Knightfall’s first season overflowed with violence, passion and intrigue. This gritty take on fourteenth-century French history introduced us to the fraught politics of a developing medieval nation state as royal greed encroached upon the security of the Knights Templar: a powerful and mysterious order of warrior monks bent on retrieving the Holy Grail, yet ultimately destined to crumble before their monarch’s avarice.
In the season finale, Templar master Landry (Tom Cullen) was robbed of the woman he loved when Queen Joan (Olivia Ross) was slain by her furious husband, King Philip (Ed Stoppard). As the show’s second run begins, Landry’s gained both a baby daughter and, unsurprisingly enough, the king’s enmity. The little matter of Templar celibacy proves to be a bit of a sticking point, too, as he soon finds when his brothers-in-arms discover his transgression.
A repentant Landry’s going to have to work hard to prove his devotion to the order. The arrival of zealous Templar master Talus won’t make that process any easier, and neither will the constant threat of revenge by Prince Louis (Tom Forbes, another newcomer to the cast this season), whose scheming father’s falsely informed him that Landry killed Joan, his mother. The stage is set for a confrontation that will see yet more blood spilt on both sides.
The arrival of a grizzled, curmudgeonly Mark Hamill as Talus – yes, that Mark Hamill, sporting a straggly beard and numerous battle scars – is a real treat for Knightfall fans. For his fellow cast members, it was a childhood dream come true. Simon Merrells, who plays Templar veteran and Landry loyalist, Tancrede, is full of excitement when describing how it felt to work alongside the man who was Luke Skywalker. “It’s been great! He’s a sweetheart. Tom Cullen said, “Oh my God. You’ll never guess who’s Talus.” We said, “Who? Who?” “Luke Skywalker!” Which is a stroke of genius casting.” Merrells launches into a spot-on imitation of Hamill’s laidback, self-effacing tones as he recalls the Star Wars legend’s first day on set. The former Jedi knight’s clearly made quite an impression on his co-stars, in the best possible way.
The new cast members aren’t the only differences as Knightfall heads into its second season, as Tom Cullen points out. “It’s a lot darker, a lot grittier. It’s much more historically accurate, and the characters are brilliant, very fully formed. It’s the characters that are pushing the story forward. It’s a much more emotional and character-driven drama.” Landry might be at his lowest ebb as the season begins, but the man who plays him is positive about his future. “He’s a character with huge flaws. He’s not your classic hero, where he’s just a knight in shining armour who’s perfect. I think that’s pretty boring, actually, because as human beings, we are full of flaws, whether we recognise them or not. This season, we’ll see him recognise and realise his faults and learn from his faults, and we’ll learn what an exceptionally good man he really is.”
Philip IV, like his former friend Landry, is a changed man after the brutal events of season one’s finale. Ed Stoppard has the complicated task of portraying the embittered king, requiring him to conjure the human being behind a forbidding historical reputation as the Templars’ implacable foe. In real life, this seems to have been due to a combination of the ruler’s desire to increase his power over French institutions and his pressing need to rid himself of the sizeable debts he owed the order. It proved an easy target, its popularity dwindling as crusading fervour was replaced with widespread resentment of its vast riches.
For Knightfall’s Philip, though, it’s rather more personal. “I think in his mind, he’s come to a point where he refuses to allow the circumstances that came about in the first season to ever occur again: to be betrayed by people he thought he could trust, to be betrayed by people who he thought loved him, to be manipulated. He made mistakes, left himself open, made himself vulnerable, and all he got in return is pain. That’s one of the principal drivers for him.”
Pádraic Delaney, who plays the Templar Gawain, highlights this ethical contrast between the order’s members – flawed as they are – and their royal counterparts. “Knightfall, I think, has clearly defined the Templars as pretty much the good guys. They represent the lighter side of human nature: they’re virtuous and noble and thoughtful, whereas the royal side of the story represents darkness and arrogance and all those negative character traits. That’s why Gawain is so interesting, because in season two, he aligns himself more with the royal side, but he’s not fully there, so he straddles both worlds, and I think that’s a really interesting character to play.”
Tom Forbes is full of enthusiasm for his character, the vengeful Prince Louis, who returns from the south of his father’s kingdom to discover a court in tumult. “When he returns, it’s a bit of a sucker punch. He finds out his mum’s been killed – he doesn’t find out the truth of how she died, but learns something that sets him on a certain trajectory through the series. When you first meet Louis, he’s been dealt the worst news anyone could possibly be dealt. Everything that he does from then on is, I suppose, informed by what he’s been told.” Bad news for Landry and friends, it seems.
King Philip’s closest advisor at the royal court is William de Nogaret, another real historical figure of immense influence during that reign, and played here by Julian Ovenden. Ovenden’s frank about the challenges faced by a show set in this era and broadcast in the wake of a certain medieval-inflected fantasy series. “One of the issues with doing something like this is that we were compared with Game Of Thrones, which is ridiculous because that’s God knows how many millions of dollars… it’s a completely different show, but because there were swords and people with beards, people thought, “Oh, it’s just another Game Of Thrones!” I think we suffered (in season one) with that kind of comparison, but in terms of the battle scenes, I think they’re pretty special.” He smiles conspiratorially. “But I don’t do any of that. I do the talking!”
Knightfall has real history at its heart, and its cast have all immersed themselves in the bloody events of the era. Simon Merrells’ reading on the subject has been impressively wide. “The stuff I like to concentrate on is the anecdotal accounts of the Templars when they were in power in the Holy Land for two hundred years. Of course, during that time they weren’t in constant war with the people there.” He notes the Templars’ comparatively enlightened behaviour towards the Muslim inhabitants of the region, as recounted from first-hand experience by medieval writers such as Usāma ibn Munqidh, who compared them favourably with other Christians he encountered. “And that is why playing one of these knights is interesting to me, because you’re more than just a cowboy in medieval dress. You’re more than just a knight going on crusade to build up your wealth and reputation. It was different for them. They were unique.”
With set-piece battles, interpersonal intrigue in abundance, and powerful messages on the nature of conflict, power and redemption, Knightfall’s second season looks set to introduce many more viewers to this endlessly fascinating period in European history.
Knightfall season two starts in the UK tonight, Tuesday the 2nd of July at 9pm on History.