“A little bit more sophisticated, a little bit darker”, that’s the promise for season five of Merlin from the show’s producer and co-creator Johnny Capps.
Not that Merlin’s makers are forgoing their younger audience, “It’s important to us that it’s still an action-adventure show for the family, but the inevitable change comes as the characters get older and their statuses change and the stakes and stories get darker. As we move more into the mythology of Arthur and the Round Table, those stories are quite dark…”
He’s not wrong. Some of the original stories are too adult in fact, to be tackled in the Saturday teatime series. “We’ve not done the Morgana/Arthur/Mordred incest story. That’s where the line is drawn” jokes Capps. Fellow Merlin creator Julian Murphy adds “The interesting story is Gawain And The Green Knight. We’ve talked about doing that and we’ve never done it, because in the end, deep, deep down it’s about sexuality and things you just can’t tackle head-on. We’ve never done that story simply because it’s about sexuality.”
Sexuality, a PG-version of it at any rate, isn’t exactly lacking in the opening episode of Merlin’s fifth series. Its 44 minutes are witness to at least one heaving bosom (Gwen’s) and a gratuitous but entirely welcome number of close-ups on a naked male torso (Sir Gwaine’s – something for the mums, there). Merlin even does a bit of flirting himself before duty calls him away from Camelot, but with whom? That would be telling.
Arthur’s Bane (Part One) is the first half of the double episode that brings Merlin back to our screens on Saturday the 6th of October. We’re not in the business of giving away spoilers here, but the episode is comfortably one of the show’s best-looking instalments, and its reintroduction of an old foe sets in motion what looks to become a season-long arc.
Capps and Murphy say they’ve taken a new direction with this series of Merlin, making the guest appearances sparser to concentrate more fully on the stories of their four leads – Arthur, Merlin, Gwen, and Morgana. Unlike “…the old days when we used to have a massive guest lead – virtually one an episode in the first two series”, says Capps, season five has been designed to allow room for the ensemble’s stories. And not just Merlin’s, “…the other thing we decided to do this year was not just to tell the story from Merlin’s point of view, but to tell multi-stranded stories, which is a bit of a departure.”
What can we expect in terms of character arcs for the fifth series? Gwen, who can be seen sitting at Arthur’s Round Table and giving strategy advice in the first episode, has come a long way from her series one maid’s duties. Actress Angel Coulby explains, “In this series you see her proving herself as worthy queen, which I always thought she would be as she had all those characteristics. When she’s left to her own devices she copes pretty well”.
According to Murphy, Morgana (Katie McGrath) “…is a much more damaged character, and that’s taken her to a more extreme place than she’s been before.” Arthur on the other hand, is “…still learning the job. Though we did consciously want Arthur to have more gravitas and more authority.”
How about the show’s namesake? “Merlin too, is much older,” says Murphy, “He’s not the innocent naïve Merlin that he once was, because he can’t be. He still has a kind heart, but there’s experience now. Living in a world in which he’s had to keep his identity quiet has had an effect on him.”
Speaking of which, what of the question fans have been asking since the show began: will Arthur finally learn Merlin’s magical secret? A non-committal answer comes from the producers, obviously wanting to keep the show’s biggest reveal under wraps. They will tell us though that Merlin and Arthur’s friendship is still very much the heart of the programme, “There’s still the fun that the two characters have in their comic dynamic, but they’ve moved on in the way they relate to each other and they almost, in some situations as the series develops, become equals.”
On the subject of fun, there’s to be no big comedy episode in the vein of last series’ A Servant Of Two Masters this time around Capps divulges, though he assures fans “There’s always enough comic fun in an episode, always that counter-balance […] to make sure you have a good laugh and you jump out of your seat.”
If the new Merlin is darker then, can we expect more violence? “It is a delicate balance,” says Murphy “because the better you get at shooting action, the more violent it becomes. There were five or six very, very good shots [in Arthur’s Bane] in fact, that were cut out because we just couldn’t use them.”
The first episode’s battle scene is impressive despite what was cut, an excitingly choreographed action sequence that doesn’t push the envelope unnecessarily for Merlin’s young audience. Were the much-rumoured Merlin film to come about, could that be an opportunity to take things from PG to a 15 certificate? Murphy thinks not, “If there was a big-screen version of Merlin, I think it should be played on a level of Pirates Of The Caribbean and that’s no different to the level we’d like to play this on, though we don’t have their budget!”
Capps continues, “There’s a certain sort of innocence at the heart of the show and you wouldn’t want to destroy that innocence by going too dark, too violent or too sexual […] But there are occasions when we wish we could be a little bit more violent. There are other fantasy shows where they can do exposition scenes where they just have sex and violence”. “We envy Spartacus” admits a laughing Murphy, in reference to Starz’ ultra-violent blood and sand epic.
Spartacus isn’t the only fantasy show that has Merlin’s producers sitting up and paying attention, HBO’s Game Of Thrones has clearly had an impact on the look of the new episodes. Snowy vistas, remote medieval castles, and blue-grey Northern throne rooms… The look of Arthur’s Bane is strongly reminiscent of Game Of Thrones, something Murphy understandably, takes as a compliment: “The influence it has on us is in its design quality, which is incredible. The quality it achieves on screen absolutely encourages us to up our game, and did actually. Tonally, it’s a very different show with different storytelling so it’s difficult to relate to that but in terms of quality, yes, absolutely.”
Westeros isn’t the only reason that Merlin’s locations are looking better these days, and much of the thanks for that can be laid at the feet of technology. “The amount of green screen we use now, we would never have dreamed of doing it in season one, but now every visiting set in each episode, at least ten or fifteen percent of it is green screen if not more” says Capps.
Both producers admit to being “horrified” these days at their execution of the first and second series, reminiscing over the “hundreds of mistakes” they see in those early episodes. “We can do those things so much better now,” says Murphy. Capps agrees, “What’s interesting now is how technology’s changed. The way we shoot John Hurt doing the dragon now, compared to how we did it four years ago is completely different. We’ve learnt a lot about how to shoot CGI and action, you do look back and think ‘God, we could do that a lot better now’.” Their confidence has grown so much that series five marks the first time in Merlin‘s history that the show’s CGI has been brought in-house.
How much longer that history will continue is something the producers (and BBC Drama Commissioner Ben Stephenson, also present at the preview screening) were unable to comment on. The current series is still being filmed in Cardiff, which is what everybody’s concentrating on at present, came the stock response. There were noises last month – allegedly from within the Merlin camp – that this is to be the show’s final season, but nothing official has been confirmed either way.
When the end does come, do the show’s creators know how they’d wrap things up once and for all? Yes, is the answer. They’ve known how it would all end since the very beginning confirms Capps, “It’s always been about the end to us anyway.” Murphy agrees, “We were talking about Arthur’s death in episode eight of season one, The Beginning Of The End. There’s something about his legend that works because it failed. They did create Camelot, this beautiful kingdom and it failed so it always carries that as a myth and a story in our culture, and you can’t really run away from it, but how we get there and how long it takes is the question.”
Merlin series 5 starts on BBC One this Saturday the 6th of September at 7.45pm.
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