it, first the outdoor scene was shot, in that shot I am standing near the target when the man next to me gets killed by the stray knife. Later the banquet scene is shot and the messenger comes in and tells Arthur what happened, when he does everyone gets tense and I was told by the director to slowly start pulling out my knife as if a fight was about to happen. Normally I wouldn’t say anything to the director but I thought I better tell him I was in the previous outside shot and he might have a continuity problem if I was noticeable. But he wasn’t worried so he probably had plenty of coverage. 2

At an outside feast in “Rowena” at 19:48 I am sitting down in front of the table and throw wine at a villager, who falls down.

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In "Some Saxon Women" I am in quite a few shots but more interestingly there are good shots of the young woman that Michael Gothard was seeing. She is most easily seen in the scene starting at 7:00 where the two men look over the Saxon women who are chained up. In the shot where the two men stop and shake hands “to make the deal” was Michael’s girlfriend; she was German, and had a young child.



On set, Oliver was always the quietest of the three main actors, and was always very courteous to everyone. He was the youngest, and – as the lead – he had the biggest responsibility. While waiting, he seemed to keep it very serious. He was perfect for the role of Arthur, and he did a great job, even though he was not that experienced.

Jack Watson was the most laid back. Having previously worked on TV productions in New York, I already knew never to bother the actors; always wait until spoken to, and stay on business unless someone else brings up a topic, because they need their space to think about their lines, and get into the character, but while waiting for his part, Jack would often stand on the side among the extras, chatting amiably. He usually had fewer lines to deliver than the others, so I would think that made it easier to be relaxed, plus he had the most experience.

The most serious I ever saw him was on the occasion when, in a nice manner, he scolded me. It was very cold on some of the early mornings, so I had gone to a second-hand shop and bought the warmest overcoat I could find: a long dark blue wool coat, that only cost three pounds.

While we were watching a scene being prepared, Jack, who was standing next to me, said, “Are you a medic?” I answered, “No. What makes you think I would be?”

He explained that I was wearing a Navy medic’s coat; it still had the patch on it.

I told him I didn’t know what it meant, I just bought it because I was trying to keep warm.

He wasn’t mad or anything; he was just very worried that if there was an emergency, it would cause confusion. I couldn’t imagine anyone would think I was a medic, since – other than the coat – my clothes were those of an impoverished medieval Celt, but I realized later that he was a WW2 Navy man, so I could understand his concern.

Michael Gothard was probably the most physical actor. Even standing still, the man seemed to be moving. I noticed that whenever he was in a scene that was being shot, the energy on the set went up; I think he was the sort of actor who made everyone rise up without their even realizing it. Somehow, Michael began talking with me, and found out I had just been travelling about Europe, much as he did some years earlier. During that period, we hit the pubs a few times.

Whoever cast this series really knew what they were doing. The contrast between Oliver and Michael made for good interplay between the two. Oliver was sturdy, emanated inner strength, and kept his cards close, while Michael was lanky, had his energy “out there”, and was often edgy.

It was my impression that the three lead actors liked each other very much.

It is amazing how popular and long-lasting Arthur of the Britons has been. Many of the Brits and Aussies that I have known here in the US remember the show very fondly and vividly. It is an incredible testament to everyone involved.

1 “The Treaty.”

2 This indoor scene, where a messenger comes in to tell the assembled chiefs about the death, does not appear in the episode as shown on TV; the footage must have been discarded.
TV Today 17 August 1972

This photo in this news article giving advance publicity for the series, shows the heroes wearing a prototype costume, some elements of which were abandoned before filming began. For example, Llud is never seen wearing a jacket like this in the series, and - in colour versions of this picture - Arthur and Kai are shown cross-gartered, whereas in the series, this is an element of the Saxon and Jute costumes.

costume clip

Advertising poster

Sunday, 13 August 1972 08:00 pm
This poster must have been made up after the filming of "The Penitent Invader", which took place during the second week in August.

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Featured scenes, left to right are from "Daughter of the King" (two scenes), "The Penitent Invader", "The Gift of Life", "Arthur is Dead", and "The Challenge."
This call sheet, kindly provided by Mrs Barbara Hatherall, establishes the date on which the two main battles scenes for The Penitent Invader were filmed: 10 August 1972.

Scenes of general melée were filmed first, at 6:30, while the main actors were in make-up. Some of the Celts and Picts were played by stuntmen; presumably they were involved in fights, or had to fall in the river.

