Sunday, 24 June 2012

Merlin (Series One)

Back in 2006 the BBC launched the much-anticipated TV show Robin Hood. It was designed to fill in for the absence of Doctor Who between its series and was given a prime-time Saturday night TV slot. It was a show that had the potential to be a big hit but it wasn't. Probably because it sucked! Jonas Armstrong was so boring, wooden and charisma-free as the title character that it was a mystery as to why anyone would choose to follow him. Keith Allen kept trying (badly) to imitate Alan Rickman's performance as the Sheriff in Prince of Thieves. The costumes were ridiculous at times. The swordfights and action scenes were boring. The multi-ethnic casting was distracting and too politically correct. The storylines were boring. The scripts were atrocious. It was anachronistic. Its only redeemable feature was that Richard Armitage was superb as Guy of Gisborne and very, very sexy ; ) The man's just pure hotness! Apart from Armitage the show was truly dreadful and I can't think of any other positive things to say about it. The BBC remained embarrassingly committed to the show though and it took them 3 series for them to finally put it out of its misery. They then replaced it with Merlin in 2008. Up until recently my opinion of Merlin was fairly low but that was because I hadn't really given it a fair chance. I watched bits and pieces of it when it first aired and was put off by the naff special effects. I decided that it was a silly and cheesy show and dismissed it as Robin Hood II. My opinion of the show has now completely changed. I decided to get the boxset of the first series when a friend - who has similar taste in TV - managed to convince me that I hadn't given the show a fair chance. So I watched Merlin properly...and I loved it! I'm now currently working my way through the different series and it's taken up quite a bit of my social life (along with Sherlock and Doctor Who).

Now before I start explaining why I loved Merlin so much and why I'd recommend it to others I should get something out of the way first. Arthurian purists are going to have a problem with the show because Merlin is more inspired by than directly based on the traditional Arthurian legends. The most obvious example I could mention is that Merlin (who is traditionally depicted as Arthur's older and wiser mentor in Arthurian mythology) is roughly the same age as him in this show. There are other examples of how the show drifts away from traditional Arthurian mythology too. Uther Pendragon is still alive. Morgana lives at Camelot, hasn't yet discovered that she's a witch, and is still good. Guinevere is Morgana's maid rather than a princess or queen. I can understand why those who have been brought up with the traditional Arthurian tales would have a problem with the show but I'm going to stick up for it. It doesn't re-write actual historical events like The Tudors show did. The Arthurian legends are, well, legend not fact. Also, Arthurian mythology isn't like Greek mythology. The tales are contradictory and have been re-written numerous times over the centuries. In some Arthurian tales Mordred is Arthur's son and in others he isn't. The Arthur-Guinevere-Lancelot love triangle wasn't introduced until the 13th century by the Frenchman Chretien de Troyes. The Tristan and Isolde romance, the Knights of the Round Table, and the Holy Grail weren't originally a part of the Arthurian tales...basically what I'm trying to say is that there is no canon to depart from. I think it's important to be open-minded and to be aware of the contradictory nature of the legends. You'll be much more likely to enjoy the show that way! : )

The first episode of the first series starts with Merlin arriving at the city of Camelot. He's been sent there by his mother who has arranged for him to assist her old friend Gaius, the court physician. The reason why she's arranged this is for her son's protection. Merlin is a gifted wizard and his mother fears that if he continues living in their small, close-knit village that his magical powers will become known. But Merlin arrives at Camelot only to find that magic is banned there - under penalty of death - by the cruel, ruthless and magic-hating king Uther Pendragon. So to "protect" Merlin, his mother has sent him to a society where he must keep his magical powers a secret at all cost or be put to death. Riiight. However, Merlin's arrival at Camelot turns out to be a very good thing because he manages to learn his great and glorious destiny there from the imprisoned Great Dragon. Prince Arthur is the Once and Future King who will unite the land of Albion and create a great Kingdom. In his realm magic will no longer be feared and magic-users will no longer be persecuted. Merlin - as Gaius and the imprisoned Great Dragon constantly remind him - must look after Arthur, protect him from harm, make sure that he survives to become King of Camelot and help him to build the Kingdom. He will then become the most powerful, ass-kicking wizard that the world has ever known.

Merlin is an extremely entertaining, delightful show and is a million miles better than Robin Hood. Unlike that show it actually has decent storylines and very witty and funny scripts. The show is genuinely laugh-out-loud funny at times. It has substantially better acting than Robin Hood as well. And although it also features multi-ethnic casting the fact that Merlin is clearly a fantasy show means that it's able to get away with it unlike Robin Hood, which was clearly going for a more gritty and realistic tone. The cinematography is great. The show is also filmed on location - partly - at the French medieval castle Chateau de Pierrefonds, which is absolutely stunning.

