The BBC’s Merlin

I’ve been a fan of Arthurian legend for as long as I remember. It’s one of my favourite stories. I’ve read and seen countless versions over the last thirty or forty years.

But I don’t think I’ve ever come across a version as terrible as the BBC’s new series Merlin which started last night. It was so bad that I’m shuddering as I think about it now. I have two major problems with it.

The first is that it’s made in the same way as Robin the Hoodie – by which I mean that the BBC have managed to make another historical drama with absolutely no sense of history. The characters talk and act like they’ve just stepped out of the twenty-first century. Oh, there’s some small effort to create sets and costumes that look historical in some vaguely Medieval fashion, but something about it makes it all completely unconvincing.

Secondly, and to my mind far more disappointingly, they’ve changed the story so much that it is only recognisable because of the characters’ names. Now, of course I realise that the story is only a legend and that there is no “true version” to measure it against, but there are certain key points that a retelling needs to include and Merlin seems determined to remove them all. Here are a few of the obvious ones that I noticed.

  • Uther Pendragon is king of Camelot. In any versions of the story that mention Camelot, it is created by Arthur once he has become king.
  • Arthur is living with Uther. Arthur is, of course, Uther’s son. But Uther tricked Arthur’s mother, Igraine, into sleeping with him (with Merlin‘s help) and on the day Arthur was born, Merlin took him to live with Sir Ector and his son Kay. Arthur didn’t find out who his father was until he became king.
  • As suggested by the previous point, Merlin is far older than Arthur. He’s older than Uther. But this programme has Merlin and Arthur as boys together. In fact Merlin seems younger than Arthur.
  • Merlin’s teacher was called Blaise, not Gaius.
  • They have Guinevere as a servant. She’s the daughter of King Leodegrance, not a servant. Oh, and she seems to be flirting with Merlin. Which is just wrong.
  • There is no talking dragon in Arthurian legend. Geoffrey of Monmouth has a story about two dragon’s fighting in a lake which Merlin finds when he is a young boy. But they don’t talk and he doesn’t learn anything from them.

There are probably more differences (I fully expect Morgana to do something completely out of character at some point – we don’t know yet if she’s still Arthur’s half-sister) but those are the worst offenders that I noticed whilst watching it.

It’s so different from the usual version of the story that it seems completely pointless to link it with the Arthurian story at all. If they just changed the names then it could be the story of any young wizard coming to terms with his powers. It would still be badly-written, derivative rubbish, but at least it wouldn’t offend the sensibilities of people who know the story.

Actually, I think that’s what I object to the most. If this is at all successful, then there will be a generation of children for whom this will be the first version of the story that they encounter. And for them it will become the definitive version. Which is a real shame when they could be getting far better versions of the story from Malory, TH White or even John Boorman.

I recently read Philip Reeve’s Here Lies Arthur. That was a great retelling of the story. It introduced many interesting new ideas whilst staying true to the spirit of the legend. If the BBC wanted to make an Arthurian drama, then they should have adapted that. It would have been far better than the rubbish we’ve been given.

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