The end of the fabulous BBC series Merlin caused a lot of ruckus among fans when Arthur died. I was very surprised by this reaction and the outcry that Arthur would die, though it mostly came from people who knew nothing about the Arthurian legend. Among those who do know the legend, there were many comments all over the Internet about how the series was not that good anyway, and several people compared it unfavorably to the British ITV series Arthur of the Britons, which aired in Britain from 1972-1973 for two seasons. When I read these comparisons, I thought “Arthur of the Britons? Why have I never heard of this television show?”
I quickly looked it up and found that I could watch the entire series of twenty-four episodes for free on YouTube, so I immediately set to it, and almost as immediately, I was glad it was on YouTube where I could watch it for free because I sure wouldn’t have wanted to pay for it. I can only think that all these people singing this show’s praises and claiming it was superior to Merlin were remembering watching it as children and the impact it had on them. Unfortunately, it does not hold up well today.
Do I dare compare Arthur of the Britons to Merlin? One complaint about Merlin was how it had little to do with the legend, but Arthur of the Britons cannot claim to be any more about the legend. Here are just a few of the differences between the shows:
|* Set in a fictional kingdom of Albion|
|* Includes most Arthurian characters, including Arthur, Merlin, Uther, Guinevere, Lancelot, Gawain, Morgana, and Mordred. Of course, many of them are greatly reinterpreted.|
|* Arthur’s father is Uther|
|* Magic is a key part of the series.|
|* The show has an arc focused on the role of magic at Camelot and the Old Religion vs. Camelot’s secular order.|
|* A series finale after five successful seasons.|
Arthur of the Britons
|* Set in post-Roman Britain|
|* Includes only Arthur, Kai, and Mark of Cornwall|
|* Arthur was raised by Lud, who also raised Kai—we can assume Arthur’s father is Uther Pendragon, but there is no mention of Uther. That said, in the legend, Arthur does have a foster-father, though his name is Sir Ector and he is Kai’s father.|
|* The show is historical and realistic.|
|* There is no arc, other than attempts to fight or make peace with the Saxons. There is little in the way of plot from one episode that leads to the next, making each episode more like a short story while Merlin is more like a novel, and therefore, more of a complete and unified work.|
|* No series finale since the show was cancelled after two seasons.|
The two series are very different and not really that comparable as a result. I give Arthur of the Britons credit for its historical efforts, but even these efforts are rather weak. Merlin, of course, has the advantages of advanced technology and special effects, although those are not a requirement of a good program. Character development and plot are of far greater value, and those two elements are what are most lacking in Arthur of the Britons.
The series has no real plot. We know that the Romans have left Britain, Arthur is the leader of the Celts, and he is fighting against the invading Saxons. What little plot exists concerns him trying to band the other Celts together to fight the Saxons and also to make peace with the Jutes to aid in the fight with the Saxons, and later, to make peace with the Saxons. There are some smaller storylines, such as that of Rowena, the daughter of the King of the Jutes, whom Arthur feels some attraction for, but she only appears in a few episodes in the second season. Even the individual episodes are weak on plot. Part of that flaw is the result of each episode being only about twenty-five minutes long, while Merlin episodes are closer to forty-five minutes so there is more room for plot and character development. The lack of plot in many of the Arthur of the Britons episodes is very apparent, especially in the first season where little happens in an episode. In one episode, “The Challenge,” all that happens is Kai and Arthur physically fight with each other while everyone else looks on. The episode goes on and on and is downright boring. In fact, many of the episodes are boring, although during the second season, the scripts improved and the plots became more like plots, though they remained simple.
The lack of character development in the series is another major problem. In the series’ first episode, Arthur calls together the other Celt leaders to try to form an alliance and get them to follow him. We are not told why Arthur is the leader—he is never called “king” which is probably in keeping with the series’ efforts to be historical. He is rather a chieftain. It is never clear why, however, he is the leader. Arthur has been raised by Lud, himself a warrior. His foster-brother, Kai, is not Lud’s son but simply also raised by him. Kai is actually a Saxon. No explanation is given for how or why Lud decided to raise Kai (or Arthur for that matter), although in a couple of episodes Kai’s loyalty is called into question or he is seen as a traitor by the Saxon people. Lud’s own past is not told or explained at all. Nothing is said of Arthur’s parentage. (If I missed any of these points, I plead boredom as the reason.)