Someone called “Maria” is listed among Arthur’s Cavalry, though there doesn’t appear to be a woman among them. This is thought to refer to Maria Tolwinska, the niece of Ben Ford, who supplied the horses.1

Artists from the Animation department, a chestpad, blood and a knife were needed to simulate Arthur’s knife wound.

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For the scenes filmed at 11:00 – the fight between Rolf and the Picts – a total of 16 horses are needed. Also listed, and underlined, as if they were of high importance, are towels – presumably to dry off the extras or stuntmen who had been in the river – and brandy, which the wisdom of the time said would warm them up afterwards!

At 12:30, the scene where the abbot goes about the battlefield, blessing the dead, was filmed.

Jack Watson only took half an hour in make-up, as did Michael Gothard, but it took 45 minutes to make up Oliver Tobias; Michael Graham-Cox, and Hedley Goodall, who played the abbot, took an hour and a half.

Oliver Tobias was staying at St Mary’s House, Wrington, and was brought to the location in a taxi. Once again, George Cook supplied the catering, but for this day’s shoot, there would be about 110 people.

1 See this article from the Western Daily Press, 11 September 1972: "Back to school for King Arthur’s knights"
Stephan Chase, who played Horgren in “The Gift of Life” was kind enough to share some thoughts, and pictures.

Kenneth Benda [who played Ulrich] and I stayed in The Moat House Hotel, by Bristol Docks I think. Great scampi, steak Diane and decent red; and it was new at that time. Yes. A jolly time out there. We were driven out in the morning and back last thing – I have no idea where we filmed. No idea.

The Director, Pat Jackson was a very nice, mild, sweet man; you can read about his distinguished career on IMDb, but lots about me is inaccurate: some jobs are left out and others included with incorrect name spellings, eg. 'Steven Chase.' Hate that!! The photographer took some good publicity shots. Yes I think they’re good.

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I don’t remember much about it; if I was in a fight, I probably looked pathetic! But I do know I came away thinking it was a bit of fun. Fun it was, over possibly 2 weeks. Certainly I remember driving to Bristol at least twice.

Michael Gothard was different – he had something that made him fit well into that period in history; a kind of primitive physicality. Perhaps pagan would be better. His countenance was somehow how we imagine ancient Britons to look. Its aspects were rarely seen together. Brutal yet tender. It was a great film face. He was in the Royal Shakespeare Company. Come 1988, I founded a voice-over agency, called Rhubarb, and had Michael on my books. I don’t think we got him much work … perhaps not a “commercial” voice for selling nice crap, but I liked having him on there, and he had a good voice for it. Perhaps not in the eyes of ad man though. Limited by clients and so on."

Stephan Chase’s website
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
Plot

The episode – and the series – starts with a race, between five Celts: Arthur, Kai, and three others. Arthur is in the lead when he is knocked from his horse by a tree branch, and Kai is immediately at his side. When the other riders catch up, Kai tells them to: “… tell the World, Arthur is dead.”

It seems that “Arthur of the Britons” is over before it has really begun. Arthur lies on a bier, covered in flowers, and surrounded by his people.

Meanwhile, four rival chiefs, Mark of Cornwall, Herward the Holy, Dirk the Crafty, and Ambrose, all start making their own preparations to try to take over Arthur’s territory, before Arthur is even cold.

Each man makes his move. But they are expected; one by one, they are caught by Arthur’s people and imprisoned in the longhouse, with a sombre-looking Kai guarding the door. They all think Kai has taken over from Arthur, and is going to kill them.

Then Arthur appears. The reason he has trapped them is not to kill them, but to try to form an alliance. He challenges them all to get a sword out from under a big boulder; whoever succeeds will be their leader. But it’s only when Arthur gets them all to push together, that the sword can be got out – and Arthur snatches it.

He wants them to join forces against the main threat to the Celts – the Saxon leader, Cerdig, who is taking over their lands, and cutting down the forests where they hunt. Arthur asks for half of each leader’s army to join him, and help push Cerdig out.

While they are arguing about it, a Celt sneaks out of Arthur’s camp, and goes to Cerdig, to tell the Saxons what Arthur is planning; Cerdig sets out to take on the new alliance before it can get started.

While Mark is fighting Arthur over the leadership, Cerdig’s forces show up, and – against Arthur’s advice – Mark and the others go to fight him. They are routed, and forced to fall back to Arthur’s village.

