Tuesday, October 4, 2011
"Merlin, BBC One: behind the scenes" by The Telegraph 4 October, 2011
Legendary Sir Agravaine – Knight of the Round Table; second son of King Lot of Orkney, Lothian and Morgause; friend of Mordred and nephew of Prince Arthur – is sitting in his caravan, reading a book on horses. “It’s about the Grand National,” he says. “I’m going onMastermind later in the year. I love horse racing. I’m a horse-racing nut.”
Agravaine – aka television’s Detective Inspector Lynley; aka Royal Shakespeare Company actor Nathaniel Parker – is here to film his debut in one of the BBC’s most successful ever series. Described by co-creatorJulian Murphy as “Merlin and Arthur before they were famous,” the teatime saga Merlin is currently filming its fourth series, which will be broadcast next month in an incredible 180 countries. Today, cast and crew find themselves on location at the beautiful, towering Château de Pierrefonds in Picardy, France.
“The producers phoned me up and said, ‘Would you like to do it?’” Parker remembers. “My first thought was ‘yes’.” With his ankle-length black cloak, manly dark stubble/sideburns combo and six-feet-plus of chesty height, it’s hard to imagine the actor doing anything that doesn’t sizzle with testosterone-sauced presence. This sometimes proves a problem when he feels inclined to show off to his daughters, aged 14 and 12.
“I’ve just done this programme Injustice, and they watched episode one, which I’m not in,” he says. “And then I thought – I can’t let them watch any more because I’m taking off a girl’s clothes with my teeth.”
All of which added to the delight when Daddy was offered a major role inMerlin. “I had picked them up from school,” he says. “And I was driving along and I said, ‘So what would be your favourite job I could get? Each of them named Merlin. They were so thrilled, because all their mates watch it.”
Merlin’s popularity among female adolescents isn’t wholly surprising, given it focuses on courtly young knights battling it out through a series of soap-opera-light storylines, assisted by old hands like Richard Wilson,Anthony Head and John Hurt. A kind of Doctor Who meets Dungeons & Dragons meets Neighbours, Merlin was commissioned in 2006, with then-controller of BBC One Peter Fincham describing it as “three generation TV – that’s TV you can watch with your grandparents and children”. Originally meant to fill the Tardis-shaped hole left when Whowasn’t on the air, Merlin has surpassed all expectations. It’s now one of the corporation’s biggest exports, and the only BBC series ever shown on United States network television.
Out of Sir Agravaine’s caravan, up a muddy track, past the portaloos and the tents in which costume designers keep various grades of chain mail in fastidiously labelled plastic storage crates, is the set. Today, a jousting tournament is being filmed. There is a high podium, upon which director Justin Molotnikov is in hot conflab with director of photography Dale McCready. On the ground beneath them, two of the show’s stars –Bradley James (Arthur) and Santiago Cabrera (Lancelot) – are resplendent in sun-glinting armour, teasing another actor – Rupert Young, who plays Sir Leon, and who is currently laying face down in the sand, presumably having just been thrown from his horse.
“Do you want me to kick a bit more sand in your face in the next take?” grins Bradley/Arthur. The prone knight spits some grit from his teeth, shakes his head and replies, witheringly, “You know, you’re very off-putting.”
Ignoring the boysy banter, beautiful Angel Coulby – a Guinevere who is all smile and freckle and luxuriant curl – is deeply absorbed in a thriller, her train-ticket bookmark clutched in her right hand as she scans the text. It’s Henry Porter’s The Dying Light. “It hasn’t caught my interest much,” she says, “but I’m ploughing through it anyway.”
Being the romantic interest in a show whose last series pulled in nearly eight million viewers in Britain alone means that she’s now frequently recognised. “I was at my cousin’s wedding in Surrey at the weekend and this woman came up to me and said, ‘Angel, we’ve just been to Château de Pierrefonds.’ I said, ‘Oh, how strange. Why were you there?’ and she said, ‘To watch the filming’. I was like, [scared face] ‘And now you’rehere?’.”
