Merlin at 10: The cast and creatives on how they made the BBC’s boy-wizard drama
Merlin at 10: The cast and creatives on how they made the BBC’s boy-wizard drama
A decade after its first episode aired, we talk to the cast and crew of the BBC fantasy series for a behind-the-scenes look at how it was made – and why the story of the young wizard isn’t quite over for some people…
On an ordinary evening on Saturday 20 September 2008, fantasy drama series Merlin began its BBC1 run as a stand-in for Doctor Who’s slot – but over the next five years it carved its own niche in the television landscape.
Delivering a new take on the Arthurian legend based around an adolescent Merlin (Colin Morgan) befriending and protecting a pre-throne King Arthur (Bradley James), the drama ran for five series of 13 episodes, attracted millions of viewers and was screened around the world in hundreds of countries.
Pictured: the cast of Merlin L-R Anthony Head (Uther Pendragon), Katie McGrath (Morgana), Bradley James (Arthur), Colin Morgan (Merlin), Angel Coulby (Guinevere), Richard Wilson (Gaius)
Even today, new fans keep discovering the series (just search through twitter) via streaming services and repeats – so to mark the anniversary, we caught up with some of the cast and creatives to find out what exactly went into making Merlin so magical, from the very earliest scripts to the last days of Camelot and all the incantations, venerable guest stars and difficult filming days in between.
As it turns out, there were more than a few challenges getting Merlin out into the world…
Note: Angel Coulby, who played Guinevere, was unavailable to be interviewed for this piece.
With Doctor Who paving the way followed by Robin Hood, there was room for another family-aimed TV drama to hit the BBC on weekends – and in 2007, Julian Murphy and Johnny Capps (with fellow creators Julian Jones and Jake Michie) were keen to take up the challenge.
Julian Murphy, co-creator and executive producer: It all began in a restaurant on Kensington Church street, where I had lunch with the writer Jake Michie. And the pitch I gave him was very simple – It was ‘I’d like to do the Arthurian story, but as an origin story in the same way that the Superman story had been done in [US TV series] Smallville.’ And I think from there, it evolved.
But the decision that I think was at the heart of it, which was to make Arthur and Merlin contemporaries, rather than make Merlin the old man looking after the young Arthur, was there from the very beginning.
Johnny Capps,co-creator and executive producer: That made us feel excited about it. But we didn’t think about all the other characters until much later, when we had a meeting with [then Doctor Who showrunner] Russell T Davies.
JM: Russell actually was hugely influential on the beginning of Merlin. Because we sat in a hotel room, a hotel conference room with Russell and talked to him about his approach to Doctor Who and how he would approach something like Merlin. It was only a morning, but it was incredibly valuable.
Anthony Head, Uther Pendragon: I read the script and thought ‘Well this could go horribly wrong, or it could be really cool. It depends on what the vibe is. Because if they decide to make it like a kids’ show it could be really really twee.
And I had a meeting with James Hawes, who directed the first episode. And I upfront said ‘Look – my taking this depends on what your vibe is.’ And he said right off the bat ‘No, this is gonna be quite dark. It’s a family show but it’s got a dark underbelly.’ And I was in from that moment on.
JM: We became magpies – we stole the bits of Arthurian myth we liked then ignored the bits we didn’t.
JC: We wanted to embrace as much as the legend we could, though some bits were too adult in their content. For the audience we were playing to you could hint at it, but it didn’t feel tonally right for the series.
Casting the stars
The younger cast of Merlin L-R Angel Coulby (Guinevere), Bradley James (Arthur), Katie McGrath (Morgana), Colin Morgan (Merlin)
With the premise sorted and the scripts under way, the show needed a cast – and finding untested actors to take on the central roles of young Merlin, Guinevere, Morgana and Arthur wasn’t easy for the producers and casting director Jill Trevellick.
Colin Morgan, Merlin: I appreciate the trust from Johnny Capps and Julian Murphy to give me the opportunity and take the risk with me in the role.
It was such a special and exciting opportunity that I was given at that time in my life.
Julian Murphy: It wasn’t easy. Because we were casting big parts, young actors. Obviously that didn’t apply to Richard Wilson and Tony Head, we sort of knew what they were capable of at that time!
So you do far more auditions than you would with younger actors, and you do put them together.
Bradley James, Arthur: The first I heard of it was I was doing a pilot for Johnny Caps and Julian Murphy, which was a BBC pilot called Disconnected. This would have been at the back end of the summer of 2007. And as we were filming it, they mentioned another show they were developing, told me about a part they thought I’d be right for.
