Merlin has spent the past four seasons on BBC One and Syfy putting a new spin on Arthurian legend with a Camelot where magic is banned and a young Merlin protects his friend and king entirely in secret.
Although the fifth and final season of Merlin doesn’t debut in the United States until Jan. 4, Spinoff Online had an opportunity to spend some time with Arthur himself, 28-year-old British actor Bradley James, who can’t wait for American viewers to see what’s ahead.
“Arthur’s been king now for four years when we get to the start of Series 5, so he’s relaxed, he’s settled in, everything’s been going well, Camelot’s where he wants it to be and life is good,” James said, before continuing with a grin. “But I’ve repeatedly said that makes terrible television! So we’ve picked up when the danger and drama of the situation comes into play again, and that comes into play in the form of Morgana, but there’s also the added element of Mordred this year.”
Picking up three years into Arthur and Guinevere’s reign, the season begins in Camelot’s Golden Age as the young king rules wisely and far more compassionately than his father, although as James explained, magic is still outlawed.
“I think with Arthur you have a lot more leniency towards it,” he said. “You have someone who is beginning to understand the people who use it. The problem is, for every person who uses magic for good it appears as though there are ten people who use it for the wrong reasons. Also the greatest enemy of Camelot being Morgana, being magic, you find yourself in a place where it’s difficult to accept it when it’s being used to kill people and it’s being used to terrorize a country.”
Add to that the obstacle of the death of both Arthur’s parents by magic and, “You’d be pretty miffed about that, I think!” James laughed.
As magic remains taboo, Merlin still must act in secret. However, James said he thinks if Merlin ever revealed himself, he might be surprised by Arthur’s reaction.
“There’s only two people, and that would be Merlin and Guinevere, who could say, ‘By the way, I am a sorcerer,’ or, ‘I have magic.’ I think those are the two people who stand the best chance of receiving some sort of understanding from Arthur,” he said.
A smile spread across the actor’s face as talk turned to his real-life relationship with Merlin actor Colin Morgan. “We share a lot of laughs and we have a lot of fun,” James said. “We are quite ridiculous in our humor sometimes, which I think only the pair of us can relate to, but ultimately we have gotten on quite well because we had to spend so much time together anyway with filming the show. It’s helped out no end with what audiences see onscreen because inevitably that’s going to carry itself onto the screen as well.
“I imagine myself and Colin, when we do manage to get some time away from each other, we try to separate ourselves from each other as much as possible,” he laughed. “I think we both need that breather to realize there are other people and other ways of telling jokes!”
The actor also touched on working with Anthony Head, best known in the United States as Giles on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, who played Arthur’s father King Uther in the first four seasons of Merlin and returns for a special episode on Season 5.
“Working with him has always been lovely. As actors we learned from his experience as an actor, and as a person what he’s been through in life, he and Richard [Wilson] have always been there if we ever needed advice,” James said, complimenting Head and Wilson, who plays Merlin’s mentor Gaius.
Comparing the king Uther was to the king Arthur becomes, James said Uther’s extremism spurred his son’s more moderate views, and laid the groundwork for Arthur to become a better ruler than either his father or Morgana (played by Katie McGrath).
“I think that there are characters within the show who have very extreme views,” he said. “Morgana has extreme views in one direction; Uther has extreme views in the other direction. Merlin kind of has extreme views in a sense of morality and that’s very easy to do if you’re not in a position of responsibility, it’s so easy to be moral about everything. What Arthur has always been able to do is weigh up both sides of the story. I don’t think Morgana has ever been able to do that. Merlin sometimes struggles to do that. Guinevere this series is learning -- she’s never been part of that before but she starts to learn because she now is in a position of responsibility.”
Season 5 also sees the return of Mordred (Alexander Vlahos), a confidante to the twisted Morgana and a threat to Arthur and Camelot, at least in Merlin’s eyes.
“In terms of Arthur’s relationship with all these people, because of where he is as a king now he is inevitably looking at those relationships in different ways,” James said, touching on the main power players: Merlin, Mordred and Morgana.
“The one that’s perhaps stayed a bit more consistent is the one with Merlin, he has a lot more respect for Merlin but they still have that sort of laugh-y, bantery, jokey kind of relationship,” James continued. “With regards to Morgana, Arthur will always have that part of him that loves Morgana because they’ve grown up together, but he is aware of the threat she poses to everything that Arthur’s created and everything Arthur stands for.”
As for Mordred, the mysterious young man who may one day kill Arthur, James said, “That’s something the audience will be taking onboard completely fresh because they had an experience [with the character] in the first series and there’s not much else. So for the audience I think that’s where the surprise is going to come in because they don’t know how the king is going to take Mordred.”
