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Posts Tagged ‘The Adventures of Sir Lancelot’

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?”

Arthur_of_the_Britons_coverI 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:

Merlin
* 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.

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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

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The Adventures of Sir Lancelot

The Title Card for the colored episodes of "The Adventures of Sir Lancelot"

Back in January, I posted on the 1950s British TV series The Adventures of Sir Lancelot. I’ve now finished watching the series and I enjoyed it a great deal. It has a bit of humor and some wonderful sets and costumes. Furthermore, I think William Russell made a very good Sir Lancelot, and he actually is quite handsome and debonair, or at least, he grows on you and grew into the role as the series continued. In the first episode, the swordplay was laughable, but it improved throughout. Also, King Arthur was originally played by Bruce Seton in the first episode, but he looked old and doddering and was quickly replaced by Ronald Leigh-Hunt, who is a tall and fairly commanding yet likable Arthur. I was disappointed there was no love affair between Lancelot and Guinevere, but it was a 1950s TV show, so innocence was important for television, I guess. I also was disappointed that there was nothing that suggested a connection from one episode to another, no overarching storyline or character motivations or desires to keep the story progressing. You could have watched any episode after the first one in any order and it would make no difference.

About halfway through the series, it became colorized, and the color really was splendid because it made the costumes stand out. Some of the costumes look a bit too effeminate for Lancelot to wear, but there’s no accounting for medieval—or 1950s TV versions of medieval—fashion.

Overall, I would give the series a B, or 4 out of 5 stars. I would rank it below the Merlin TV series, but it is far above the Starz’ Camelot series. (See previous posts to my blog for discussions of both series.)

It would be tedious to discuss all thirty episodes, but here are comments on a few of the episodes that are most notable, particularly those that borrow from Arthurian tradition:

Knight’s Choice: This episode is interesting because Morgan le Fay, Arthur’s traitor sister, is included. She was apparently previously banished from Camelot for trying to murder her brother Arthur. Now she hopes to return if she can get her son to be chosen as knight for an opening among the Round Table’s fellowship. Interestingly, Morgan’s son is named Rupert, not Mordred. Arthur agrees to let him compete with the other potential knights. Another contender is Sir Balin, whose father was squire to King Pel. (King Pel is most likely King Pellinore, and Sir Balin is found in Malory, although this episode has no other links to Malory, and I have no idea why Morgan’s son is named Rupert, unless it was to distance the show from Mordred and the incestuous twist—after all if Guinevere and Lancelot’s love is forbidden on 1950 television, incest surely won’t be approved. That said, it isn’t stated who Rupert’s father is). This episode also has a sort of Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court twist when Merlin finds a way to delay the battle enough for an eclipse to take place, which will thwart Morgan’s plan to have her son win in battle over Balin by flashing light in his eye with a mirror. In the end, Rupert doesn’t get to join the Round Table—I guess that means he can’t stir up trouble—perhaps although eventually the series ended, this Camelot, then, did not fall.

The Thieves: Another episode drawing on Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee is X in which Arthur and Lancelot disguise themselves as ex-convicts to learn what chances these men have of earning a living.

The Shepherd’s War: This episode stands out because Sir Lancelot has been held a prisoner and grown a beard—the only time Russell sports a beard in the series. Although, throughout the series, Sir Kay, who comes off as a buffoon, sports a ridiculously fake mustache.

Sir Crustabread: This episode plays off the tale of Sir Gareth who plays a kitchen boy and goes off to rescue a maiden; the same concept was used in the first episode when Sir Lancelot found Brian, his squire, who was a kitchen boy. In this episode, Lancelot is mistaken by Lynette of Accolon, as a baker. He ends up being belittled by her as he rides with her to rescue her sister. When all is said and done, Lancelot saves the day and reveals his true identity, then kisses Lynette on the cheek—she says she’ll never wash it again.

Finally, the colored episodes trimmed down the theme song, which could be compared to songs like the theme to “Davy, Davy Crocket, King of the Wild Frontier.” The theme song actually grew on me after watching all these episodes and I found myself singing it around the house:

Now listen to my story, oh listen while I sing.

Of days of old in England when Arthur was the king.

Of Merlin the Magician, and Guinevere the Queen.

And Lancelot, the bravest knight the world has ever seen.

In days of old, when knights were bold,

This story’s told of Lancelot.

In days of old, when knights were bold,

This story’s told of Lancelot.

If you want the second verse, you’ll have to watch the series for yourself.

A complete episode guide to the series can be found at: http://ctva.biz/UK/ITC/SirLancelot.htm

I will post on last blog about this series in the weeks to come.

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Tyler R. Tichelaar, Ph.D. is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, available at www.ChildrenofArthur.com

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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 Adventures of Sir Lancelot

The Adventures of Sir Lancelot - 3 DVD set

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.

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Tyler R. Tichelaar, Ph.D. is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, available at www.ChildrenofArthur.com

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