Only then does Arthur manage to get them to go along with his plan. He leads a small group of his men to confront Cerdig, but – after a short skirmish – he pretends he has been forced to retreat. Cerdig gives chase, and Arthur leads the Saxons into a swamp. Cerdig’s men don’t know the way through, and when they get bogged down, the Celts work together, and manage to kill most of them with spears. But Cerdig gets away, assuring Arthur that he will be back.

Having seen the wisdom of working with Arthur, both Ambrose and Herward agree to send him a quarter of their armies; Dirk refuses, and Mark just rides away with a look of disgust.

Then Arthur shows himself a bit of a spoilsport, by breaking up the victory feast early, in spite of Kai urging him to let the men enjoy themselves.

Finally, Arthur and Kai race again, for real this time, and once again Arthur gets what he wants by trickery.


Timeline

This episode – at least, the main part of it – was the first to be filmed, at the end of June, 1972. However, the horse-racing scenes at the beginning and end of the episode were clearly filmed in autumn, judging by the colour of the leaves on the trees. A reference to filming a lot of riding, in a letter written in November by Michael Gothard, to the daughter of one of his friends, shows that filming of these scenes was due to take place on or around Friday the 24th of November 1972.


Viewing figures

On 11 January 1973, in a letter published in The Stage, from R.J. Simmons, Press Officer for HTV West, Simmons reveals that “Arthur is Dead” and “A Gift of Life”, achieved no. 4 place in HTV’s top ten programmes.


Locations

The version of Arthur’s village seen in this episode had recently been built at Woodchester Park, near Stroud, in Gloucestershire, which belongs to the National Trust. More details of this location can be found here.

The ‘swamp’ where the Saxons were drowned was on land owned by the Neville family in the village of Frampton Mansell. According to Martin Neville, they dammed two streams, and then had to wait three days for the field to be sufficiently wet. Diggers were brought in to make the holes in which the Saxons drowned.

field at Frampton Mansell

Picture courtesy of Sophie Neville

Cerdig’s camp is thought to have been in the Mendips.


Inside information

Of the filming, Director, Peter Sasdy says:

I was engaged to direct the opening episode of the series, with the understanding that, waiting for me there, was Arthur’s ‘village set’ already built. However, 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. Not a good start...

After some panic, and bringing in outside crews – as always in the film industry, under pressure, working day and night for 7 days a week – more or less everything was ready to start the production on schedule.

I know I had very little time during pre-production, but I was happy with the casting of the main characters, and with the costumes; also I had a very good local Director of Photography Brian Morgan, and from London I brought my camera operator Anthony Richmond (that was very unusual for HTV to have freelance operator) – who is now a well established DOP in Hollywood.


Perhaps the fact that Arthur’s village wasn’t ready explains why filming did not begin until July, though this article in TV Today, 15 June 1972 stated that filming was to begin in June.

The scene where Arthur was shown being hit by a tree branch was one of very few where a stuntman was used. The stunt, known as a ‘flick-back’ was a particularly dangerous one. Oliver Tobias took pride in doing his own stunts; he even sports a “Worldwide British Equity Registered Stuntman” sticker on his motorbike windshield. But by the time they filmed that scene, he had already suffered a serious head injury; presumably, the production team felt they couldn’t afford to take any more risks with the star.

According to cameraman Roger Pearce, the rock with which all the chiefs had such difficulty was made of painted cloth over a wooden frame.


Cast notes

Michael Gothard had worked with Brian Blessed on two occasions before “Arthur of the Britons”: on “The Further Adventures of the Musketeers” and “The Last Valley.”

Cabot the Crafty, who hits Herward on the head, is played by folk singer Meic Stevens; near the end of the episode, he doubles as Arthur’s minstrel.


Reworking the legend

The sword under the stone is a clear reference to the sword in the stone in Arthurian tradition. Arthur’s return from the ‘dead’ could also be seen as a reference to his expected return from Avalon.

Kai is modelled on the Sir Kay of Arthurian myth, “King Arthur's foster brother and later seneschal, as well as one of the first Knights of the Round Table.” According to Val Joyce, in Welsh poetry, Kai is known as "Kai Gwyn", meaning Kai the Fair, or White, so making him a blond Saxon was a stroke of genius. The legendary Sir Kay was exceptionally tall, and older than Arthur, so the casting of Michael Gothard, who was 6 foot three inches, and Oliver Tobias' senior by eight years, fits in well.