The thing that I love most about Merlin though is its characters, especially Merlin himself. Merlin is an incredibly likeable, charming and adorable character. He's a hero that you can really get behind and root for. And I just LOVED the conversations and interactions between him and Arthur, who is also a very likeable character. Merlin and Arthur initially dislike each other. Merlin thinks that Arthur is an arrogant, brattish bully at first but then discovers that beneath this exterior lies a noble, kind and compassionate heart. For his part Arthur thinks that Merlin is lazy, surly and insolent but over time he becomes genuinely fond of and dependant on him. The banter between these two characters is very funny and a joy to watch. It also helps that Colin Morgan and Bradley James have great chemistry between them. I love the Merlin-Arthur bromance! I'm not alone in this either. There are also a lot of Merlin/Arthur slash shippers out there as well. I myself am not a slash shipper but I did find Merlin moaning Arthur's name in a semi-erotic way when he's delirious with fever in The Poisoned Chalice extremely amusing. And this is all before the writers started putting stuff like this in deliberately in the later series!

Other characters are interesting and deserve mention as well. Morgana is one of the show's best and most interesting characters and I especially love her whenever she stands up to Uther. She wears fabulous dresses as well! One of my gripes with the show is that she's underused. Merlin mainly focuses on Merlin and Arthur's characters - which I'm all for - but it would still be nice if Morgana got a bit more to do. Gaius is quite likeable and Richard Wilson (who plays him) has good chemistry with Colin Morgan as well. Uther Pendragon is played by Anthony Stewart Head but his character is completely different to Giles from Buffy. Uther is an arsehole. His only redeemable feature is that he genuinely loves his son but he's still a bad father. The only thing that stops me from hating him completely is the fact that he's played by Anthony Stewart Head. The only weak link in the show in the show for me is Guinevere (or "Gwen" as everyone calls her). Although Angel Coulby's acting isn't bad she still can't make up for the fact that Gwen is easily the least interesting character in the show. Gwen is nice, kind and sweet but she's just so dull that it's quite hard to warm to her. At least Uther is a character you love to hate.

Uther Pendragon

Another thing that I love about Merlin is the acting. The actors all seem to be having a great time and I was extremely surprised by the quality of the acting when I started watching the show properly. I was expecting the acting to be good from the older, veteran actors: i.e. Anthony Stewart Head, Richard "I don't believe it!" Wilson and John Hurt (who does the voice of the dragon). What surprised me is that the younger actors put in impressive performances as well. Katie McGrath is very good even though Morgana doesn't always get much to do. Bradley James and Colin Morgan have great comic timing and bounce off each other nicely. The stand-out actor for me is Colin Morgan. He's full of charisma, is equally great at both the comic scenes and the more emotional and serious scenes, pulls off an English accent perfectly (he's Irish), and he even does a terrific job at acting opposite the CGI dragon. I think he'll go on to have a great career when the show eventually finishes. Of course I've been wrong about these things before. I was absolutely convinced that Sarah Michelle Gellar would become a huge movie star once Buffy finished (since she was so fantastic in that) but, well, look what happened. I hope it's different for Morgan though! Several of the guest stars in this show should be mentioned too. Michelle Ryan has a recurring guest role as Nimueh. I know that she'll always be Zoe Slater from EastEnders to some people but I think she's an underrated actress and she does a good job in Merlin. I also found her character quite interesting in that she isn't 100% evil. There's also Santiago Cabrera (Isaac from Heroes) as Lancelot. I've always felt that the writers of Heroes made a huge mistake in killing off Isaac so it was nice to see Cabrera in something else. The best guest star though is Asa Butterfield who plays Mordred in the episode The Beginning of the End. Mordred's role in the story is to bring about the fall of Camelot and he's the one who is destined to kill Arthur. In The 
Beginning of the End we see that the character is still at the Anakin Skywalker stage of his life. He's powerful and the potential for evil is there but he's still young and innocent for now. Thankfully though Morded is nowhere near as irritating as Anakin Skywalker in the Star Wars prequels because Asa Butterfield runs rings around Jake Lloyd and Hayden Christensen. He gives a very creepy and unnerving performance. No wonder he's so in demand right now (i.e. Hugo and the upcoming Ender's Game film).

As much as I found Merlin entertaining I have to say that it's by no means a perfect and flawless TV show. Far from it. In fact it's very easy to mock at times. The pilot episode sets up the show nicely but it isn't a great episode. And it's hard not to snigger when Gaius says to Merlin for the 100th time: "Be careful Merlin! It's dangerous!" And as I've mentioned the special effects can be, well, naff. I cringed when I first saw the CGI dragon! * However, I must say that I'm currently working my way through Series 2 and the special effects, whilst not brilliant, have improved* It's also evident with this first series that the writers and producers were still finding their feet because most (but not all) of the episodes are standalone and have a baddie-of-the-week format. It's a bit like the first season and a half of Buffy in this respect. A typical episode of Merlin in series one goes something like this: a mysterious, evil and magic-practising stranger arrives at Camelot who's up to no good. Everyone takes an immediate liking to this stranger but Merlin discovers what they're up to. He wants to use his magic to thwart the stranger's evil plans but is warned by Gaius that by exposing the stranger's magic he might end up exposing his own magical powers. Merlin then tries to warn everyone about the stranger instead but no-one listens to him. He goes to the dragon for advice. Merlin then uses his magic to save the day and another character gets the credit. There is much rejoicing and a great feast is put on at the castle. Seriously there's a huge feast in virtually every episode. The catering bills at Camelot must be enormous.

