September 29, 2008

Watching Brief: Have Your Say: Merlin Conjures Magic on Saturday

By Gareth Edwards

A FTER leaving the nation's favourite timelord mooching around the universe looking for a new companion and sending Robin Hood off to join the Sherwood dole queue, the BBC appeared to have left themselves with a big gaping hole in their Saturday night schedule.

"What could they do?", we cried, while praying they wouldn't decide to give Brucie and chums two hours of tango-tastic air-time to fill with the latest series of Strictly Come Dancing.

Thankfully, they had an ace up their sleeves - or, to be more accurate a couple of kings and a joker.

Merlin (BBC 1, Saturday, 7.30pm) is the latest midbudget Saturday night spectacular from BBC Wales, the production unit which had such great success with the revived Dr Who franchise, and progressively less success with spin-off's Torchwood and the Sarah Jane Adventures.

And while not quite as gripping as the best of Doctor Who, it is still a darn sight more entertaining than the lamentable Robin Hood revival with which it is certain to be compared.

That is not to say that all is rosy in the court of Camelot, however, where we join Merlin at a point in his life when he is neither a wizened old man nor a cartoon fish, but instead is a demographic-hitting teenager struggling to get to grips with his mighty powers.

Sensibly enough, he is advised by the sage court physician Gaius (Richard Wilson) that such activities are best done behind closed doors, but like most rebellious TV heroes it's not long before he's picking fights with the future King, Arthur, and making eyes at comely handmaiden Guinevere.

While Arthurian legend is always ripe for a re-telling, the team behind Merlin have perhaps gone a little overboard in trying to ensure the show appeals to young and old alike.

They claim to have "immersed themselves" in the ancient lore, but presumably just to pick it clean for anything that might fit into a love-trianglecoming of age type storyline - historically accurate depictions of the Dark Ages tend not to make family friendly viewing.

To their credit, they've rounded up an impressive cast, with Nescafe ad-man Anthony Head skipping his morning latte to play a grumpy King Uther Pendragon, Eve Myles jetting in from Torchwood to play an evil hag and John Hurt lending his unsurpassed vocal talents to a dragon that has somehow been chained up in the Camelot basement.

Quite how they managed to pin down the dragon is anyone's guess, but it has been lurking in the immense caverns beneath Camelot (surely a structural flaw of any Castle?) just to tell Merlin something cryptic about how he might hate Arthur now, but give it time and they'll be best buddies.

It's all very light and Colin Morgan does an admirable job of making Merlin. if not believable. then at least likeable.

With a little bit of magic he might even get to play Merlin as an old man.

But what have you been watching?

"I was fascinated to see Griff Rhys Jones lose the plot in Tuesday's documentary about anger on BBC2.

"In his 80s TV series Not The Nine O'Clock News, Smith And Jones and his more recent appearances on shows like Restoration, he always comes across as calm, witty and easygoing.

"But the Welshman has a fierce temper, it appears, and doesn't take kindly to criticism. Explosive stuff" Frank Johnson, 46, account manager, Corstorphine

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