Llud is loosely based on Lludd Llaw Eraint, a legendary hero from Welsh mythology, though he doesn't seem to have had any Arthurian connections.


"By the Gods!"

To help him move the stone, Herward invokes the Celtic gods, Maponos, a god of youth, Nodens, a deity associated with healing, the sea, hunting and dogs, and Barli – possibly a god of crops. Ambrose ridicules him, believing that Mithras, a Roman deity, and god of the legions, is the true god.

Herward claims the gods were against them when they failed to defeat Cerdig at their first try, and agrees to join together against Cerdig because “It is counselled by the gods.” Arthur ironically replies, “The gods are wiser than I thought.”

Arthur doesn’t speak of his own religious beliefs, but he has a large book in his room – probably a Bible – and his banner, near the entrance to the village, is a red cross on a white background, so it seems safe to assume that he has Christian tendencies.


Dark Age Men

There are no female characters of interest at all in the first episode, and most of the men in this series are – not surprisingly – quite sexist; many of their insults involve unfavourable comparisons with women. In this episode alone, we see the following:

Ambrose: [to his men] … We don’t want to slouch in like a lot of old half-women. March like the legions of Rome!

Mark: [to Kai] What are you waiting for? Kill us! We’re not women, that we have to prepare.

Mark: [to Dirk] … Let’s see how you get on! The muscles of a girl-child!

Mark: [to Arthur] Where were you when the battle was at its hottest? Skulking in the camp like a handmaiden!

Even Arthur resorts to this kind of name-calling, to aggravate Cerdig, asking him: “Have you come to fight, or talk all day like an old woman?”

For Arthur, brute force is a last resort. “I am trying to build an alliance based on sense and reason. If I fight now to prove myself, reason will have flown. I won’t be a leader, just a fighting stag.”

But both his friend, Kai, and his mentor, Llud are in agreement that – when challenged by Mark of Cornwall – he will have to fight, because, as Llud says, “there’s a time to fight with the mind, and a time to fight with the belly. And these men understand only the belly.”


The best laid plans …

Arthur’s plan to lead Cerdig’s men into a swamp works well – but he’s disappointed to have made an enemy of Mark, who is a powerful chief.

The other chiefs’ plans all fail spectacularly. Even Dirk, who has the brains to use a lever, can’t shift the rock – but it was a good idea!


Great moments

The chiefs’ squabble.
Arthur’s miraculous recovery.
Arthur and Kai’s face-off over tactics.
Kai’s smile at the end of the episode, when he sees that Arthur has tricked him.


Quote/unquote

Cerdig talks Arthur up, setting the tone for the series: “Dangerous man, Arthur of the West. He thinks before he fights!”


Arthur’s wisdom

Arthur is a trickster. He doesn’t lie, but he’s not above stretching the truth or letting people believe what they want to, to manipulate them. When the chiefs complain, he tells them: “You tricked yourselves”, and when Mark protests that Arthur got the sword with their help,” Arthur uses this as a lesson: “And that’s how I’ll beat Cerdig. With your help. None of us can do it alone."


The burden and loneliness of command

They have a feast, to celebrate their victory over Cerdig, but Arthur feels he has to break it up early, saying: “Great victories are as dangerous as great defeats. Men get soft and sleepy. Our danger remains as great as ever it was.” These are violent times, and any respite is brief.

In the penultimate scene, Arthur goes to sit alone in his room, looking sombre. A lonely man, he relies on his lieutenants, Llud and Kai for advice, but the burden lies heavy on his shoulders.


The hot-headed side-kick

In this, the first episode, Kai is depicted as hot-headed, and perhaps too ready to do violence, which fits in with how Sir Kay is shown in later interpretation of the Arthurian legend, as a bullying boor.

Kai resembles the Saxon enemy more than he does his fellow Celts, but no explanation is given for this.


“A man on a horse is worth ten on foot.”

An advantage the Celts have over the Saxons is that most of the Saxons can’t ride. Cavalry fighting is one of the Romans’ warfare tactics: a legacy of which Arthur makes full use, and right from the beginning it is clear that both Oliver Tobias and Michael Gothard can really ride.

Arthur mainly rides two white horses during the series, whose real names were "Bernie", and "Skyline." In this episode, he is seen riding Bernie.