But for all its faults I still can't help but love the show! It knows exactly what it is and isn't at all pretentious (unlike Robin Hood or that dreadful Camelot show which got cancelled after just one season). It can be dark at times but it's a high-quality family show and is darn entertaining and enormous fun. Every episode leaves me with a smile on my face. My favourite episodes of the first series are The Poisoned Chalice, The Beginning of the End and The Moment of Truth. The latter episode is probably my favourite overall. It's a fun homage to The Seven Samurai. Merlin, Arthur, Morgana and Gwen go on a quest to Merlin's home village to save it from evil bandits. The leader is played by Alexander Siddig. Long may the epic Merlin-Arthur bromance continue!

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Phantom of the Opera (Big Finish Version)

This particular version of Phantom of the Opera is a radio play that was made by Big Finish Productions. This company specialises in producing audio books and radio plays and has done many for Doctor Who. Back in 2007 Big Finish were commissioned to do a four-part adaptation of The Phantom of the Opera for BBC Radio. This version of The Phantom of the Opera is narrated by Madame Giry and there's an interesting difference between this version and the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical adaptation. In the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Christine Daae and Meg Giry are supposed to be good friends but in this version it's Meg and Carlotta who are good friends! This version also features an original character called Adele. She's a cockney maid who provides quite a bit of comic relief.

In case you're getting the impression that this version of POTO doesn't follow Gaston Leroux's novel particularly closely and is yet another unfaithful adaptation of the book then you should be very pleasantly surprised :) Of all of the various film, television and stage adaptations that I've seen of Leroux's book this version is actually the most faithful that I've come across! It follows the story extremely closely. The events occur in the same order as the book and much of the dialogue is word-for-word accurate. This version includes many things that are usually left out in POTO adaptations. We get the the cemetery scene at Perros where the Phantom plays The Resurrection of Lazarus to Christine on his violin. We get the Safety Pin chapters. We even get the Persian, Phillippe and Madame Valerius! This version is also written as a mystery. That's wonderful because this is a very important aspect of Leroux's book that none of the other adaptations have quite been able to capture. Most of the other adaptations seem to assume that the audience already knows the basic story of POTO so they'll usually reveal the Phantom's character almost immediately. But this version doesn't reveal the Phantom straight away and it gives information about his character slowly, and by doing this they're able to build up the tension and heighten the suspense. Yet another way in which this version stays true to the book is that - despite Madame Giry narrating for quite a lot of the story - it's actually Raoul who is the main character. Raoul is very likeable in this version and he even gets some funny lines from time to time :)

Even though this is a radio play there are a few famous names in this version. Madame Giry is played by Anna Massey (who is sadly deceased). I've only seen her play Mrs Stoke-D'Uberville in the BBC's recent adaptation of Tess of the D'Ubervilles. I thought she was excellent in that even though she didn't have much screen-time. I know she's also supposed to be excellent in The Importance of Being Earnest and in a 70s' TV adaptation of Rebecca where she played Mrs Danvers but I haven't seen either of those yet. The Persian is played by Alexander Siddig who is most famous for playing Dr Julian Bashir in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Raoul is played by James D'Arcy and he's been in Master and Commander, the ITV adaptation of Mansfield Park and the, er, Madonna film W.E.

Since you can't really do a POTO review without mentioning the music I should point out that the music in this radio play is really, really good. It features both original music from Tim Sutton as well as opera music from Faust and Otello. This version is also one of the few non-musical adaptations of the book where we actually get to hear the Phantom sing! The only other non-musical adaptation where he sings (that I know of) is the Charles Dance version.

There really isn't much that I can criticise about this version actually. It's just so good that I can't really think of anything to criticise! I think my favourite thing about this version though is that it features the final scenes of the book. I'm not talking about Christine giving Erik that redemptive kiss because other versions have featured this too. This version has the scene that happens later on. It has the scene where Erik has his final conversation with the Persian. This is probably the most moving scene in the entire book but none of the other versions have it apart from this one! This radio play is well worth a listen! You can buy the CD from Amazon - as I did - although I'm told that it's occasionally played on BBC Radio 7.

Now that I've heard this radio play I'm dying for the BBC to do a Leroux-faithful miniseries. I'd been wanting them to make one anyway but hearing this radio play has only increased the desire! And if they were to use this radio play as the basis for their script then I don't see how they could go far wrong! Essentially they should just do this radio play on screen and stretch it out to 3 or 4 hours. I'd want them to film it on location in Paris and at the Opera Garnier, I'd want Christine to be blonde, and I'd want them to include some flashbacks of Christine and Raoul's childhood. Maybe they could even include flashbacks of the Phantom's childhood as well.

Rating: 5/5