In the last few years Britain has renewed its television love affair with the fantasy genre. The success of Doctor Who has led to newer shows in Torchwood, Primeval and now, Merlin.
Producer and Co-Creator Johnny Capps actually began work in the genre with Hex in 2004. Despite being an American-dominated form of television, he tells TV Tonight Britain has embraced fantasy once more.
“There’s been quite a few actually. I think that kind of appointment television in England on a Saturday night has become quite a big thing. If you look at the finale of The X Factor it got 40 million. So there is a real appetite for appointment viewing television. That’s what our aim was for Merlin.
“When we did Hex it was quite a niche, cult show. We were very keen to do an action adventure show that the whole family could enjoy. We were great lovers of Spiderman movies, Raiders of the Lost Ark. We wanted to find a pot of stories where we could tell action adventure stories and Merlin to us was the one franchise that hadn’t been reinvented for a while.”
The series combines a youthful cast of young performers with respected, theatrical veterans and CGI enhancement.
“We meet Merlin before he become the famous magician of legend. We were really influenced by shows like Smallville where they turn the clock back and recreate the beginning of a legend. But our starting point was Merlin as a teenager in a world where magic was banished.
“And we gradually then built up all the other characters around him. We thought if you have young Merlin you should have young Arthur, Morgana and Guinevere. It’s how a young teenager deals with extraordinary powers and at the same time having to cope with being a normal person as well,” he said.
“I’d be lying if I didn’t say Smallville wasn’t an inspiration. The great thing about the Arthurian legend is that whilst we all know about King Arthur and the Round Table and Merlin is an old Wizard, it was actually really fun to play around with the legend. The future Queen of England, Guinevere, in our show starts out as a serving girl. So she has this extraordinary through-line about how she becomes Queen of England and when Arthur begin to fancy her and when does she begin to fancy Arthur?
“It’s really refreshing to be able to take these great legends and twist them and subvert them expectation of what the audience think,” said Capps. “When you first meet Prince Arthur he’s a bit like Prince Harry. He has heroic tendencies but he’s still got a long way to go. There’s moments where he does great things but there’s moments where he’s an absolute idiot.”
After working on scripts for two and a half years, including with BBC Executive Julie Gardner who had been pivotal to the success of Doctor Who, they got a series order- with a very short delivery time.
“It was an extraordinary time where you were making these huge creative decisions very quickly. We were on a creative high and at the same time unbelievable stressed out,” he said.
“We were firing on all cylinders. What’s a dragon going to look like? What’s the emblem of Camelot? All of these massive decisions you have to make and then you’re stuck with them. Fortunately we didn’t make too many mistakes.”
Capps admits he was spoiled rotten with the cast for Merlin.
“Richard Wilson (One Foot in the Grave) was my dream piece of casting for Gaius. We sent in the script and he said yes. Anthony Head (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Little Britain) was high up on our list for Uther. It’s extraordinary the way he understands how to act in high-concept shows. It’s a very different talent to naturalistic drama. With Buffy and all of those shows he knows he to take those lines and give them a little bit of a twinkle without being too earnest.”
John Hurt also agreed to play the voice of The Dragon. But he struck gold with his youthful cast, particularly Colin Morgan in the title role.
Capps says the role required many diverse skills: “A sense of comedy, warmth, a huge playing range to do intense, emotional stuff, and he’s got to be able to act green-screen magic as well. And likability is huge.”
Despite being an English legend, Merlin actually shoots its key location scenes at Pierrefonds castle in France.
“When you see it in the first episode, with a crane shot when Merlin looks at the castle, that is the castle. The only bit of CGI in that are the flags flapping in the wind. It is the most extraordinary place,” he said.
“The problem with English castles is their either in big, urban places where you’d have to CGI all the town around of them all they’re up in Scotland in ruins. Whereas with Pierrefonds you can turn the camera 360 degrees and everything works.”
Merlin premieres 6:30pm Sunday on TEN.