For most of the episode, Kai mostly rides a black or dark brown horse with a star which is often hidden by the bridle, "Blackstar." However, before the races start, he is riding a black horse with a star, short strip and snip, which we will refer to as “Moonlight.”

Moonlight300 high

He must have swapped horses with the stunt rider who was mounted on Blackstar, for the actual race. Perhaps Moonlight wasn’t fast enough.

AID1 AID2

There are also two other very white horses in the race, one of which has a very fancy bridle, and appears to have been especially trained for stunts; halfway through the race, the rider gets the horse to rear and throw him off, and a bit later, the same horse falls, unseating him, presumably on cue.

Acrobat300 high

These horses are not seen again in the series. The race scenes were filmed much later than the rest of the scenes from this episode, possibly in the Blackdown Hills. Perhaps these particular horses were stabled nearby.

Mark of Cornwall rides a big dapple grey, whose name was Jim, and Dirk rides the small brown horse with a blond mane, "Blondie."

See this post for further details of the horses of "Arthur of the Britons."


“That is bloody dangerous!”1

In addition to the stunts mentioned above, there is a lot of very fast riding in this episode. It also features the one stunt Oliver Tobias didn’t do himself – possibly because he’d already suffered an injury. The stunt, known as a flick-back, occurs in the opening scene, where Arthur hits his head on a tree, comes off the horse backwards, and lands on the ground flat, on his back. This difficult stunt was deemed too dangerous, so they got in a professional stuntman. When someone has to fall from a horse, a pit is dug where they are supposed to fall, and re-filled, so that the ground is softer to land on.

There are a lot of weapons used in the episode. When the Celt leaders refuse to discuss an alliance without their weapons, Kai is all for killing them, but Arthur says “If you need swords to feel like men …” and insists that Kai return them.

The “sword under the boulder” is the weapon Arthur uses throughout the series. In this episode, he also fights Mark with a club.

Llud uses what we later learn is his metal hand to block Mark, but no mention is made of this ‘handicap.’

We see Kai holding his trademark axe, though he doesn’t fight with it; he and the other Celts kill the Saxons with spears.

Cerdig and the other Saxons usually fight with axes – but theirs are smaller than Kai’s. Some of them also have swords.


Dressed to kill?

Arthur wears something known as ‘ring armour’, but the design seems to have been a too-literal interpretation of medieval artwork; such armour would not have provided much protection.



Kai is wearing the same tunic as when he played Hansen in “The Last Valley” in 1971.

The Last Valley 40

You can tell the Saxons from everyone else, because they wear sheepskins. Ambrose dresses as a Roman.


On the table

Mark of Cornwall tears a strip off a roasting pig, while his followers bring him a dead stag for later.

A single spring onion graces the table, while Arthur wrangles the chiefs. No wonder they're not very co-operative, if that's all they've been offered to eat!

Spring onion

Cerdig shares what appears to be meat with a female companion. He also has some loaves, and a bowl of apples and strawberries.

The Celts’ feast after the battle doesn’t look very impressive – bread and meat. Mead is the drink of choice.


Extra! Extra!

Students from Bristol University feature strongly in this episode.


Honourable mention ...

For the goat who chews impassively throughout Arthur and Mark of Cornwall's posturing.

Goat


What’s going on here?

While lying in state, Arthur is wears a facial mask like the one found at Sutton Hoo: a Saxon artefact!

Arthur is seen on a funeral pyre, but no one sets light to it. Was the whole village in on the scheme?

What was that big heavy rock doing in the middle of Arthur’s village in the first place? Also, the hilt of the sword initially seems to be pointing away from Arthur, yet he manages to reach it quite easily.

Arthur tells the chiefs, “Cerdig was at Ilchester last night, not a day’s march from here.” It seems he is quite a bit less than a day’s march away, because the spy manages to make the journey there, and Cerdig then makes the return trip to Arthur’s territory, in the time it takes for the Celtic chiefs to compare the size of their weapons.

For someone who lives by the sword, Arthur doesn't treat his weapon with much respect, often holding it by the blade, and even putting it back in its sheath while it is still covered in blood.

vlcsnap-2015-02-01-13h16m47s14

Kai starts both races on the black horse with a thin white blaze, and finishes them on a black horse, with a white spot on its forehead.

For most of the first race, Arthur is wearing a tan tunic over his ring armour jacket, but there is a short period when he is seen only wearing the ring armour, which he wears throughout the second race.