Indeed, people travel far to watch Merlin being filmed. From Coulby’s high seat, there’s a clear view over the wall of the castle grounds, where a line of people can be seen sitting on a grassy bank peering out at the (non)-action via the LCD screens of their little snappy cameras.
Among the crowd of perhaps 30 are obsessive fans from all over Western Europe. There’s Silke, a student from Germany, and Aurore, who is a clerk for the French government, both of whom will be sitting under their tree for an entire week. They take photos of the set to post on the internet, being careful never to give away plot twists. Under the next tree along sits Nadine from Stuttgart. “I have been a Merlin fan for two years,” she says. “I am here with my husband. He is not so much into it like me.” She motions to an unhappy German leaning against an oak. “I started loving it and he had to watch it. This is our holiday. Second time this year.” Nadine’s husband looks impenetrably at us. He stares at his feet and sighs. “The last time,” she says happily, “we came back with 2,500 photos.”
One person beneath them on the set whom even the most ardent fan could be forgiven for not recognising is Julian Murphy. He might have the soft and neat demeanour of an accountant, but he is, in fact, God. Co-creator and storyteller-in-chief Murphy heads up the drama department at Shine, the production company responsible for Merlin. It’s him, along with his co-heads Julian Jones and Johnny Capps, who came up with the idea, pitched it to the BBC and wrestled up sufficient funding (Murphy says the Beeb’s cheque doesn’t cover the budget of the show which “costs a lot to make – more than something like Spooks”). While jobbing writers are hired to concoct the dialogue, it’s Julian and Johnny who ultimately decide what happens to Arthur, Merlin, Gwen et al. Which sounds like fun.
“Er, it is and it isn’t,” says Murphy carefully. “The biggest challenge is tonal. It’s the balance between humour and action and fun and a bit of darkness and scariness. Something that’s funny on the page, once you put people in costume, surrounded by tents, you cross a Monty Pythonline very, very quickly.” He pales slightly at the thought of it. “There are certain types of tents I won’t allow. The period tents are these little pointy things. They’re banned. They look like Monty Python.”
Later, in his caravan, Bradley James lies on the sofa with an armour-sore back, script in hand. Not only does this den-on-wheels give the actor somewhere to relocate himself inside the story, it also generally guarantees him some much-prized privacy. Outside a moment ago, two middle-aged French women with lit cigarettes, oversized sunglasses and high-heeled leather boots (one had a shiny black pair, the other hot pink) wandered onto the set and asked a crew member for Bradley’s phone number. “You’ll have to go through the producer,” the wary staffer told them. In response, the pink-booted one threw her chin in the air, screwed her fag into the ground with a spiky heel and said, in a scorned voice, “D’accord!”
“We can’t close the castle off, because it’s a thing of French heritage,” says the target of those terribly Gallic cougars. “You can’t go anywhere on your own because they swarm.”
In the caravan next door, the wizard himself has just arrived. Merlin’s presence has not been required on set today, and Colin Morgan is here in jeans and a T-shirt that boasts an allegiance to none-more-cool US indie band the Postal Service. “It’s funny, I suppose,” he says of these unusually insistent fans. “You know, it costs nothing to smile. But sometimes, when you’re in a one-on-one situation, you sort of get cornered.”
What do they want? “Just to tell you you’re doing a good job,” he insists. “It’s never anything nasty or offensive.”
The instant we leave his caravan, a crew member hands Morgan an A4 envelope that’s covered in pictures of him. “Somebody out there asked me to give this to you,” says the assistant. Morgan glances nervously at the envelope and then in the direction of your correspondent. “Oh,” he replies. There’s a silence. “Are you going to take it?” I ask him. He takes the envelope reluctantly and holds it by his side. He smiles at me, warily. There is an awkward moment. “Are you going to open it?” I ask him. “I don’t think there’s anything in it,” he says.
I think there is. He slides his thumb under the glued-down flap and peers, ever so briefly into the gap. “Oh, there’s a letter!” He’s either genuinely surprised or he’s a very good actor. “I think I’ll read that later."
‘Merlin’ returns to BBC One on Saturday 1 October at 7.50pm