A few years ago, my at-the-time-quite-impoverished screenwriter friend Jake Michie told me about this brilliant new children’s TV series he’d dreamed up about the Knights of the Round Table.
A few years ago, my at-the-time-quite-impoverished screenwriter friend Jake Michie told me about this brilliant new children’s TV series he’d dreamed up about the Knights of the Round Table. All the male leads would be young and pretty with boy band haircuts; Arthur would be a bit of a rugger-bugger lunk, while the real hero would be a younger Merlin who would use his magic to get his pal out of all sorts of scrapes; and obviously there’d be monsters and demons and suchlike to stop the kids getting bored.
I was appalled. Partly I was appalled because I knew if it got made it would be a huge success and make Jake much, much richer than me (as indeed he now is). Equally, though, I was appalled because unlike Jake I’d read the whole of Malory’s Morte d’Arthur, and Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, at least five times probably, in the original Middle English, not in translation, if you please. As a result I felt rather proprietorial about the things you could and couldn’t do with our National Myth. Here was a once-in-a-generation opportunity for children to learn about what Arthur and Guinevere and Percival and the rest really got up to in the original stories. And what was Jake trying to do? Turn it into a cross between Take That, Doctor Who and Harry bloody Potter, that’s what.
Sometimes I think it may have been a mistake to have read English at Oxford. Jake, of course, was right and I was being a precious literary ponce. Arthurian legend is not written in stone. Even when Malory was writing it up in the 15th century, he was just cobbling together odds and sods he’d found in Geoffrey of Monmouth and in the French vulgate romances. And the only reason we think of all those knights in shining armour is because of Pre-Raphaelite paintings and because Malory was writing at the end of the age of chivalry. But the real Arthur, in so far as he existed, would have been a brutish Dark Ages warlord — a dux bellorum — not some proto-Henry V.
Perhaps this is why the best ever modern adaptation of the Arthurian tales remains Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Probably more by low-budget accident and subversive instinct than by intellectual design, the film nails the stories perfectly by deciding to treat them simultaneously with exquisite reverence and farty-bottomed schoolboy comedy bathos.
Graham Chapman’s King Arthur, for example, really is a noble and very committed figure on a mission to save his disunited kingdom; the grail he seeks is an object of shimmering holiness; Michael Palin’s Sir Galahad is wholly sincere in his conviction that the only sensible way to keep yourself pure when stuck in a castle full of lubricious blondes aching for your body is to slaughter them all with your sword of chastity. Monty Python takes the serious side of the legend more seriously even than John Boorman’s achingly po-faced 1981 gore-fest Excalibur.
But it also has the animated rabbit with nasty pointed teeth and a mean streak a mile wide; and the black knight whose initial aura of deep, booming scariness, ‘None shall pass’, is rather dissipated when all his limbs are chopped off and all he can do is threaten to bite his enemies to death; and Bold Sir Robin who is always running away and buggering off; and so on. What you get then is the best of both worlds: momentary flashes where you think, as poor deluded King Arthur does, ‘Yes! This is my England. My history. My heritage’ undercut by endless silliness.
It goes almost without saying that the latest TV version, Camelot (Channel 4, Saturday), by the team that brought you The Tudors, just isn’t as good as Monty Python’s. In fact, all it is really is Jake Michie’s Merlin but sexed up for grown-ups, with lashings of thrashing naked bodies and naughty dream sequences and Eva Green as Morgan Le Fay arching her back in malign ecstasy as she rogers James Purefoy (playing exactly the same character as he did in Rome, only this time he’s called King Lot instead of Mark Antony).
Which is fine, up to a point, except that it’s all so insultingly dumb. No love or wit or intelligence has gone into its creation. If you had to imagine what a TV mini-series adaptation of Malory would look like designed by committee with a view to broad trans-Atlantic appeal, you would emerge with something exactly like Camelot.
So, for example, when intense, edgy, shaven-headed Merlin (Joseph Fiennes) comes to tell feckless, doe-eyed blond public-school gap-year kid Arthur that he is in fact not a humble peasant but the son and heir of Uther Pendragon, Arthur must wearisomely go through the predictable reactions that we are supposed to expect of him in this situation. He is cross; sceptical; he threatens to stab Merlin with his penknife; he doesn’t want to leave his mum, etc. And you’re sitting there not believing any of it. ‘You’re only doing this stuff because the narrative arc requires you initially to hate the man who will later become your most trusted adviser. And all these outbursts, they’re there just to create the necessary jeopardy and tension which screenwriting school requires.’
Yawn. Give me the knights who say ‘Ni’ any day.