We did that show, the pilot didn’t get picked up. I then didn’t hear anything for a while other than the fact that every drama school graduate and his dog was going in to audition for this TV show called Merlin. I then got a call saying Johnny and Julian would like to see you, and I pretended to be calm and casual about it, acting like I hadn’t spent the last few weeks worrying about being forgotten.
Johnny Capps: In my mind, Bradley was always going to play the part because we’d worked with him on a couple of pilots before, and I knew he had a great comic ability. But we met a lot of other actors – and he was ultimately the one who won us all over.
Katie McGrath, Morgana: I actually hadn’t been acting that long when I first started auditioning for it. I remember going into my first audition, and there was a guy reading in the room before I went in. In retrospect, I remembered when we started filming that it was Colin! We both met each other on our first audition for it, and I didn’t put two and two together until we were actually cast that he was the guy, the two of us just sat there chatting before we went in.
There was something about Morgana, something about the girl that she started out in the show and the woman that they wanted her to become that really made me feel like this was something I could do.
Especially because her character trajectory mirrored what I was going through. She was very unsure about herself and her abilities and her powers, and that was kind of me with acting.
Richard Wilson, Gaius: The thing that appealed to me about it was I’d never done that sort of semi-children’s thing before, and it seemed a very good idea. And I think, if I remember, they left…well I don’t know if they’d left the casting of Merlin ’til last, but they couldn’t get anyone!
JC: Casting Merlin was really really hard because you needed to find an actor who had a really big, broad playing range, but also could handle the fact that it’s not naturalistic drama. So you couldn’t have an actor who was just going to play it in an incredibly earnest, real way.
You wanted somebody that could find the truth, but also find the truth as it exists in that kind of fantasy world.
JM: Interestingly, in the early days Matt Smith was in the frame for Merlin. And we just felt that he was too old – not that he wasn’t great. And he was too old, really.
I think there’s a certain kind of actor who has the lightness and skill to play that sort of family drama, and I think both Colin Morgan and Matt Smith are that kind of actor. It’s a mercurial quality. And they’re light on their feet. That’s the skill they had.
And I think Colin and Bradley had a chemistry, and a natural comic affinity that we could see in the audition and became very central to the series.
JC: There was lots of really interesting actors on the shortlist. And we thought Matt was absolutely brilliant, but Colin just had that quality, he just had the right quality.
The early days
Filming for Merlin was split between Cardiff, Surrey and France at the Château de Pierrefonds, a castle which doubled for the exterior scenes of Camelot – and when production began, the young cast had to quickly find their feet.
Katie McGrath: I was out of my MIND nervous on set! I didn’t know anything – I found out I didn’t even know what I was doing. They were like ‘OK Katie, there’s your mark, just come in and find your light’ and I was like ‘Er, sorry what now? What do you want me to do?’
I was completely bloody clueless. It was useless.
Anthony Head: Even in the very first episode you had a stunning performance by Eve Myles. I remember when she played a mother of the guy who Uther was having killed for witchcraft. And she was actually the witch.
And we shot that scene where she breaks down in front of me, in Pierrefonds, and all the French extras just applauded her because it was stunning.
Bradley James: I almost have an idea of my first scene being me walking down a corridor or something, really uneventful. But the first scene I properly remember doing is when Merlin walks in and he goes ‘Oh I’ve done this’ and I go ‘You’ve done what?’ And basically just rip into him for a solid minute (laughs)
If it wasn’t the first scene it was one of our first scenes. And obviously a good way to build a relationship with someone you’re gonna work with for five years is to do a scene where you’re just hollering at them for take after take.
Getting into the groove
The day-to-day realities of filming Merlin – a series which over its five years featured dragons, undead Knights, trolls, Questing Beasts and all manner of malign sorcerors – were a unique challenge, especially considering the sheer level of special effects required.
But even in the early days, there was a sense that they were making something special
Katie McGrath: There was such a suspension of disbelief on a day-to-day basis. You know, you are now talking to a dragon, but the dragon is a tennis ball with the AD voicing him. And if you didn’t believe it no-one watching would either, so you just had to go with it.
Bradley James: There was a lot of buzz around it, even though the first sort of scenes were just bits and pieces. There was a lot of buzz from everyone involved.
And at the time I just assumed this was normal, this was how it works when you get onto a new project and everyone’s feeling like that. With hindsight my experiences since have taught me it’s not always like that.
