Arthur of the Britons ([personal profile] arthur_of_the_britons) wrote2010-09-28 02:00 pm

Recollections from Oliver Tobias: "A memory which I had closed away ..."

On 28 and 29 August 2010, at a meeting arranged by Wendy Van Der Veen at the Imperial Hotel in Stroud, Oliver Tobias graciously gave his time to meet a group of fans of “Arthur of the Britons”, and share some of his experiences. His brother, Benedict Freitag, also attended.

After Wendy had introduced him, Oliver referred to “Arthur of the Britons” as ‘a memory which I had closed away …’ He said that someone – either an early director, or his agent – used to tell him ‘never look back’: advice which he took to heart. As a result, he has little in the way of momentoes, had never watched the whole series, and didn’t even see the ‘rushes’ when they were filming.

He recently started watching the series with his 7 year-old son Luke – who looks at him a bit differently now! They haven’t watched all of it yet, but Oliver’s overall impression is that the series stands up as a piece of drama; the episodes are sound pieces of work that have stood the test of time.

‘We gave good honest performances and that’s why they are still appreciated by loyal fans who remember the series from childhood. But I don’t suppose they would appeal to people seeing them for the first time now.’

One fan, who saw the series for the first time only a few months before, was able to set him right on that score, telling him ‘it engaged me instantly.’

When asked what he considered to be his best work, over his whole career – the work of which he was most proud – he said, ‘“Arthur of the Britons” – it was all downhill from then on!’ He was only half-joking. He takes pride in a job well done, but it’s not about him: ‘I do things to entertain people.’

Benedict remembered waking up on the morning after “Arthur of the Britons” was first shown in Germany, looking out of his window to see lots of little boys playing Arthur-and-Kai games on the football pitch across the way, with wooden swords and shields, and thinking proudly: ‘My brother did that!’


The producers of “Arthur of the Britons” knew that Oliver could ride, as they had seen him in “Romance of a Horse Thief”, filmed in Communist Yugoslavia, where Oliver learned a lot of tricks – such as picking things up from the ground at a gallop – from the Cossacks.

Oliver Tobias and Michael Gothard had a joint audition; they had to ride four different horses to the top of the hill, and back down again, together, as fast as possible. That was it.

‘They cast us for who we were at the time,” Oliver says. “We were allowed complete freedom as … how we were. Each has a chemistry.’ They improvised a lot of the action, and weren’t given any direction on how to deliver their lines.

The extras were mostly students from Bristol University, and were often spliffing-up!


The series was filmed in Super 16. Oliver confirmed that the episodes weren’t shown in the order in which they were filmed. When asked whether any scenes were filmed that weren’t included in the episodes, Oliver said, ‘You never know what ends up on the cutting room floor.’

There was a stills photographer on set for continuity, but after the scene where Arthur and Kai fight in muddy water, Arthur is wearing different breeches. He said this was because ‘we washed our clothes, and I refused to get on a horse with a wet gusset!’ They were very cold after fighting in the stream.

There were quite a few different directors used in the series. Oliver said that he and his co-stars didn’t like the constant changes, and put their collective foot down; as a result, Sid Hayers directed most of the later episodes. Oliver reckons he was the best they had.

Sid had been a wartime bomber pilot, who had come back from a raid, shot to pieces, just survived, and landed – or crashed – his plane on the roof of a farmhouse. He certainly didn’t shy away from the darker aspects of the series. Whenever they got to a particularly violent or unpleasant storyline, he’d say delightedly ‘Ooh, that’s nasty… very nasty’ … ‘Christ, that’s nasty!’ ‘That is bloody dangerous!’ He would finish shooting the scene, and sign it off with: ‘Night night, Kiddies!’

The writers always had an awareness of what each other was doing. Terence Feely and Robert Banks Stewart collaborated, and new directors were made aware of what the series was about. They would have seen the material that had already been filmed.

When asked about a third series, Oliver said: ‘The series was supposed to continue – it was due to continue – but it didn’t. It was a disaster not to continue. It’s then about rights and greed …’


The cast worked hard; Oliver says: ‘We more or less lived on set’, and described the time as, ‘pretty intense’, and ‘like a war zone.’ The stories were so harsh, they needed an outlet, so they played tricks on each other.

It was a co-production, on which they had to have a quota of German actors. The producers felt that Arthur needed to loosen up bit, so they brought in Gila von Weitershausen (who played Rowena) for Arthur, ‘in a Platonic way’ Oliver says.

Gila von was very nervous when she first joined the cast on set, so they particularly delighted in playing jokes on her. She was not a very confident rider, and Oliver remembered making her horse bolt!

Asked what his favourite scene was, Oliver said without hesitation that it was the scene at the end of ‘The Marriage Feast’, where Arthur and Rowena are riding together.

Oliver and Michael got on very well, and had a bit of a friendly contest about their height. When on screen together, each would try to stand on higher ground – or even kick up a mound of earth to stand on – so as to look taller than the other.


Oliver sports a “Worldwide British Equity Registered Stuntman” sticker on the windscreen of his Ducati, and is justly proud of having done all but one of his own stunts for the series. This is not without risks. While filming ‘The Challenge’, there was a serious accident. Oliver says ‘Christ I’m lucky to be here – I nearly died during filming.’