Arthur and Kai agree to run their second race on the same route as the first - but we don't see them going up the muddy bank on the second run.


Music

As Arthur’s minstrel, folk artist Meic Stevens sings:

Then strode bold Arthur up to Cerdig …
... The Saxons fell upon us, like the rain upon the ground;
But the great Lord of the Forest bade the quagmire suck them down.
When Arthur fought the foe.


He is playing a mandolin, made to look like a crwth.

Victory (14)

The 34 tracks of incidental music, beautifully written and orchestrated for the series by Paul Lewis, were used judiciously throughout the series; the soundtrack was never obtrusive, but always a subtle enhancement to any scene where it was used. The whole suite of music is now available on CD.

Some of the music tracks used in this episode were:
Track 3, Celtic Horns: after Kai has said “tell the world – Arthur is dead."
Elmer Bernstein’s theme
Track 5, To Battle: when Ambrose is marching on Arthur’s village.
Track 6, Infiltration and Treachery: when Arthur’s man goes off to instigate Cerdig’s attack.
Track 12, Duel: used during battle scenes.
Track 14, Chase! and track 8, Skirmish and Rout: when Arthur and Kai race at the end.


Cast

Arthur ……………... Oliver Tobias
Kai .….….….….…... Michael Gothard
Llud ………………... Jack Watson
Cerdig ……………... Rupert Davies
Mark of Cornwall ….. Brian Blessed
Dirk the Crafty …….. Donald Burton
Herward the Holy….. Michael Graham Cox
Ambrose …………... Norman Bird
Cabot, Minstrel ……. Meic Stevens
Spy ………………... Tom Chadbon
Sentry ….….….….… Roger Forbes


Crew

Director ……………. Peter Sasdy
Writer ……………… Terence Feely
Executive Producer .... Patrick Dromgoole
Producer ………….… Peter Miller
Associate Producer … John Peverall
Production Manager ... Keith Evans
Post-production ……. Barry Peters
Incidental music ……. Paul Lewis
Theme music ………. Elmer Bernstein
Cinematography ….... Bob Edwards
Camera Operator …... Roger Pearce
Film Editing ………... Don Llewellyn
Sound recordist ……. Mike Davey
Dubbing Mixer …….. John Cross
Art Direction ….…… Doug James
Assistant Director ….. Simon Hinkley
Production Assistant .. Ann Rees
Costume Design …… Audrey MacLeod
Make-up ….….…….. Christine Penwarden
Fight Arranger ……... Peter Brayham

1 One of Director, Sid Hayers’ catch-phrases.

Early drawing

Thursday, 1 June 1972 02:00 pm
HTV publicity 1 small

This early piece of artwork was preserved by the series' composer, Paul Lewis. It appears to have been produced before filming began, though clearly the main characters had been cast. Also, it had already been decided that Arthur should ride a white horse, and the font used in the series had been designed.

Arthur is seen carrying a shield of a type he only uses in the first episode - a round shield with a boss, which he later identifies as being of Saxon design. Also, we never see a Saxon longboat as shown in the poster - in full sail - in the series.

The picture of Kai - with a stubbly beard, which he doesn't wear in "Arthur of the Britons" - must have been drawn from stills of Michael Gothard playing Hansen in "The Last Valley", with which the producers were familiar.

The Last Valley 16
Michael Gothard as Hansen
Patrick Dromgoole, the Executive Producer of "Arthur of the Britons", was kind enough to answer some questions about the show. Here is what he remembered.

Arthur: a fresh take on the legend

You ask where the idea to do a realistic series about Arthur came from – I think probably Geoffrey Ashe the historian was one of our main influences. I read his books before we set about putting it together and although I was working with an American co-producer who wanted shining armour and galloping horses along with the Malory version, I stuck to my guns and insisted we would have something more original if we set it where it belonged – in the 5th century with Arthur, as a Dux Bellorum but not as an actual king. That's actually why we called it "Arthur of the Britons" – when it went out in America they renamed it "King Arthur", despite the fact none of the stories bore the title out.