Anthony Head: I do remember walking across the square of Pierrefonds in costume, and you could feel your cloak sort of catching the wind behind you, and you couldn’t help but strut your stuff.
Because it was just, you felt so cool! It was like dressing up, like a little boy.
Richard Wilson: Playing Gauis was quite good fun. We had a whole team of writers – and I don’t remember their names now, but some of them were brilliant, and some were not quite so brilliant.
And of course it was such a long time ago and I’m so old now that I forget things. I can’t remember which were the better ones. And we had some very good directors.
Colin Morgan: It was the best cast of actors I could have ever hoped to work with, with a supportive crew working so hard and with such skill and spirit.
And of course all the amazing support we received and continue to receive from fans of the show old and new made it among the most enjoyable [years] of my career to date.
A punishing schedule
Merlin’s schedule and budget meant that filming had to be achieved as efficiently as possible, which proved tricky considering there was only one Colin Morgan to go around.
Johnny Capps: There was a practical challenge in that we were always chasing our tails production-wise. The show was commissioned very quickly and we had to get the scripts done quickly. And I think there was a time challenge of always finding great stories and things for the characters to do within the time pressures.
Julian Murphy: We used to deliver Merlin two days before it aired, episode by episode.
And that was a show with a lot of CGI, so it’s scary stuff! And we got down to that tight at times because they wanted it to be in its slot, it had to be in its slot, which is fair enough. But it was very tight.
Katie McGrath: Basically after filming Merlin, everything is a walk in the park. There’s a scene at the start of season four or five, and it’s me and Emilia Fox. And they only had Millie for a couple of days, so we shot all of Millie’s stuff and all of the wides, but to do my coverage we didn’t have Emilia, because she went off to Silent Witness.
So my stuff, they’d pick up as and when they could, with one of the Assistant Directors reading in her lines. And it actually took, to finish that scene completely, nearly four months.
But however hard it was for me, it was nothing compared to what Colin and Bradley had to go on.
Richard Wilson: I mean, Colin Morgan of course was a brilliant piece of casting. They were so lucky because Colin was a really hard worker. A wonderful actor, and did his job brilliantly. He had a huge schedule, he had a lot to do. He was in more or less every scene.
Anthony Head: They’d do a thing where we would run two or three episodes at times literally together. So they’d put all the scenes from one episode alongside the other episode.
They would have two units, or three, shooting at the same time in different areas. And it was alright for someone like me, but Colin, bless his heart, literally he’d finish his scene and then he’d run to the other unit because he was slightly behind. The scheduling was insane.
Bradley James: I’ve never had a job anywhere near as hard. We didn’t realise this at the time, but there were working us to the bone in terms of the hours we’d do and then the extra commitments with regards to publicity and things in your time off.
You’d go in and be doing what would be scheduled as a 12-hour day. You’d be picked up an hour and a half before that, and then you’d get home at night going over the scenes for the next day. You’d probably already prepped them over the weekend. That’s if you hadn’t been sent to a convention or something like that.
We really did go all-out, but at the time we didn’t know any different.
JM: It’s hard to sustain the quality. It’s not like you make a show now, and often you’re given time to make all the episodes before anything airs. We were still shooting it while it was airing! We were admittedly near the end of it, but we were.
And I think that means that there were certainly one, sometimes two episodes a series where we just made bad choices. And sometimes those episodes were saved by clever writing and great acting, and sometimes they weren’t.
The guest stars
Over the years Merlin had a truly impressive roster of guest stars, with the likes of Charles Dance, Michelle Ryan, Liam Cunningham, Emilia Fox, Adrian Lester, Asa Butterfield, Sarah Parish and John Lynch all cropping up to lend their skills to an episode or two. Apparently, Merlin offered a unique opportunity…
Julian Murphy: A lot of actors like guest parts, because they don’t take too long but they can be very satisfying and challenging parts. So that always helps you. Many of those actors had children and families who loved the show, and once we’d made one series it was very easy for us to get these people.
Katie McGrath: In a way it was quite nice that I was bit a clueless back then, because then I wasn’t that daunted or scared by these legends coming on set. Except for Charles Dance, that man had the most amazing screen presence and freaked me out every time he was on screen. He’s incredible, but acting with him! Oh God.
My default when I’m nervous is to start laughing, so there’s a whole scene with me and him where they couldn’t use anything because I’d just keep giggling in the middle of it. He’s just got such presence when you meet him. If you think how much it is onscreen, in person it’s insane.