Living in the world of knights and chivalry for the past four years, the actor lit up as he spoke about the research he originally conducted for the role, reading as many Arthur myths as possible and diving into the history surrounding accounts of the fictional king of England.
“I was very aware of the Arthurian legends; I think most kids in England grow up with a knowledge of it in some way,” James admitted with a smile. “It sort of creeps into your psyche somehow.”
“I went on and did research following that because of my vested interest in the subject and the period of the show, and learned a hell of a lot more! I learned a hell of a lot more about the twisted kind of sick stories we wouldn’t be able to tell but we almost hint towards in some situations!” the actor laughed, describing the oldest Arthurian myths as, “Some of them are dark, some of them are gross!”
The show also gave him an unexpected appreciation of the history surrounding the myths. “A lot of the different tellings [of Arthurian legend] are representative of political situations at the time. I use the example of Lancelot not existing before the French got hold of the story and created this French knight who cuckolds the English king. Then when the stories go back it’s rewritten so Lancelot is someone who is a bit slow!” James laughed. “This is our point of history adding to it, I suppose.”
Looking back at the past four seasons, James confessed his favorite episodes were ones that challenged the spell-of-the-week formula or put Arthur in a tight spot.
“Last year, Season 4, I had a very clear favorite, and that was he one where Elyan’s possessed by a small, soaking-wet child,” James said, pointing to the episode "A Herald of the New Age.” “I really enjoyed that episode because it asked questions of the show where you couldn’t just end it with Merlin doing a magic spell and everything being alright. Those are the episodes I prefer.”
Along those lines, James was thrilled with the direction the show took during Season 4 and continued into Season 5, seeing it as an improvement on quality.
“Last year the show kicked up a gear, which I was very impressed because I thought it needed to,” he said. “I think a lot of buttons were pressed that meant the show couldn’t reset itself to a safe place and that made it far more interesting I think.”
He explained that his dissatisfaction with the early seasons stemmed from the fact that, “In the first series there were a lot of occasions where things would happen and the reset button was pressed. I’d find myself going through experiences with Arthur where he’d learn something and then the next episode he would make the same mistake, and I thought that was a bit insulting to the character, really, and I think audiences got a bit frustrated with it. So when series four came along it moved things on and I think the show needed that -- in all sorts of areas, not just in terms of the script.”
However, James wouldn't necessarily label Season 4, with the betrayals of Morgana and the almost-death of the sorceress, as “dark.”
“The word ‘darker’ and ‘darkness’ gets flung about because it’s a good media tag, it makes people go, ‘Oh, darker!’” he said. “But what that means to me is that it’s grown up: the characters have grown up, the audience has grown up, the show has grown up.”
James also praised Merlin’s fans, specifically American devotees he met while at Comic-Con International 2011, telling Spinoff he had nothing but admiration for those who wear their love on their sleeves.
“My experience was purely from Comic-Con last year and seeing a lot of very passionate people -- who I have respect for, because I think in England there’s a touch of cynicism from people when it comes to fandom, whereas here there’s no fear in taking that fandom seriously,” James said. “In England there would be people you wouldn’t expect who like the show and you find out there’s a whole range of people who like the show, but there’s a kind of reservedness; you don’t want to be too expressive about it.”
On the other hand, in America, “I’ve had people walk up in the street who I wouldn’t naturally place them as fans of Merlin and they go, ‘Oh, my God, I love the show!’” he added. “I think that’s been something that’s quite satisfying about doing the show that it affects so many different people.”
James said he think the key to the legend’s universal appeal lay in the principles Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table promote.
“He’s a man of such great honor that I think a lot of people have respect for that because it’s difficult to find people like that. Arthur as a figure is someone who is reference throughout history; numerous kings of England have tried to recreate that camaraderie between Arthur and his knights with their own setups,” he said. “It’s difficult to be honorable all the time and do things for the greater good. When you witness someone genuinely try to do that I think it can be quite inspiring. … It’s not just England or Britain or what have you, it relates to the human race.”
When asked what he’ll carry with him from the show’s interpretation of the legend, James chuckled and said the answer is simple: friendship.
“For me personally, the arrival of the knights has been fantastic because the camaraderie has come through that has been huge. I would say those are my favorite moments, when I’m hanging out with the knights and someone’s making a joke or [Gwaine actor] Eoin [Macken] is saying something stupid,” James concluded. “Those are the good times I’ll take with me; I’ll remember those moments of proverbially sitting around the campfire, having a joke.”
The fifth season of Merlin premieres Jan. 4 in the United States on Syfy.