Before Pride and Prejudice, A Very Peculiar Practice, or even To Serve The All My Days, there was in autumn 1979 at 6pm on Sunday evenings serial a “sumptuous adaptation (according to the DVD sleeve) of the timeless saga” of King Arthur, written by 43-year-old Welsh lecturer moving into full-time television writing, Andrew Davies.
The Legend of King Arthur is only “sumptuous” if you consider the less prestigious productions of 1970s BBC1 as such; recorded in the usual combination of film for location and multi-camera videotape for studio, the serial looks well enough by comparison with similar programming, but by today’s standards is rather stagey and slow-moving. Indeed, Davies’ original (as in non-adapted) take on the legend looks and feels very much like one of the BBC’s contemporaneous Shakespeare adaptations. Rather than concentrating on the mythical king’s supremacy over the Saxons – a theme which does get raised towards the end – Davies constructs a political pot-boiler very much at one with the Bard’s, in which across eight half-hour instalments Arthur’s half-sister Morgan tightens a net around her born to be successful brother.
The first episode sets the scene, with the birth of Arthur to Morgan’s mother Igrayne, witnessed by a horrified eleven-year-old Patsy Kensit after Uther Pendragon has slain her father and usurped his marital position. Arthur then grows up under Merlin’s tutelage, eventually to remove one famous sword from its stone and recover an even more celebrated sword from a lake, and take his rightful position as Pendragon’s heir upon the throne of Britain – and briefly create “God’s kingdom on Earth” out of the Dark Ages.
The second episode jumps forward to Arthur’s courtship of Guinevere and the arrival of his revengeful half-sister, now played by ex-Doctor Who companion Maureen O’Brien. What follows is, but for a brief interlude for a cursory search for the Holy Grail, the story of Guinevere’s chaste relationship with Lancelot, and Morgan’s manipulation of Mordred and his brothers, and how the two plot strands come together to eventually seal Arthur’s fate. Merlin, almost as a necessity, goes to a watery grave (foreshadowing Arthur’s own funeral) a quarter of the way through.
The script, staging and acting are all very much as you might expect from the glory days of the BBC’s classical and historical output, with a fine cast giving generally nuanced performances in spite of an over-abundance of theatrical projection. O’Brien is perhaps miscast as a slightly too fey Morgan, but Andrew Burt makes a very natural Arthur, combining practicality and modesty with enough of a hint of regality to convince you of his eminence. The rest of the principal players, whether stolid and heroic like David Robb as Lancelot, plebeian and big-hearted like Godfrey James’ Bors, or politicised and conniving like Steve Hodson’s Mordred, more than match what Davies’ words ask of them.
The fight sequences, of which there seems to be an obligatory one per episode, might look rather quaint and innocuous to modern eyes, and Dudley Simpson’s score less lush than we are nowadays accustomed to, but the courtly shenanigans are as absorbing as they were in Davies’ later The House of Cards, and The Legend of King Arthur is somewhat of an underrated classic of its type, absolutely ripe for reappraisal.
Special Features: None
THE LEGEND OF KING ARTHUR: THE COMPLETE SERIES / CERT: 12 / DIRECTOR: RODNEY BENNETT / SCREENPLAY: ANDREW DAVIES / STARRING: ANDREW BURT, DAVID ROBB, FELICITY DEAN, MAUREEN O’BRIEN, GODFREY JAMES, STEVE HODSON, GEOFFREY BATEMAN, ROBERT EDDISON / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW