It’s no picnic putting the BBC’s Merlin together, as David Wigg discovered when he met the stars on set in the soggy Welsh countryside
23:25 GMT, 5 October 2012
The legendary kingdom of Camelot has undoubtedly seen darker days, but probably not wetter.
We are on location in Wales, filming scenes for BBC1’s Merlin, which returns for a fifth series tonight, and the cast is ankle-deep in swamp water, slogging and sliding through thick mud.
It can only be a matter of minutes before the chain mail armour, worn in such proud defiance by King Arthur’s brave knights, turns to rust.
Camelot has enjoyed three years of peace and good fortune since the young Arthur came to the throne, but can it last
‘This will go on record as everyone’s least favourite day,’ mutters Colin Morgan, who plays the young wizard. He’s soaked to the skin and if magic hadn’t been declared unlawful by the king’s father, he would undoubtedly be casting a spell to bring on a heatwave.
Angel Coulby, who plays Queen Guinevere, recalls how they had to film in a disused lime quarry at Trefil, on the edge of the Brecon Beacons in Gwent, 400m above sea level.
‘No matter what the weather’s like anywhere else in Wales, in Trefil it will always be raining and cold. We had to do a scene where we were submerged in a lake, and it was freezing.
‘They gave us wetsuits, but they just didn’t work because the water immediately seeped into them. Here was I, the Queen, waist deep in the lake with my husband, King Arthur (Bradley James), while the crew were standing on the banks casually discussing how they could best do the shot.’
Camelot has enjoyed three years of peace and good fortune since the young Arthur came to the throne, but can it last It seems not, for the new series is much darker and more adult than previous episodes, with unexpected twists and daring special effects, filmed on an immense scale with a cast of more than 500. In the first fast-moving episode, the evil Morgana (Katie McGrath), a scheming beauty in a Gothic-style black lace gown, is plotting to take over Arthur’s throne with an army of Saxon warriors.
BBC has sold Merlin to 183 different countries
The king is to be ambushed as he rides through a forest to rescue some imprisoned knights. His brave mission turns into a fierce battle, with an abundance of axes, maces, fire and broadswords.
Blond, good-looking Bradley James enjoys swinging a sword as much as he does playing football with the crew during breaks. His only gripe – apart from the weather – is the heavy chainmail that weighs him down. ‘I’d never been on a horse before this,’ he confesses, ‘so I’ve been on a steep learning curve.
The only time I get worried is if a horse gets spooked and starts playing up, because I could get thrown off. But there are lots of trainers around to calm the horses down. It’s great fun – but not when I have to wear armour. How they managed to go into a real battle like that for weeks on end I’ll never understand.’
Bradley has become an international heart-throb now that the BBC has sold Merlin to 183 different countries. ‘I think the new series marks a big change because you will see we’re all growing up. I’m a married man now and I’ve got a queen. So there’s not as many knights out on the town,’ he jokes.
‘I’ve got more responsibility, and Camelot has settled down well under my rule. I’m not as arrogant as I was when I was a young prince, and I listen to Merlin’s advice a lot more now. We still disagree on some things, but I’ve learnt a few manners and am gradually becoming a noble king, thanks to him.
But I’ve still got to survive, and that’s not going to be easy with my wicked step-sister Morgana rallying her own forces against me.’ Katie, who made her acting debut in TV’s The Tudors, says of her Morgana character, ‘She is a power to reckon with; a very driven, dangerous and lonely person and will stop at nothing in this series to get Arthur and Guinevere off the throne.’
She says she still has to pinch herself at having landed such a high-profile role. ‘Every now and again I ask myself, “Is this real” If you’d told me that every day for eight months of the year I’d wear a lovely dress and watch sword fighting and dragons, I’d have thought you were mad,’ she says, laughing.
Director Justin Molotnikov predicts we're going to be surprised by Merlin's more adult approach
Angel Coulby comes into her own in this series as Guinevere, who started out as Morgana’s handmaiden in the palace of King Uther, Arthur’s father who died in the last series.
Says Angel, ‘I always thought she’d make a good queen. She has humility and very much cares for the underdog. I think she’s taken that all on with her duties as queen and she is now fiercely protective of the Camelot kingdom and her husband Arthur.
'She is much more confident than she ever was before and can be quite ruthless when it comes to protecting the people she cares about. But she still has that humble heart that she’s always possessed.’
Director Justin Molotnikov predicts we’re going to be surprised by Merlin’s more adult approach. ‘The show does get slightly dark now, and it has grown up, because our audience has grown up with it over the past five years or so. It’s got endless possibilities and it’s clear viewers can’t get enough.’
Merlin, tonight, 7.45pm, BBC1.