King Arthur and the SAS of the Dark Ages

King Arthur and the SAS of the Dark Ages: Magic, romance and a maverick band of fierce warriors make for a thrilling new take on the legendary hero

  • The exciting new series explores the struggle for power in Dark Ages Britain 
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The legend of King Arthur, the mythical warrior hero who united Britain’s warring factions to defeat a common enemy, has transcended the ages. 

With its themes of magic, romance and valour it has inspired countless musicals, films, cartoons and books, while Camelot – as Arthur’s court was known – was the name given to John F Kennedy’s brief presidential administration.

Now it’s been given a major retelling in ITVX’s new ten-part drama The Winter King, which throws in a dash of Game Of Thrones-style intrigue and the behind-closed-doors plotting of hit US political drama The West Wing to create an epic saga about the struggle for power in Dark Ages Britain.

Weekend’s invitation to this world of myth and legend takes us to an unlikely place – a quiet corner of Bristol just beyond an Asda car park. 

There’s what appears to be the grand entrance to a fifth-century fortress beautifully hewn from solid rock… but touch it and it bounces. It’s actually made of insulation foam that’s been carved into shape and painted.

Scottish actor Iain De Caestecker plays Arthur in The Winter King, ITVX’s new ten-part drama about the struggle for power in Dark Ages Britain 

Heading inside you reach The Winter King’s main set, a warren of cavernous rooms where the kings of ancient Britain meet to argue, carouse and perhaps join forces to head off an invasion by the bloodthirsty Anglo-Saxons. 

But it’s unusual because each room on a set is normally a self-contained space, while this one deliberately mirrors The West Wing where the protagonists schemed as they walked between the rooms of power.

Adapted from the Bernard Cornwell trilogy about Arthur, The Winter King tells the story of the unwanted illegitimate child of fierce King of the Britons Uther Pendragon who united his nation to save it. 

Scottish actor Iain De Caestecker, who first found fame on Coronation Street before making it big in America on hit Marvel show Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D., admits he was surprised to get the part of Arthur because, with his 5ft 7in frame, he’s far from the beefcake Arthur’s normally portrayed as.

‘There was no one more surprised than me. I still feel like someone’s made a mistake,’ laughs the actor as we talk in the rain outside his trailer. He looks bloodied and battle-fatigued today and it’s not just the make-up – this is his 20th week of filming. 

‘It’s such an iconic role I’m not sure anyone would think they were up to it, but I enjoy the pressure.

‘For a younger generation this will be their first taste of the Arthurian legend, and for those familiar with it this is a new take. I knew the Disney film The Sword In The Stone best, but this is a more grounded version. You have a lot of the same characters but with a new slant on them.’

Even today, historians are divided about whether Arthur really existed or not. He first appears in works from around the ninth century, more than 300 years after he’s said to have lived, which told of his prowess in battle and a brief reign in which he fought back against the Anglo-Saxons. 

Merlin is played by Nathaniel Martello-White and this new series may be the first time the wizard has been portrayed as black. Since the Romans brought people of every colour to Britain, this is not as unlikely as it may seem 

Interest in him continued and he was a key figure in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s imaginative and bloody 12th-century work The History Of The Kings Of Britain, which mentioned his wife Guinevere, the magician Merlin, the sword Excalibur and the final battle with his nemesis Mordred. 

The story was then picked up by French writer Chrétien de Troyes, who added the knight Lancelot and the brotherhood of the Round Table.

The Winter King is rooted in the fifth century, when the Anglo-Saxons have invaded Britain and our native tribes are too busy fighting each other to stand together against the greater enemy. Meanwhile paganism, embodied in the character of Merlin, is facing its own battle as the spread of Christianity gathers pace.

When we first meet Arthur he’s bringing news to his father Uther that his only legitimate heir has been killed in battle. Uther blames Arthur for the death and wants to have him killed, until Merlin persuades him to exile him to Gaul. 

But several years later, with Britain in dire straits – beset by invaders and trouble-making local kings such as Gundleus – Merlin brings Arthur back with his band of fighters to help save the nation.

‘We see Arthur and his men as a bit like the SAS, there’s something different about them,’ says Iain. ‘They’re warriors but they have an extra edge. I think what people will like about this story is that we go into Arthur’s backstory. 

‘We see his relationship with the king, who’s ruthless. Arthur has grown up believing he’ll never be good enough so he doesn’t want to overstep the mark, but he’s the leader Britain needs as the country becomes more and more fractured. 

‘He comes back from exile as a forward-thinking leader but it isn’t easy, and we see the toll it takes on him, the sacrifices he has to make.’

Arthur falls head over heels for Guinevere, played by Jordan Alexandra, who is strong, calculating and conniving, which both helps and hinders the king

Guinevere (Jordan Alexandra) is not the woman he’s meant to marry but Arthur falls head over heels in love with her. She’s strong, calculating and conniving, which is both good and bad for Arthur, who up until then has been surrounded by men. 

‘Arthur has this veneer of confidence, he has a plan,’ says Iain. ‘But there’s a chink in his armour because when he meets Guinevere he loses sight of some things he believes in. He starts to be led by his heart rather than his head, and that can be dangerous.’

Then there’s Merlin (Nathaniel Martello-White), possibly the first time the wizard has been portrayed as black. Historians used by the production team say this is not as unlikely as it might seem because the Romans brought people of every colour to Britain. 

‘The opportunity to jump into this classical world, this world of fantasy, was so exciting,’ says Nathaniel. ‘Merlin is a brilliant character, a politician whose mind is firmly rooted in paganism, which is both visceral and real to him.’

The magic in the show is subtle, suggesting it could be imagined or real. One of its practitioners is druidess Nimue (Ellie James), one of two characters Cornwell brought centre-stage. 

The other is Derfel Cadarn (Stuart Campbell), who’s rescued by Arthur as a young Saxon slave, taken to be healed by Merlin and grows up worshipping the man who saved him. Nimue must choose between her druid calling and her attraction to Derfel.

There’s great attention to detail in this production. The costume designers worked mainly with fur and leather to create a look that’s as close to that of fifth-century Britain as we know. 

Several versions of Excalibur were created but the main one took six weeks to make in a real armoury. The sword is rusty when Arthur finds it, but he has a connection to it. After it’s restored to its former glory it glimmers blue.

Actor Simon Merrells plays the trouble-making rival local king Gundleus whose appearance prompts Merlin to bring Arthur back with his fellow fighters to save the nation 

To prepare for life in the Arthurian court, Iain and his co-stars underwent a bootcamp where they learned horseriding, archery and swordfighting, and he says the riding has now become a passion. 

‘Before filming I went to a local stables to get some familiarity and I was given this stumpy little horse. But when we did our bootcamp we had some of the best trainers and horses around – it was like learning to drive in a sports car. Horses are amazing creatures, and I have a bit of a crush on my horse Spade.’

The politics of Arthur’s court have perhaps never been as fully explored as they are in this series. ‘We really get to know these characters and understand the sorts of things they would have gone through,’ Iain says as he pops back into the foam fortress. 

‘This isn’t a version of the story with big balls of fire and incredible magic, it’s an interpretation we can all understand.’

  • The Winter King will be on ITVX from 21 December.

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