Bradley James: Charles has had to put up with me on numerous occasions. I definitely count myself lucky with the people who did come in.
Anthony Head: I remember all of them, I remember Charlie. The thing was, if you’re offered a guest role it’s got to be meaty, it’s got to have something to play. And it always did. They always had, it wasn’t just obvious, they weren’t just here for such and such a reason.
All the characters always had levels. And it was fascinating because of that.
While there were highs and lows throughout the five-year shoot, everyone involved still has fond memories of their time working on the series.
Julian Murphy: I think there’s a couple of episodes that I think we feel were very strong. I think The Last Dragonlord episode [at the end of series two] where John Lynch first appears as Colin’s father was a very moving and powerful episode.
Johnny Capps: I agree with Julian, that was really good fun. That was going to be an opening episode for series three but it became a final episode. And it was just such a strong idea but we realised it wasn’t a good episode one, it was a really good episode 13. And then we had something to work to quite definitively.
I also loved all of the iconic episodes – I liked when we had fun with the legend.
JM: I think we’re all quite proud of the way we did the sword in the stone. Because we felt a real pressure to find an original way of doing it – and it’s not easy. So I think that episode stands out too.
Anthony Head: I remember there was one instance where Katie and I, Morgana, we were supposed to be having a horse race across this open field.
But the truck with all the horses’ food was at the top of the hill, and every time she overtook me she’d start to veer off sideways towards the hill, because the horse was going back to eat. It was so funny!
Bradley James: The big transition for me was when the knights turned up. I’ve always had a group of guy mates, and felt most comfortable in those surroundings. And as soon as I got a five-a-side football team’ worth of knights around me I thought ‘Oh, this is a laugh.’
All of a sudden I was given this set of mates who I got to run around in a forest with and swing swords around. Not that it was bad before, just that it made things much more enjoyable when the knights turned up, and it got into a more familiar setting for me – I’ve always had big groups of guy mates.
Richard Wilson: Most of my work was with Colin, because we were together in the writing. But he was just wonderful to work with. Very good.
The difficult days
Though of course, even outside the brutal scheduling there were more challenging aspects to making Merlin a success.
Julian Murphy: I think the challenge with any family show is to make it work for the adults. You’ve got to want the mum and dad to be sitting down as much as the kid. And getting a show to work well on both those levels is genuinely difficult – it really is.
When you make a show that’s successful, there’s a slight pressure always to do the same thing again. And I think it’s really important that you don’t, that you change it and make it grow. Each year we did sit down and say we’ve got to take this further, and we have to take this to a different place.
And that’s part of the reason it got darker. We were consciously pushing it to new places. Because otherwise I think you start trotting out a formula very very quickly, and a modern audience spots that formula just as quickly.
Richard Wilson: I was partly an assistant director at Sheffield then, so I was going from Cardiff to France, to Sheffield, to London. Which is rather a lot of travelling! I was lucky, being a senior member, that I got driven from London to Cardiff, and back. I think the others had to get the train.
Katie McGrath: If you had a shadow of a doubt about what you were doing – and there were days where you did, because you’re human – it made your job much harder. You had to buy into it completely or it didn’t make sense. You had to just drink the Kool-aid and go with it.
Bradley and Colin were both amazing at it, I have to say, of completely believing and buying into everything that they did. Bradley was Prince Arthur, and then King Arthur. By the end of it I wasn’t sure where one ended and one began. And Colin obviously is possibly one of the best actors of our generation, and he made everything look easy.
In the end, after five series and 65 episodes Merlin drew to a close in 2013 – and according to both the cast and crew, the end of Merlin had been written from day one.
Julian Murphy: I’m not saying I’m often in that place, but from the start we saw it running five series, and we always thought it would end pretty much where we ended. We always at the end believed we’d get to the Morte D’Arthur.
Johnny Capps: We knew that the final moment of season five would be the death of Arthur, and Merlin throwing the sword into the lake. We knew that was the end point of the series.
JM: Unless you’re Doctor Who, which is rare and lucky, endings are important. You have to pay off those characters and their journey in some way. We really didn’t want to see the spin-off series of so-and so’s life. it just isn’t right, and it so rarely works.
Anthony Head: There wasn’t a point where I went ‘awwww’ – because I’d always known that it was going to happen. It was such a lovely crew, and such a lovely shoot – apart from the rain. It was a nice place of work. Everybody was invested.