None of the characters really develop as the series continues. The only character who is in any way dynamic is Mark of Cornwall, played by Brian Blessed, who at least tries to change from being the boisterous, wild, tough leader he is. The episodes he appears in are some of the best since he livens up an otherwise often quiet and dull storyline.
I do appreciate the show’s efforts for historical accuracy or at least historical atmosphere. The series was likely based in the research of the last couple of decades prior to its airing, including archeology digs at Cadbury and an effort to distance Arthur from the High Middle Ages and set him back in post-Roman Britain of the fifth and sixth centuries. Unfortunately, I think the effort to be historical ended up being demeaning to the Celts so that it seemed like they had nothing at all. Not once is a castle depicted in any episode, yet the Romans must have left behind villas, stone walls, etc. not to mention what the Britons would have built before the Romans came. We know the Britons had hill forts, but where are they? Only small villages are depicted and these only have wooden walls around them no higher than six feet tall, when they have walls at all. How could any leader protect anything in these flimsy settlements? A group of warring Celts would at least build a fort to protect themselves and their property. And the population of Britain is grossly underestimated—probably the result of the program’s low budget and small cast numbers, but even when there are battles and skirmishes, it never looks like more than twenty people are fighting one another, and not a single village shown could possibly have more than one hundred people living in it. There are no depictions of London or any other major city of the time.
One complaint I had about Merlin was that the concept of the Old Religion was never fully developed or clear, but Arthur of the Britons makes even less of an effort to consider religion or be historical about it. There are a few characters who become Christians, but it is not clear if Arthur and his people are Christian or pagan. At times, Arthur refers to “the gods” but there is a Christian cross on his shield, and when he considers marriage in the last episode he wants the “abbot” sent for. Perhaps, the television show was trying to walk a fine line when it came to religion—or was it just bad writing? I think it had to be bad writing because at least the character Rolf is shown as converting to Christianity so religion was not taboo for the series.
Some of the comments I saw online about why people liked the show had to do with how handsome Michael Gothard (Kai) was. Another compared Arthur and Kai to rock stars of the time with their haircuts. By 1970s standards, maybe these men were attractive, but rock star haircuts are hardly historical, and I was especially surprised by Rowena’s short, cropped haircut. I can’t honestly say that anyone in the program stood out as attractive looking enough to warrant a cult-following for the show.
We all have favorite television shows that when we watch them years later no longer hold their charm for us. I can only think that Arthur of the Britons is one of those and any preference for it is based in nostalgia. Despite Merlin’s faults, it survived for five seasons, long enough to have a series finale and have countless fans disappointed that it was ending. I could find no reason for why Arthur of the Britons was cancelled, but regardless, cancelled it was, so I doubt it was much of a hit when it first aired. In fact, the quality of the first season is so poor I’m surprised it had a second season, but even the improved storylines of the second season could not save it.
Those looking for a historical version of the Arthurian legend will be the most likely to enjoy this series, and it does have its moments, but despite the faults of the more recent film King Arthur, it is probably a better historical depiction of the period that also has some entertainment value. Still, we can only hope that the great historical King Arthur film or series is yet to come because we’ve had nothing but B films so far. (Even though Camelot is my favorite movie, it is not a perfect Arthurian film since it is lacking in many of the plot elements and stories, but that’s another blog.)
ITV produced several other programs in the 1950s-1970s, including The Adventures of Sir Lancelot, which I have written about on this blog previously. It is a bit more comical of a series, but far superior in its plots and its efforts. The Adventures of Sir Lancelot is a series I would watch again. I’m afraid Arthur of the Britons is not.
There is actually very little information to be found online about Arthur of the Britons. The best site appears to be at Wikipedia for those who want to learn more about the series, and all the episodes are currently available at YouTube.
Merlin remains, in my opinion, the best Arthurian television series ever made. That said, I have not seen the Prince Valiant cartoon series, which I have heard good things about and plan to watch in the near future, so stay tuned.
Tyler Tichelaar, Ph.D. is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition and the upcoming novel Arthur’s Legacy, The Children of Arthur: Book One. You can visit Tyler at www.ChildrenofArthur.com