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.
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.”
He must have swapped horses with the stunt rider who was mounted on Blackstar, for the actual race. Perhaps Moonlight wasn’t fast enough.
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.
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.
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!
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.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.
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.
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 Brayham1
One of Director, Sid Hayers’ catch-phrases.