Exclusive interview: Merlin executive producers Johnny Capps and Julian Murphy
You may have noticed the change, or maybe it’s just on the edge of your consciousness, but Merlin looks a little different this year. A little more cinematic. It’s not just the more ambitious effects, or the fact that exterior shots of Camelot seems to have been given an extreme makeover. It’s not just that the young cast suddenly seems to have matured a lot. It’s not just that the addition of the Knights of the Round Table seems to have ushered in grander action sequences. Although all those things are true, to be sure. But also, with series four, for the first time the show is being shot on proper, feature movie quality 35 mill film.
This is not just a mere technical adjustment. It’s a symbol of a show that’s going from strength to strength. This time last year, we thought that series four was going to be only ten episodes and American TV was planning a lavish new show called Camelot . It felt like, perhaps, Merlin was preparing to wind down. But then the viewing figures for the 2010 season turned out to be the best yet, and improved throughout the run. Suddenly, series four was back up to 13 episodes, it was to be shot on 35 mill and a massive new green screen was created in the show’s Cardiff studios to create even more grandiose effects. Camelot was cancelled. Series four started airing and is performing even better than series three, and the producers are now talking about a possible sixth series (if not more). The future looks bright in 35 mill.
Better than all that, the fourth series is turning out to be one of the best yet from what we’ve seen so far. And you can catch up with the first half when the Merlin Series Four Part One DVD is released on Monday. We know this, because executive producer and co-creator Johnny Capps points it out at every opportunity when SFX chats to him and co-creator and exec producer Julian Murphy.
“It’s out on Monday,” he reminds us for the umpteenth time.
“What is?” we reply cheekily.
“ Merlin .”
“Never heard of it.”
“You should give it a go,” says Capps. “It’s pretty good. I hear.”
He has every right to be proud of the show’s current success. He admits to being, “absolutely thrilled,” at the reception to series four. “Each year you still feel nervous about the reaction of the audience, about whether the viewing figures will be the same. And the series is a little bit darker this year, and we’re going out in a later slot. So those things obviously caused us a bit of concern. We’re also going up against The X-Factor every week, which, you know, even though everybody is saying it’s not as good as it was, it’s still one of the most successful television franchises ever that we’re up against.
“So, it’s a really tough slot, so obviously we’re thrilled that it’s doing so well. In fact, it’s doing the best of any series so far. We’re getting six to seven million people watching it and our AIs are 89, 90,” he adds, referring to the Audience Index which gauges how much people enjoyed a show, as opposed to just how many were watching. “So it’s well up with the highest AIs that the BBC gets for its drama.” That’s just ever-so-slightly ahead of the AIs Doctor Who was getting this year (which doesn’t prove anything, before we get hundreds of posts in the comments section for annoyed Who fans, it’s just a handy comparison for people who don’t follow know of such things).
Both Capps and Murphy are keen to point out the darkening, more adult tone of the series was pretty much an organic development rather than a calculated change. It’s reflected in a subtle change to the opening narration. Camelot’s destiny now lies with a “young man” rather than a “boy”.
“Yes,” says Murphy, “that’s a response to what you’re seeing on screen. Colin is a long way from the innocent character he was in series one. He’s grown as a character. Merlin is very much a man now, and we need to reflect that.”
The series are also becoming more serialised, with more plots, as the years go by.
“We have gradually increased that more over the four seasons and that was always really our plan,” agrees Murphy. “I think when you bring in these big adventure franchises, you’re quite conscious that you need the stories-of-the-week to dominate to begin with. Particularly when you’re going for a very young audience, I think that’s important.
“But we always intended, as we got closer to the legend, to lift the serial element,” he continues. “I think partly, as well, we are now going out in an older, more sophisticated slot, we can afford to be a little more serialised. It enables us to do richer stories.”
“I think also, as the series progresses, your audience warms to the characters,” adds Capps. “They become more involved with them. Therefore you can be slightly more serialised with it. But it’s still very important to us that each week is a self-contained story – a mini action/adventure movie.”
Part of the darkening tone meant that they could certainly shock an audience used to a perhaps more cosy tone formerly. “We’re very pleased, dramatically, with the way Uther’s death played out,” says Murphy, “because that was a tricky one. It was something that we knew we had to do, but we wanted to do it in a way that propelled us forward. And that was also not a terrible, downbeat moment in the series, but the beginning of the story of King Arthur, rather than Prince Arthur. We’re both pleased with how that was written by Howard Overman, and shot by Alice Troughton. I think she did a superb job. I think it was a very difficult episode to handle.”
Murphy also feels that the production team is learning a new visual vocabulary in how to tell a Merlin episode as the series progresses.
“I think what’s interesting – and I’ve never done this in television before – is that a lot of our episodes we have very, very few words on a page of script now. We’re not a dialogue-driven show. We’ve become extremely visually driven. And particularly those first two episodes of series four were astonishingly visually-driven. And that’s a challenge for us. It mean we have to tell stories in a more cinematic way. That’s been a great experience in series four, and we’re pleased that we can do it. That we’re given the freedom to do it by the BBC. And it does, I think, make for a very interesting little cinema experience for the audience on a Saturday night.”
They’re also keen to point out that the move to 35 mill wasn’t just a case of changing the cameras and lenses and carrying on as before.
“No, it has a bigger effect than that in all sorts of subtle ways,” says Murphy. “It changes our discipline on set. We have to shoot with more discipline because film stock is an expensive item. But that’s actually a very healthy thing. It makes people rehearse more. It makes the adrenaline flow when you go for a take greater. And that’s had a subtle effect on the programme.”
Capps expands on one of those subtle effects: “Because there’s so much more detail on film, it changes the performances in small ways. You’re more aware of the actors’ eyes and what the actors are thinking. That was something that really struck Julian and I when we were watching the first few days of shoots – the way it changed the actors’ faces and their expressions. It suddenly made it look more like a movie.”
But the new shooting regime has proved “punishing” for the series two leads, Colin Morgan (Merlin) and Bradley James (Arthur).
“It’s tough for them,” says Murphy. “It really is a relentless shoot. We shoot for 32 weeks and Colin especially doesn’t really stop. The only way we can shoot the sort of material that we do, on a television schedule, is with multiple units. And that often means three units a day. And poor old Colin is often in all three in some form or another. But I think what they have both responded to is more and more adult and sophisticated material. I think that’s given them a new lease of life and some real energy. The more you challenge them as actors the better they respond.”
“I think that’s what make the scripting process really enjoyable for us,” agrees Capps. “We can throw anything at the actors. I think this year has been great for us because we’ve not only pushed the ambition of the show visually, but where we’ve taken the actors in the emotional stories as well. All the four main characters are being pushed to interesting places emotionally. And they’ve all stepped up to the plate and produced terrific performances.”
They won’t reveal much more about the second half of the series other than what little they gave away here , but Murphy does hint, “There’s a very surprising end for Morgana.”
“She dies,” chips in Capps.
Since we can’t believe he’d give this away, we assume he’s teasing us?
“Maybe I’m double bluffing,” he suggests.
Uh-oh, he’s going all Moffat on us.