The Boy Merlin - The Complete Series Review
The Boy Merlin started life in 1978 as a single play in the second series of the kids' anthology series Shadows (Series One has already been reviewed on this site). The single play was then developed in 1979 into a six-part fantasy drama series using the same cast. Throughout the 1970s there was a vogue in the UK for all things Arthurian and this was one of several film and TV interpretations to cast a different light on a familiar old story. The action unfolds in the studios in the Dark Ages kingdom of Carmarthen in Wales. In this version of the story, 12-year-old Merlin (Ian Rowlands) is really Ambrosius, the illegitimate son of the local King's daughter. To avoid disgracing the princess, he has been placed in the care of Dafydd (Donald Houston) a blacksmith and his wife Blodwen (Margaret John). Dafydd's elderly mother (Rachel Thomas) is a white witch who has been passing her magical skills on to Merlin, much to Dafydd's disgust (he is one of those new-fangled Christians).
The first episode of the series covers similar ground to the Shadows play in which Merlin's true identity is uncovered by an agent of the High King Vortigern who wishes to use him for his own nefarious purposes (i.e. as a propitious sacrifice). Like the Shadows episode the dialogue is extremely exposition-heavy which the talented cast struggle to make sing. Much of it goes along the lines of 'Isn't that Merlin, the adopted son of the blacksmith Dafydd but in reality the bastard son of princess Esmene, daughter of King Conaan of Carmarthen?'. And suchlike. The series' first episode also packs in a vast amount of plot equivalent to probably an entire series' worth of modern Merlin. Who said 70s tv drama was slow? The episode climaxes with Merlin demonstrating his power as a wizard and seer by prophesying Vortigern's downfall. He achieves this by bringing statues of dragons to life for a brief moment. One of the strong points of the series is that the magical effects are sparing and mostly practically achieved and are all the better for it, unlike today's over-reliance on dodgy cgi. But the dragons are ropey.
In terms of its relation to Arthurian canon (if there is such a thing) The Boy Merlin belongs more to the world of Arthur of the Britons than it does to John Boorman's glamtastic Excalibur. It concerns itself more with Dark Ages politics and power struggles than it does with noble knights and romantic grail quests. Merlin himself is depicted as a both an active player and a hapless pawn in the power struggles between the Saxon-ally High King Vortigern and his sometime-enemies the true Britons King Conaan and Prince Uther. His prophecies to Vortigern about the struggle between the red dragon and white dragon make him a powerful figure but his youth and relationship to Conaan also make him a target for kidnap. At the heart of the series though is his warm relationship with his adoptive family (clunkily referred to by every character as foster-father etc). As you would expect of a series with a 12-year-old protagonist this is a coming-of-age drama. Merlin (ably played by Ian Rowlands) is on the cusp of discovering his True Destiny as facilitator to Uther and his son, Arthur the Briton saviour (foretold by his foster-gran) and attaining the powerful magic required to achieve it. The principal stumbling blocks to this are the scheming High King Vortigern, his Queen Rowena and their lackeys.
Of the cast, Donald Houston (Dafydd) would have been by far the biggest name at the time. He had been quite the matinee idol in the 50s and, like many of his contemporaries, was now a television star as his age and the rapidly-diminishing British Film Industry had put paid to his big-screen career. His wife is played very ably by Margaret John, a character actress at the time who had a long career up until her death in 2010. She is best remembered now as Doris ('I'm very discreet...'), the blue-rinsed cougar of Barry in Gavin and Stacey. Rachel Thomas (Grandmother Myfanwy) spent most of the 60s and 70s playing elderly Welsh women in just about any play that required one. She is one of those faces in TV that is instantly recognisable but you'd have a hard time putting a name to her. She doesn't even have to open her mouth as everything you need to know about her character is etched into her face, embellished by an occasional twinkle in her eye.
Of the remainder of the cast I particularly liked Neil McCarthy as King Vortigern. He is one of those faces that crops up all the time on 60s and 70s telly and he usually played heavies however here he brings a strong presence and natural authority to the character. Hilary Tindall's performance as his wife Rowena is less successful. She was a well-known face at the time usually playing bitchy wives – strange, that – but her performance is a little too modern for the setting. Vortigern's court magician (Derek Smith gurning wildly) is a little more than a ridiculous panto villain which is a pity as everyone else plays it dead straight.
Given such a (mostly) talented cast the main difficulties with the series are the clunkiness of the script and the static quality of most of the scenes. Rachel Thomas spends much of her screen time seated and there are many pivotal scenes between Merlin and his 'foster-grandmother'. Unfortunately although their warm relationship is well-presented and the performances are up to the mark the script doesn't quite match that and the series as a whole is staid and theatrical, too much so for modern eyes. Another difficulty is that the male cast are swathed in massive wigs, false beards and bulky costumes so to make any impact at all they have to really push it and it is mostly just too large and theatrical for the claustrophobic settings.
All seven episodes are contained on a single disc.
Transfer and Sound
The transfer isn't too bad given the studio-bound nature of the series. Given that this is a recreation of Dark Age Wales the interiors are very dimly-lit (no pun intended) and there are even moments of very effective chiaroscuro lighting. The sound is as clear as you would expect and the actors manage to get their tongues round the reams of exposition without any mishaps.
There is a brief image gallery lasting 1m 19s. As usual with Network there are no subtitles.
This makes an interesting comparison with the BBC's current series. It is far less action and effects oriented and concentrates more on power politics. Coupled with a clunky over-expository script, this does make it rather dry for a modern viewer. That and the costuming (everyone is swathed in cloaks and skins and the men sport BIG hair and beards) would probably either bore modern kids rigid or make them laugh. This is strictly a nostalgia buy.