FIT FOR A KING

Guy Davis found out that it’s good to be the king when he spoke with An­thony Head, the ruth­less ruler on Ten’s new fan­tasy se­ries Mer­lin.

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Camelot, the Knights of the Round Ta­ble, noble King Arthur, the wise wizard Mer­lin – they’ve all pro­vided in­spi­ra­tion to mak­ers of epic fan­tasies, stir­ring mu­si­cals and even hi­lar­i­ous come­dies.

But the creators of the new Ten se­ries Mer­lin took a slightly diff er­ent ap­proach in putting their show to­gether. They’ve re-imag­ined the ti­tle char­ac­ter as a young man only just com­ing to grips with his mag­i­cal gifts as he fi nds his place in the world.

Find­ing him­self in the king­dom of Camelot, ruled by the ruth­less King Uther, Mer­lin’s des­tiny be­comes en­twined with that of Uther’s son Arthur, the heir to the throne.

The show has been de­scribed as Smal­lville in Camelot. And An­thony Head, who plays King Uther, ad­mits that “ it’s not the clas­sic Mer­lin tale”.

But the English ac­tor – whose cred­its in­clude Spooks, Lit­tle Bri­tain and, of course, his role as Giles on Buff y the Vam­pire Slayer – also be­lieves that Mer­lin’s “ fan­tasy, ro­man­ti­cism and uni­ver­sal themes” will en­sure the show is as pop­u­lar around the world as it has been in the UK.

An­thony, my knowl­edge of Arthurian leg­end is sketchy at best but I get the feel­ing that Mer­lin might take a few lib­er­ties with the mythol­ogy.

Yes, we are play­ing a lit­tle fast and loose. [ Laughs] It’s very much a ‘ What if?’ idea – what if Mer­lin had been a young man with th­ese ex­traor­di­nary gifts rather than an older wizard? What if he was some­one with all th­ese hopes and ex­pec­ta­tions and he ends up in the worst place he could pos­si­bly end up, this neo-fas­cist em­pire ter­rifi ed of magic? And as Uther, my part in it is to pro­vide a re­al­is­tic base for this way of think­ing – if Uther fi nds out about Mer­lin, he’ll have no com­punc­tion about tak­ing him out. What they’ve done for me is give me a king who has real power and is hold­ing onto it as best he can. But his grip is ten­u­ous. It’s a tem­pes­tu­ous time and there’s any num­ber of usurpers ready to take the throne should the op­por­tu­nity arise. So Uther is hold­ing on for dear life and any­thing that’s a threat is im­me­di­ately dealt with, be it famine or magic.

Uther isn’t al­ways cor­rect in his de­ci­sions, how­ever.

[ Laughs] Usu­ally I’m wrong! Some­one came up to me the other night and asked me to sign an au­to­graph ‘ Stupid Uther’. This per­son’s kids ap­par­ently call me that be­cause I’m al­ways wrong. That said, I re­call at least one episode where I’m ab­so­lutely dead right. Uther’s not a two-di­men­sional char­ac­ter – he does have depth and he’s enor­mous fun to play.

How do you shape your por­trayal? Do you view him as a dic­ta­tor? A de­cent man forced to take a hard line in tough times?

Well, he’s a hard fa­ther, for one thing. He has the job of train­ing his son to be king, and he’s do­ing it alone in diffi cult times. By his own ad­mis­sion, he has a ter­ri­ble tem­per, which I think is his main prob­lem. He doesn’t think be­fore he acts. But there’s no one to op­pose him; no one is re­ally stand­ing up to him. When I sat down with the di­rec­tor of the fi rst three episodes and we talked about the tone of the show and the di­rec­tion it would take, I made it clear that I didn’t want to be blus­ter­ing and shout­ing as Uther, so we stay away from it as much as we can.

With Buff y the Vam­pire Slayer, you worked on a very well-re­ceived fan­tasy show in the US. You’re now do­ing the same in the UK with Mer­lin. Are there diff er­ences in tone, in ap­proach, in style?

I was very aware when I fi rst read the script for Mer­lin that it could go any num­ber of ways. It could be low-bud­get and crappy, it could go young and not re­ally pur­sue the darker as­pects of the ma­te­rial. None of that hap­pened, thank­fully. In terms of pro­duc­tion val­ues, this is the equal of any­thing I’ve done in the States. We got a great cast, a great crew … al­though the show very nearly didn’t hap­pen be­cause they couldn’t fi nd the right cas­tle! Where we shoot it, though, is like an­other char­ac­ter – it’s an ex­traor­di­nary place that re­ally in­forms the vibe of the whole show.

Throne of magic: An­thony Head has the rul­ing hand as King Uther in

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