Before there was Camelot, or Merlin ... before girly pagan Michael Praed in his tight leggings in Robin of Sherwood ... there was Arthur of the Britons. It was gritty, it was slightly pervy, it was violent and political - it was the Game of Thrones of its day.
Well, except filmed in a wet field in Somerset on a shoestring budget.
You probably have to be really old, like me, to remember it (it was first aired in 1972), and even most Brits don't recall it. But oh boy, what fond memories I had! One of my first TV crushes was on ... one of the leading men :-) So when the two series came out on DVD, me and my similarly ancient friend Lucilla sat down for many happy hours of nostalgic viewing.
Arthur of the Britons was like no other interpretation of the famous legend: doing away with the knights in shining armour and the Round Table, and the Holy Grail and all that malarky, it made a grab for historical plausibility instead. Arthur (played by Oliver Tobias) is a Celtic warlord in the aftermath of the Roman Empire's retreat from Britain. The many Celtic tribes are at each other's throats, Christianity and Mithraism jostle for influence, and bands of Saxons are staking claim to the land. Arthur is a great warrior but also a shrewd (in fact, not to put too fine a point on it, sly and manipulative) politician whose overriding aim is to unite the Celts to withstand the Saxon invasion. He is also enormously fucking hot.
He has a hot blond best buddy called Kai (played by Michael Gothard), who was a Saxon foundling and so suffers from quite a lot of racial prejudice. Kai is a total horndog, and he pursues anything in a skirt. Sometimes he and Arthur are after the same woman, which gives me ... ideas I was not capable of entertaining in the 1970s.
There are numerous cameo roles and repeat characters, including Brian Blessed as Mark of Cornwall, who of course rolls his eyes and shouts a lot in the way that Brian Blessed does.
Now, this was filmed in the Seventies, so you have to cut it some slack. You need to be able to tolerate some VERY BAD HAIR indeed, for a start.
And TV scripting has changed over the decades. It's fascinating to see how much. There's very little witty banter or plot exposition. You, the viewer, are expected to read between the lines and work things out for yourself. Plots move at a stately pace. Whole MINUTES can go by without anyone saying anything - in fact one episode consists of one extended fight scene between Arthur and Kai (despite their intense bromance, they are very competitive), which is - surprisingly - really gripping.
And it shows its age in some odd ways. The blokes have a habit of guffawing at each other. And Arthur, despite, his intelligence and relative sophistication, seems very confused about women. If he ever meets a woman he fancies, his immediate reaction is to pick a fight with her, as if he were a six-year-old running up to girls in the playground and pulling their pigtails before shouting "Ewww! Girls! They stink!". It makes me glad that we did escape the Seventies, since men then were clearly off their trollies.
But the DVD is fine fine entertainment in many other ways
- The fight choreography is really pretty good. This was in the days before martial arts got included in screen combat so it's largely men walloping each other with hard objects and they look like they mean it. It looks rough, and incredibly hard work, and I bet the bruises were real.
- The guys keep getting their shirts off :-) They get whipped. They get tied up. In one memorable episode Kai is yoked to a plough and made to till a field by a Saxon woman. There's just this whole undercurrent of sex ... or maybe that's me.
- The plots are simple, but forceful. And interesting. Like ... do you fall out with one of your hard-won political allies if you find out he's trading slaves and you really don't approve?
- Arthur's main love-interest over the two series is Rowena, princess of the Jutes (played by German actress Gila von Weitershausen), who is a spunky, charming, indefatigable proto-feminist in spite of everything the guys do, and will one day be queen of her people.
- The evolving Celtic/Saxon relationship is handled well. Neither side is good, neither bad.
- On a limited budget, they did really well with the scenery: the muddy villages, the feasting halls, the pens of rare-breed livestock. This was cutting-edge historical verisimilitude at the time.
- I still fancy Kai just as I did all those years ago. Which sort of surprised me. But now I fancy Arthur too. Bonus!
- It's just fun!
I think the thing I really like is the way it seems completely self-contained, in its tiny muddy corner of Ancient Britain; completely convinced of its own reality. It made me happy. If only they'd gone to third series, and not left the story hanging in the air like that ...