10 things we learnt visiting the Atlantis set

Juliette visited the set of Atlantis, BBC One's new adventure show from the creators of Misfits and Merlin, and here's what she learnt...

One swelteringly hot day last summer, Den of Geek headed out to explore a big warehouse in Wales, which is temporary home to an ancient mythological city. Join us as we reveal the top ten gold nuggets of information we mined out of the set for the BBC’s new Saturday-teatime Merlin-replacement show, Atlantis

At the heart of the show is a three-way bromance

As you may have gathered from the promotional poster, Atlantis features three male leads; Jason (Jack Donelly), Pythagoras (Robert Emms) and Hercules (Game of Thrones’ Mark Addy). There will, of course, be women, including beautiful princess Ariadne (Aiysha Hart), a pre-snake-hair Medusa (Jemima Rooper) and the mysterious Oracle (Juliet Stevenson). But the heart and soul of the show is the ‘bromance’ between our three guys, with hero Jason at the centre, described by producer Johnny Capps as “the Greek A-Team, the go-to guys when people have problems.” “Characters are key,” producer Julian Murphy explains, “having characters you love and feel real – that’s your way in.” 

Atlantis will benefit from the producers’ five years on Merlin

Capps and Murphy are both veterans of the BBC’s Merlin (while creator Howard Overman wrote for Merlin as well as creating E4’s Misfits). Here, the aim is to do “what worked on Merlin,” says Capps. Both have benefitted from five years of work on the fantasy drama. “We couldn’t have done this if we hadn’t done Merlin,” Murphy tells us. After a lot of “painful lessons and mistakes,” in the past, for this new show, they’ve been able to put those lessons to good use in creating a fantastical world from scratch. They’ve also, Capps notes, “got better at spending the money.” 

That being said, both are also keen to reassure us that Atlantis won’t just be Merlin in sandals. “It’s a very different show from Merlin,” says Capps. “Atlantis starts tonally from where Merlin left off – it’s the tone of season five of Merlin rather than the tone of season one.” 

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Atlantis is a family show

Occupying the golden family viewing slot of Saturday teatime in autumn and winter vacated by Merlin, Atlantis is a family show. It’s not too “knowing or camp, but with humour,” aimed at a general audience of both adults and children. “It’s like a PG movie,” says Capps, “you’ve got action, adventure, everybody goes on a strong emotional journey but you have a good laugh as well.” This means that it has to maintain a delicate balance between telling stories that are dramatic and incorporate a sense of threat, and avoiding completely traumatising younger members of the audience. 

“I think it’s important that it is scary for children,” says Murphy, ‘because I think kids genuinely enjoy being scared. There’s an incredibly fine line between hiding behind the sofa being traumatised, and I think we have to aim to get them behind the sofa and no further.” Both are keenly aware of the importance of getting this right; a substantial section of one episode, they tell us, had to re-written because they felt it had crossed the line. 

Each week will be a new adventure

Although there are two or three serialised arcs running through the thirteen-episode first season, each episode of Atlantis will also tell its own story, each based on a different part of Greek mythology. This will allow the show to offer quite different adventures from week to week, with “a dark story about going to Hades” one week and “essentially Three Men and a Baby” in ancient Greece the next. Capps and Murphy do also “have a sense of” where they’re going beyond season one, and their characters’ stories will develop with a “slow-burn” in the long-term.

The team know their stuff…

The creative team behind Atlantis have done their homework. They’re familiar with re-tellings of ancient myths from Greek tragedy, to Shakespeare, to Tennyson. Knowing that, in the end, the city must be destroyed by some kind of natural disaster, the inhabitants of their Atlantis “fear the earth-shaker Poseidon” – Poseidon was the Greek god of both earthquakes and the sea, so any natural disaster involving an earthquake, a tidal wave or some combination of the two would likely be attributed to his wrath. “Their religious cult is driven by a fear of earthquakes,” Murphy explains.

