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.
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