Merlin Series Three: Exec Producer Looks Back

It‘s the final Merlin of the year this Saturday, and executive producer Julian Murphy looks back at the show’s more-successful-than-ever third series

SFX : It’s been a year of change on Merlin . How pleased are you with how this series has been received?

Julian Murphy: “Fantastically pleased. It’s had a huge growing audience. Our consolidated figures for the last couple of episodes have been 7.7, 7.8 million which are huge numbers. And we’re against the toughest competition there is. So we are delighted, and the BBC is delighted. You cannot ask for more. And it’s rare when a third series of anything gets bigger numbers than previous series.”

Are you being broadcast slightly later than you were expecting?

“Well, we sort of had an inkling that this was going to happen. And I think it allowed us to feel a little more comfortable about making the series a bit more adult.”

Certainly some of the revelations about Uther’s past sexual exploits – he even use to romp with servants – have not exactly been CBBC-suitable.

“We always planned to tell those stories, but I suppose we’ve been able to tell them in a darker, more dramatic way because we knew we were going out that much later. At 6.15pm it’s a very different story, I think.”

Bet the Doctor Who producers are jealous of the time Merlin goes out…

“I bet they wouldn’t be jealous of going up against The X-Factor .”

But that has made your figures look even more impressive. They were Doctor Who level, but Doctor Who doesn’t go out against such tough competition.

“Yeah. I’m very pleased. And the BBC has found something, and pretty much the only thing, that works against The X-Factor . So it’s been a relatively good thing all round.”

Did the series go entirely to plan?

“This is a curious programme. Most drama we’ve worked on have evolved and changed quite radically from where we planned as we made them. I think that’s a relatively normal thing. Merlin ’s a bit different. We’re not far off where we planned to be in terms of the story at all. We always had a pretty good idea of where we were heading with it, and we’re still pretty much heading there.”

What’s been the most pleasing development this series?

“I’m really pleased with it in design terms. We set out to create more worlds, to travel more, and that – on whole – worked well. We set out to do some proper big, pitched battles and use MASSIVE software* and that’s worked pretty well. And it’s ambitious doing that on TV. That stuff’s always been in the province of movies until now. So to go into the TV arena with it is tough.

“I think the cast has grown and developed. That’s the thing you never account for, but we have a young cast. And every time they come back they’re richer, better actors and richer, more mature people. And they’re all bring something to the table.”

(*MASSIVE is a piece of software developed by Weta – the FX team behind The Lord Of The Rings – which gives allows you to create huge numbers of characters all of whom have random, indepenedent movement for crowd scenes; it was first used on television for the Adipose in Doctor Who )

Merlin Series 3 Volume One is available on DVD now.
Merlin Series 3 Volume Two
is available on 24 January.
Merlin - The Complete Third Series
in available on 24 January.

Don’t forget, you can also read what Julian Murphy has to say about the future of Merlin here .

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One of the biggest revelations of the series was how great an actress Angel Coulby is as Gwen. You suddenly realised how underused she’s been before now.

“I think she has done fantastic stuff. It’s always difficult with those kind of characters. In the first two series with Gwen and Morgana it was hard to give them big and meaty roles. Now Morgana is evil it’s much easier to give her proactive, proper stories. And in Gwen’s case, now that she has a real status of being Arthur’s future queen – well, potentially – and her role a growing and increasingly important one, I think you can see what Angel really can do as an actress.”

Angel and Katie McGrath (Morgana) still complain in every interview that they want to do more swordfighting.

“Yeah, they’re always saying that.”

So, are you going to let them?

“I do let them do a bit. Well, Morgana. They did do a lot more riding in this series. But, yes, I’m conscious of it, and I’d love for Gwen to do more action, but I think for the audience we’ve always got to stay within the bounds of fantasy credibility. If we can engineer it, we’ll do it. If we can’t, we have to be realistic.”

Was the Lord Of The Rings influence this year a conscious one. I’m especially thinking in terms of the big battles and the Dark Tower?

“Yes, in the case of the MASSIVE armies, it was conscious. Anybody entering into battle territory with CGI owes an enormous debt to those films. And if I said we didn’t look to it, I’d be lying. Of course we did.

“The Dark Tower is curious. It actually came much more from Robert Browning’s poem, and The Wasteland and The Fisher King and The Perilous Land than from The Lord of The Rings , to be honest.”

