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.
This fascinating glimpse into the early planning stages of "Arthur of the Britons" was kindly supplied by Paul Lewis, who preserved the article.

HTV to spend £1/2 m on King Arthur series

HTV West is to spend more than £500,000 one a new adventure series, a 24-part saga devoted to the exploits of King Arthur.

The story of the West Country’s own legendary hero will be filmed on the locations actually associated with Arthur, among them Cadbury Camp, the reputed site of Camelot, and holy Glastonbury.

Filming will begin in June.

“This is a very exciting project by any standards and reflects our confidence in the production team, led by Patrick Dromgoole, we have created at Bristol,” said managing director Tony Gorard last week.

The series will be done by the same team who produced the 13-part series, Pretenders, and the play Thick as Thieves, which was the winner of the Royal Television Society’s “Pye Oscar” as the best regional production of the year.

HTV has found an American distributor, Heritage Enterprises, for the new series. Mr Arthur Steloff, of Heritage, said, “There is enormous interest in a programme based on King Arthur and I am confident we can achieve world-wide sales.”

Lord Harlech, Chairman of HTV said, “The series will be as historically authentic as we can make it. Arthur was a young and powerful fighter who fought savagely and successfully to defend the remnants of Roman Britain against the invading Saxons.”

“We are tearing up the cosy Victorian water-colour picture of Arthur and showing instead the hard tough cavalry leader he must really have been,” he added.

The series will show how Arthur moulded the splintered British tribes into the force that repelled barbarian invaders bent on conquest, and moulded still more – the shape of a kingdom to come.

The role of Arthur will be played by Oliver Tobias, star of the London production of Hair. Michael Gothard, well-known for his appearance in The Last Valley and in Ken Russell’s The Devils plays Kai, a loyal follower of the King.

Jack Watson who starred in Pretenders is cast as Ludd The Silver Handed, a powerful Celtic warrior who rides as Arthur’s right hand. Merlin will be played by Maurice Evans.

Peter Miller is the producer and his team includes Roy Baird, the executive producer for Women In Love, Henry VIII and If.

Writers engaged include Terence Feely, Robert Banks Stewart, Jack Seddon, David Purcell, Stuart Douglas and Bob Baker and Dave Martin the Bristol playwrights responsible for both Pretender and Thick As Thieves.


It is interesting that at this stage, they were still referring to Arthur as "King Arthur", though he is never referred to as such in the series. Also interesting is the fact that nowhere is it stated that the series is for children, though in the UK, it was shown late afternoon, when children would be watching after school.

Early plans to film at sites connected with the little we know, or think we know, of the historical Arthur - including Cadbury Camp and Glastonbury - must have been abandoned at an early stage.

Also abandoned was Merlin, whom the article says was to be played by Maurice Evans - Dr Zaius in "Planet of the Apes"(1968). As Patrick Dromgoole has said: "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."

£500,000 was a great deal of money to spend on such a series at the time, so it isn't surprising that selling it to foreign networks was a high priority. This plan came to fruition, with "Arthur of the Britons" being shown, in various forms, sometimes under a different name, and either dubbed or subtitled, in France ("Arthur, Roi des Celtes"), Germany ("Konig Arthur"), Spain ("Arturo de Bretaña"), many Eastern European countries, Australia, the USA ("King Arthur") and South America ("El Rey de los Guerreros").



TV Today 15 June 1972 small
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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