They’ve also drawn on archaeological evidence in creating their fantasy version of Atlantis. Although the ancient Atlantis existed only in myth, some have suggested that the story was inspired by the Greek island of Thera, which was destroyed by a volcanic eruption during the Minoan period (in the Bronze Age). The team have run with that idea, so the scale of the show is designed to echo the scale of Minoan Crete and the overall design is “Minoan with tweaks,” throwing together elements of ancient Persia, ancient North Africa and Thera itself. Bronze Age Greece isn’t their only inspiration though – in designing the sanctuary of the Oracle, Production Designer Paul Cripps looked at later depictions of the Oracle of Apollo at Delphi. We will even see some bull-leaping in the show, a dangerous bit of gymnastics depicted in wall paintings from Thera and still practiced in parts of Spain today. “It was very important to us to make the world of Atlantis feel real and visceral,” Capps observes.

But we probably shouldn’t expect historical accuracy

The creative team are aware that this story takes place one thousand years before the entirely real philosopher, mathematician and bean-hater Pythagoras was born. That’s not the point. As Capps says, they “play very fast and loose with Greek mythology.”

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However much the team may have drawn on the real ancient Greece for inspiration, the world we’ll see on screen will not resemble any real historical period or place – nor will the stories be the same as the versions preserved in Greek tragedy or epic poetry. The world of Atlantis is a “completely fantastical world” where “you’ll go to a world you’ve never seen before” and its hero Jason is not the Jason who captained the Argonautica, but a composite character incorporating aspects of lots of different Greek heroes. “For two thousand years, writers have been playing fast and loose with the myths,” Murphy points out, “so I don’t think we feel uncomfortable with that.”

The Hercules we see here may not be the Hercules you’re expecting

One of the most interesting liberties taken with the source material is the show’s portrayal of Hercules, who, we’re told, “is not the Hercules of legend.” Played by everyone’s favourite alcoholic king, Mark Addy, this Hercules apparently has more in common with Shakespeare’s Falstaff than a Disney hero, and most of his famous exploits are either yet to be accomplished, or they are stories Hercules has made up entirely.

It won’t all be completely unexpected though. Pythagoras is “slightly obsessed with triangles.”

Although this is a fantasy show, you won’t see any gods

“Rule no one in our mythology,” Capps tells us, is “people fear the gods and people use the gods, but you never see them.”

The show features monsters and magic alongside its humour and character drama, but no gods, not even a hint of a divine presence. “We don’t have scenes of people in long robes looking down and sitting in clouds,” Capps tells us firmly.

You might come out with a thirst for knowledge

While it might not be wise to use the show to revise for a Classical Civilization A-Level, Capps and Murphy do hope that the series might inspire viewers of all ages to return to the ancient myths and legends and educate themselves. “If you see a legend on TV you’re more likely to go look it up,” says Murphy. “I hope that kids and adults who watch this are drawn back into a world and to explore a world that they maybe wouldn’t otherwise have done.” Capps adds, “I hope that we’ll bring a generation of people who don’t necessarily know about Greek myths to the show.”

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It will be big. And epic. And big.

Strolling around some of Atlantis’ sets, including a craggy desert gorge, a dusty street (we can confirm that there are still bits of Atlantis clinging to our shoes) and the bottom parts of some impressive-looking pillars (these are “massive temples,” we’re told), we couldn’t help noticing that this is a show where bigger equals better. Assuming the magic of CGI is going to expand upon said pillars, the world of Atlantis should be a pretty impressive sight. The warehouse in which they’re filming is “an enormous space” where the crew have been able to take advantage of high ceilings and plenty of room to manoeuvre. Other sets and locations, we’re told, include “a massive castle” with “40-foot walls,” “a big street complex,” “a big colonnaded square” and some interiors built for “Egyptian films” that the production has been able to use.

Although we travelled all the way to far-flung Wales to bring you this set report, the Atlantis crew travelled even further – desert exteriors were filmed in Morocco, while some scenes will use a backdrop of the Atlas Mountains. “All of the Moroccan locations give us the scale that’s so important to us on this show” says Capps, ensuring that there’s an “epic movie feel to it.” ‘Big’ and epic’ are words we hear a lot on our visit and both producers even use the phrase ‘size matters.’ “Big is everything,” says Murphy. This may be a show with a small budget, but it has big ambitions.

Atlantis starts on BBC One on Saturday the 28th of September. Read our spoiler-free thoughts on episode one, The Earth-Bull, here, and come back for much more on Atlantis, including cast interviews, later this week.

Juliette Harrisson is a Classicist, a writer and a Trekkie. Her thoughts on what the Greeks and Romans have done for us can be found here.

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