Warwick Davis had a small but memorable role in the Dark Tower episode, “The Eye Of The Phoenix”. Will we be seeing him again?

“We would love to have Warwick back as Grettir. It worked brilliantly and it was very nice to do. Because he’s a magical being I see no reason why we can’t.”

Another great character this series was Gwaine. He was a lot more roguish than the other knights.

“There are traditions of the Gwaine story that say he was a bit of a drunken bad boy. And we just seized on that and followed it, brutally. Characters like Galahad are seen as supremely virtuous, but because in some stories Gwaine was the total opposite that seemed like the more interesting way to go..”

He was a little bit Han Solo. And thinking of Harrison Ford, there also seemed to be a bit of a Raiders vibe this series, am I right?

“Oh yeah. Raiders is a franchise we all love on the show. When we’re shooting action, thinking about comedy, nothing on screen has ever really done it any better, to be honest. We love its comic take on action adventure, and humour is important to us in Merlin and I think Raiders is the thing we looked to most in that area.”

Especially that bit the tournament episode, “The Sorcerer’s Shadow” when Arthur casually despatches the flash guy with the turban and the swords…

“Oh yeah, that was a complete nod on the famous scene from Raiders . I like those sorts of references. They’re done with affection and I think the audience gets them.”

Merlin Series 3 Volume One is available on DVD now.
Merlin Series 3 Volume Two
is available on 24 January.
Merlin - The Complete Third Series
in available on 24 January.

Don’t forget, you can also read what Julian Murphy has to say about the future of Merlin here .

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Got to ask, because it‘s the main thing everybody always asks on our forums – is Arthur going to learn about Merlin’s magic soon?

“I’m not going to tell you what happens, which is really what you’re asking, but I will say I think people will be surprised at the direction the story takes. My response to those people who do keep going on about it is do you think the same about Lois Lane never knew who Clark Kent is?”

Are those jokey Gaius and Merlin scenes at the end of every episode rule number five in the writers’ guide for the show?

“There is no writers’ guide [laughs]! It’s a small group of writers and they just know that‘s what happens. There are occasionally episodes where it doesn’t happen – not very many – and I’m sure as the series evolves that may change a little. But we feel that warmth at the end of the episodes between those two characters is part of Merlin . It redresses the balance if we go into dark places and go for unhappy endings which increasingly we are.”

Anthony Stewart Head is a great ambassador for the show, and he’s often saying that Colin Morgan should be up for major awards. Do you find it frustrating the a show like Merlin only ever gets nominated in craft categories?

“I don’t think the actors get the recognition they deserve, certainly. I think they’re young actors and I think people underestimate the extraordinary job they’ve all done. Obviously Colin and Bradley have done the biggest part thus far, but I think to carry and lead in a big drama on a Saturday night is no small thing at the age they’ve done it. It really isn’t.

“I appreciate Tony saying that, and it’s something that I’m sure we all feel, but the truth of the matter is that for genre pieces to win big awards is relatively rare.”

You really struck it lucky with Colin and Bradley, though. It’s not just that they can act – they actually work together, and bounce off each other really well.

Merlin is at its deep heart a buddy movie. I’ve said before that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is another of our reference points. The series relies on those two guys and their chemistry as well as their ability to deliver it.”

Finally – you’ve told us before that you’re not actively baiting slash fiction writers, but these last two episodes – “The Coming Of Arthur” – that‘s got to have been done with a little smirk, surely?

“No not at all. That’s lifted directly from La Morte D’Arthur . No, I’m not going to pander to any of that. They find innuendo in anything, and everywhere. We sit there at screenings sometimes and people are laughing at innuendo, and we’re going, ‘We never saw that!’”

Merlin Series 3 Volume One is available on DVD now.
Merlin Series 3 Volume Two
is available on 24 January.
Merlin - The Complete Third Series
in available on 24 January.

Don’t forget, you can also read what Julian Murphy has to say about the future of Merlin here .

And don’t forget, you can now also buy Merlin action figures, including Arthur, Merlin, Gaius, and Morgana. The collectable figurines all come with fully poseable limbs as well as authentic Merlin accessories for each character, including a flame torch and the book of spells. You can buy them online from www.scificollector.co.uk and www.amazon.com and priced at £8.99 each.