Saturday 24 March 2018

Programme of the week: Camelot

Friday, RTE2, 9.30pm

Paul Whitington

Although the historical accuracy of Arthurian legend has long been disputed, the stories of early English knights have inspired writers and artists for centuries.

We don't really know if King Arthur existed at all, but that didn't stop 12th-century Welsh cleric and amateur historian Geoffrey of Monmouth from spinning a fine yarn about Arthur, his court, his magic sword and his tortured personal life.

Geoffrey's 'Historia Regum Brittanniae' is the main source of the modern Arthurian stories, and, since his time, everyone from Alfred Lord Tennyson to TH White and 'Monty Python' have muscled in on the Arthurian act.

This handsome new US drama takes its cue from Thomas Malory's 15th-century epic 'Le Morte d'Arthur' and begins its story when Uther, King of England, dies and leaves behind no clear successor.

With the kingdom threatening to dissolve into chaos, the powerful and influential sorcerer Merlin strikes out into the countryside and arrives at the family home of a carefree young squire called Arthur. And although the boy has no idea who Merlin is, Arthur's parents do and have long been dreading his return.

Merlin left the child with them many years before, with a grim prediction that he would return when the king was dead and England was on the brink of chaos, beset by vicious warlords jockeying for dominance.

That time has arrived, and young Arthur is told he's Uther's rightful heir, hidden for years with an obscure family and the only person who can now reunite his troubled land.

Unsure if he can trust Merlin, Arthur is pitched headlong into a world far more hostile than he could have imagined. But Merlin's intentions remain unclear: part-sorcerer, part-warrior, he seems intent on building Arthur into a great leader, if he doesn't kill him in the process.

Arthur's introduction to kingship is a rude awakening. Contrary to the opulence of monarchies in later times, the land of King Arthur is a brutal and impoverished one. The line between warlord and king is blurred, and the young king faces a string of battle-hardened challengers.

His castle, Camelot, is a near ruin, but Merlin insists that the once-great stronghold can once again become the nexus of a great kingdom. But while Arthur ultimately realises that Camelot is a sleeping giant, he doubts that he has the power to awaken it.

Chief among those keen to destroy Arthur is his own half-sister, Morgan. Cunning and calculating, Morgan is intent on taking the crown she believes is rightfully hers. At first with force, and later with insidious machination, she works constantly to undermine the new king's authority.

And yet for all Morgan's cruel intentions, Arthur's most dangerous relationship is the clandestine one he develops with the breathtaking Lady Guinevere, the wife of his most loyal champion, Lancelot. This love triangle will sow the seeds of Camelot's downfall, but meanwhile there are great battles to be fought.

'Camelot' is handsomely made and not without a knowing sense of humour.

Joseph Fiennes leads a fine cast as Merlin, and Jamie Campbell Bower plays the young Arthur. Eva Green is Morgan, Tamsin Egerton is Guinevere, and James Purefoy, Sean Pertwee, Peter Mooney and Jesse Spencer co-star.

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