We tried to take a lot of the main incidents from the romantic history of Arthur and turn them into realistic occurrences that could have created a myth. You may remember that the myth of Arthur being the only person who could pull a sword from a stone was re-interpreted in our version as his inviting all the competing and disputing chiefs and kings to pull a sword from under a huge rock and then persuading them all to push the rock while he pulled it out himself – neatly emphasising his point that they must all band together to keep the Saxons at bay. Corin was an echo of the evil Mordred, underlined by the choice of his father’s name. The jealousy of Arthur and Kai over Eithna is a common dramatic triangle, as in the original Malory.

It was difficult to stick to a realistic theme of an available gang of pro-British professional soldiers available where needed, without losing the mystical aspects of Merlin.

Scripting

Putting the brief together for the writers would have been done by myself and Peter Miller the producer, after a great deal of discussion. Ideas grow in lengthy conversations with authors.

The scripts were not written before filming started. We had enough to start filming, but made a lot of changes according to the performances of the actors and what seemed to make a successful episode as we went along.

Characterisation would have been maintained by the editing of the series in Peter Miller’s office and in mine, and I think most of the episodes fitted in pretty well. Any leader at any time will be likely to rival President Bush in his use of the phrase "for the greater good" and this might well have been Arthur’s justification when putting Kai at risk. [In the episode, "In Common Cause."]

The Actors

Oliver was a good friend, and a splendid star to work with.1 I had seen Michael in "The Last Valley"; he was an artist of high standards. Jack Watson was the most cooperative man you could ever wish to work with. Brian Blessed I knew well.

Practicalities

Most of our costumes were made by our own wardrobe department, and although some were hired, probably from Berman’s most of them were made to our requirements; nearly all our photographs were taken by a staff photographer.

Most of the accommodation found for the actors would have been in Bristol. They would have stayed in hotels or indeed apartments leased for them for the duration. I don’t think anyone has ever spent the night in the location caravan. Not officially anyway.

Filming

We shot the episodes out of sequence, and the B unit would have been working on any filming or re-filming necessary from previous or future episodes as well as on the episode currently being filmed by the A unit.

Filming all the episodes of Rowena and Yorath would probably have been "bunched", as a result of the artists’ availability. Gila [von Weitershausen] was only available for a limited time, as far as I can remember; that may well have influenced our looking elsewhere. [for new love interest: Catherine Schell as Benedicta in "A Girl from Rome.”]

I think any of those directing could have handled any of the episodes – I don’t think we chose directors on any grounds other than availability once we had settled on our teams.

As far as I can remember there was a break between the two series, and certainly the long house that we built and used was adapted for a number of different episodes.

[In the episodes filmed later on] the village was the same, but in deference to their architectural taste we shot it from two different points of view in long shot according to whether it was Jute, Saxon etc. or Brit – the Germans favoured, as far as I can remember, a rather longer roof than the Brits did. I believe Brandreth’s camp [in "Go Warily"] was in the Blackdown Hills.

Incidents

Funny stories – well. I don't remember many. Oliver's spear injury terrified the life out of us, and might have been quite serious although he tended to play it down and got out of hospital and back to work as fast as he possibly could. One particularly touching scene I remember was where Gila von Weitershausen was emphasising her maidenhood in a love scene when we had to stop shooting because her baby started squalling in the background.

At the risk of sounding cruel, one of my happiest memories is of a particularly pompous German actor who was taking part2 (mainly because of the co-production arrangements) who usually spent an incredibly long time in make up and one occasion after keeping us waiting a long while, arrived looking quite splendid and fell flat on his face in the mud. We lost even more time as a result while his costume, make up and persona were repaired, but it was worth it.

Dubbing

When the series was sold to a new market the dubbing would be left to them – or indeed, the subtitling, if that was what they preferred. The German market was a slightly different situation as we were working in co-production with them, and some moments were actually filmed in German as well as English.

Tales not told

In the manner of our kind we probably hoped for another series – and of course we were in a good position to proceed from where we left off. But there was never a third, fourth, fifth series made simply because the competitive difficulty of scheduling one drove the series out of existence. Dozens of scenes must have ended up on the cutting room floor, but I gravely doubt if any record of them remains.

~~

1 In a magazine interview, Patrick was to say of Oliver: "He has about him an atmosphere of brooding power. He is dangerously quick in his movements, an expert horseman and sword fighter, with the added qualities of charm, humour and wit. If we'd searched the world we couldn't have found a better actor to play King Arthur."

2 This was presumably either have been Georg Marischka, who played Yorath the Jute in a number of epsiodes, or Ferdie Mayne, who played the Greek trader in "Some Saxon Women."

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