I first learned about the British television show The Adventures of Sir Lancelot back in 1999 when I found the TV show tie-in Whitman Big Little book in an antique shop. I didn’t think I would ever have the opportunity to watch the program, so I was surprised to discover it on Amazon recently; of course, I had to order the complete 3-DVD series.
The program is well worth watching, in some ways being more, and in a few ways less, than I expected, but overall, for 1950s television, it stands up well. The Adventures of Sir Lancelot aired on the ITV network from 1956-1958 for thirty episodes and nearly half of the later episodes were actually in color—the first British television show to be in color, which speaks well for its popularity. It was also one of the few British television shows ever to be shown in the U.S. on a major network—first on NBC and then it moved to ABC. The series starred William Russell as Sir Lancelot and includes other apparently well-known British actors of the time, although I had never heard of any of them.
The sets/castles are well done considering they were made in television’s infancy. Apparently, the producers wanted to be historically accurate in recreating the Arthurian legend, so they recreated a fourteenth century Britain, an entire pre-Norman Conquest Village, and filmed at Allington Castle in rural Kent to provide grand visuals. At least, that’s what the back of the DVD states. Actually, the program is not all that historically accurate. It’s time period is unclear, but it seems to be set in the sixth century since in episode 10, Lancelot encounters the last Roman outpost in Britain whose members have held out for generations after the fall of Rome. The costumes and castles are of a much later medieval period as is usually to be expected. The television series Camelot is actually more accurate in its historical context, but the desire to be historically accurate for the series is important in itself since the 1950s is when interest in the historical Arthur really became significant during that decade, and Rosemary Sutcliff’s Sword at Sunset, the first historical novel about King Arthur, was not published until 1963.
The sword fights are poor and very fake looking, especially in the first few episodes, and the battle scenes, which are few, usually have only half-a-dozen people laying siege to a castle. There are no grand and epic battle scenes with a gigantic cast. But if one can overlook these minor flaws of the production and its time period and expect a series of fun TV sitcom 1950s style episodes, a person can find much to enjoy in the show. William Russell makes a pretty fine Lancelot—perhaps he’s not a heartthrob, but he’s clever and a bit of a comedian without falling into corniness. He is not the lover of Guinevere, although they definitely check each other out when he arrives at Camelot in the first season. I imagine the 1950s television codes weren’t ready for adultery on television yet. (I’ve only watched the first ten episodes so far and will post again when I finish watching the series to see whether this changes.)
The producers who wanted to be historical must have also wished to be realistic. Magic does not exist in this Camelot. Merlin is clearly a fraud, and although he may have everyone else at Camelot fooled, Lancelot right away realizes how Merlin uses tricks to make things happen, using simple technology such as mirrors and invisible ink to make his magic work, in a manner somewhat reminiscent of Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, without Merlin being the villain here.
One reviewer at Amazon asked whether the writers and producers did any research into the legend. The answer is a definite yes. Although none of the episodes follow Malory or other writers’ storylines directly, it is clear there is familiarity with many of the stories, such as that of Sir Gareth being a kitchen boy, since Lancelot’s squire Brian begins as a kitchen boy. The King Mark and Sir Tristram plot is also referenced in episode 6 “Sir Bliant” without the adultery plot woven into it. Other plot elements in different episodes also make it clear the familiar stories of Camelot were modified to fit the program.
Overall, I am pleasantly surprised by this television show, and while I don’t like it as much as Merlin, the writing is better than Camelot. It may not have high aspirations for recreating an accurate or fantastic Arthurian world, but The Adventures of Sir Lancelot succeeds at what it sets out to do, and it provides some light entertainment. I give it four out of five stars.
Tyler R. Tichelaar, Ph.D. is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, available at www.ChildrenofArthur.com