For the sequence where Arthur had to parry spears with his shield, they had a champion javelin thrower from Bristol University standing beside the camera, hurling spears at him. Oliver thought he was young and athletic enough to jump out of the way in time, but on one occasion he didn’t make it. A spear glanced off the inside of his shield instead of the outside, and hit him on the back of the head. ‘When it hit me, it was like a ship running aground.’

He remembers Michael holding his head in his lap while they were waiting for the ambulance, and waking up in Bristol Infirmary, thinking he’d died and gone to heaven, and that the very pretty nurse bending over him with a gold cross dangling from her neck was an angel. He was out of action for a fortnight with concussion: ‘You feel terrible and can’t focus on anything.’

This explains why there are some episodes filmed earlier on, such as “The Gift of Life”, “The Penitent Invader”, and “People of the Plough”, where Arthur has very little to do; he was still recovering from the head injury.

The one stunt he didn’t do himself – possibly because he’d already suffered an injury – is one known as a flick-back. This was featured in the opening scene of “Arthur is Dead”, 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.

With regard to scenes where he fights with weapons, Oliver said he learned to fence first, and had to practise a lot, with all the different weapons. One of his fights (in a different TV series) is still used in a training film for stunt fighters.

Despite his injury, he doesn’t like the use of CGI. Filming fight scenes used to be really dangerous: ‘close to the edge’, and despite his accident, he prefers realism to ‘bubblegum for the eyes.’


Oliver revealed that he rides two very similar-looking white horses in the series. One was called Bernie. He said ‘you’re not alone out there’ when you are on a horse.

In one scene from “The Challenge”, the particular horse he was riding had two spears dangling from either side of the saddle, but hadn’t been trained for it. When the horse moved, the spears made a loud clanking noise; it bolted, and was running for ages in a blind panic. Oliver tried steering it towards a tree, but that didn’t slow it down, and he was thinking of throwing himself off, but he eventually managed to get it under control again.


Taken to task about the time when Arthur left Kai in Cerdig’s hands during “In Common Cause”, Oliver said that Arthur had to do what was best for his people. The stories included slavery, rape and violence, and while there never any conscious awareness on the set that this was a children’s programme, there was nevertheless a strong moral thread running through it. He also said that the question of what to do when your allies are behaving badly – as in the case of Yorath in “Some Saxon Women” – is one we still don’t deal with very well.


After the question-and-answer session, Oliver acted as quizmaster for an “Arthur of the Britons” quiz devised by a fan from Australia, who couldn’t make it to the event.

There were 40 questions, many of them demanding a quote as a response, which gave fans the chance to hear Oliver speak lines from the series, live!

Oliver signed a few autographs, had photos taken with fans, and was given some gifts, including a pair of Celtic design cufflinks, and a carving of a knight on a horse. He seemed very touched, and recognised the standing stone on the card everyone had signed.

Then Oliver read a chapter from his draft autobiography. He read a very amusing chapter about “The Stud”; publication of the book is keenly awaited.

Oliver reads

Visit to Woodchester

On Sunday 29 August, Oliver Tobias and the group visited Woodchester Park, where Arthur’s first village was built on the shore of one of the lakes.

Woodchester 29/08/10


Woodchester 29/08/10

Woodchester 29/08/10

The whole area where the encampment would have been – apart from the path – is now covered in mature trees, but the resemblance to scenery in the show can still be seen.

Woodchester 29/08/10

Woodchester 29/08/10

Woodchester 29/08/10

Woodchester 29/08/10

Oliver pointed out where they used to gallop their horses into the village, where the huts were, where his, Michael Gothard’s, and Jack Watson’s caravans were sited.

Woodchester 29/08/10

Woodchester 29/08/10

Among the vegetation near the water, Oliver found some remnants of Arthur’s encampment: some posts that must have supported part of one of the jetties.

Oliver confirmed that The Mendips was another location where filming took place.

Then we went to the huge Wellingtonia (Giant Sequoia), which would be dedicated to Michael Gothard, in lieu of a new tree that was to be planted at a later date, at the right time of year.

Tree dedicated to Michael Gothard

Wendy introduced one of Michael Gothard’s fans, who said:

“I hardly need to say what a talented actor Michael was, and from what people had said, he was a kind and sensitive man, on whom the weight of the world sat too heavily. I guess in the end, that weight just became too much for him. I didn’t hear about what happened until years after he had left us, but when I did, it left a hole in my heart, and I know others here feel the same way. So we have come here to remember him, and mark his passing with a drink. Michael, we love and miss you, and wish you could have stayed.”

Oliver then said a few words: ‘He was a sensitive man – perhaps too sensitive’ and remembered Michael holding his head on his lap when the spear had hit him, and he nearly died. He also mentioned the late Jack Watson, and said he felt privileged to still be around.

Then he took the commemorative plaque, and drove the stake into the ground.

AotB event 2010: Oliver Tobias with plaque

All took a drink of mead from a drinking horn.

Plaque by Lynn

Benedict then squatted beside the tree and did a Cheyenne ceremony for the dead, with tobacco, and some dirt from around the tree. He and Oliver have some family connections on an Indian reservation.

At the end of the event, Oliver signed the hotel guest book: “Oliver Tobias – ‘Arthur of the Britons.’”