You didn’t feel at any point anybody was just doing work because they had to. Everybody was hugely invested in it. Johnny and Julian as producers were really hand on, which was lovely.
Richard Wilson: I think I haven’t missed it. I enjoyed it, but I thought five years is quite enough.
Bradley James: They got us early on. We were young, fresh idiots out of drama school and they were like ‘Right, you’re signing up for five years.’ That was great both at the time and even more in hindsight, to create that bubble for us.
And then we started the beginning of that fifth year, and the question got put to myself and Colin as to whether we’d consider doing more. I can’t speak for Colin, but I certainly felt like the passion was not there across the board to go on and do more.
When the question came we were probably both ready to go. I mean again, I won’t speak for someone else, but I was ready to take the chain mail off.
Could Merlin ever return?
Colin Morgan in Merlin (BBC, HF)
Today, many fans still wonder if there could be some return for the series – and while it’s unlikely this particular cast will ever reunite, it’s not outside the realms of possibility that Merlin’s world will have some form of future.
Richard Wilson: I still get younger people coming up to me and saying ‘Is there no chance that Merlin’s not going to start again?’
Of course the youngsters wanted to get out and do other stuff. They wanted to make their mark. They didn’t want to get into something that was just going to go on and on and on when they had so much to offer.
Katie McGrath: I have no doubt that at some point they will give a remake a go, and it’ll break my heart to see somebody else play Morgana.
She was so wonderful for me, I couldn’t deny that gift to somebody else. She’s been amazing – she still is, I still use her in other performances. I still find myself doing ‘smirkana’ every so often. Nope – probably shouldn’t do that!
Julian Murphy: I think you could mine that legend for a lifetime and you wouldn’t scratch the surface. It’s huge, and there’s so much out there.
I think we all remain fascinated by that legend. And I think one day we want to return to it. But I think we’d return to it in a very very different way. And that’s right. And maybe that time will come – I don’t think it’s quite yet – but I think we will return to the legend. I hope it will be something that’s completely different.
Anthony Head: It’s certainly probably time for the BBC to get Merlin out there once more. Wheel it out again on BBC3 or something, or iPlayer.
Years on, Merlin remains incredibly popular with young fans, and is watched (and discussed) online to this day – and the careers of its young leads aren’t the only legacy of the series.
Colin Morgan: It’s hard to believe it’s been 10 years since I first began on the journey of Merlin. It was such a special and exciting opportunity that I was given at that time in my life.
Katie McGrath: I’m constantly surprised at the people who stop me years later, and even in America, and now in Canada, that are completely in love with this show and haven’t let it go. I think its being on Netflix in America now, it’s found a whole new audience. I honestly believe it’s going to be our new generation’s Doctor Who – that people will remember and hold on to.
Julian Murphy: It’s a great feeling to know that TV lasts. You do often have a sense that no matter how good something is it doesn’t last.
We are aware of how many people still watch it, how its still aired, how it’s still successful. And it’s fascinating. There are shows in TV that do that, but they’re not very common.
Anthony Head: It’s a really solid cast, and there aren’t any weak links, nobody who you think ‘Oh it’s a pity about them.’
But also the storylines were really fun, and really exciting, and really intricate. The locations are stunning, the animation is remarkable, the computer graphics.
Colin Morgan and Bradley James in Merlin (BBC, HF)
Richard Wilson: I think it was a very unusual show full of one-offs that they made work really well. And especially the special effects and things, they were so well done. It just worked brilliantly. And as I say, when it stopped there were children around the world absolutely horrified to find out that it was stopping.
Johnny Capps: I think the very fact that Merlin is a legend and it’s lasted this amount of time shows that there’s a fascination in the story. The Knights of the round table, King Arthur, Merlin – there’s something in our DNA, a fascination. There’s a romance about it which people still are intrigued by.
Bradley James: Obviously you can’t run Doctor Who for 52 weeks of the year, and I think that opened up room for other shows like it. There have been successes and failures for what is able to fit in that slot.
Most things are gonna struggle to have the longevity of Doctor Who, but in terms of filling that slot for however long was necessary, we probably glanced more on the successful side.
KM: I think we can’t underestimate what Merlin and shows like it, that England and the BBC do so well, have done for TV as a whole. We’re living in the world of Game of Thrones, but Game of Thrones came after Merlin.
BJ: I haven’t watched the show back since it last aired, and I wonder how long it’ll be before I actually watch it back. And my fear is that I leave it too long, and the next time I watch it it’ll feel like a very separated experience from my body.
Talking to you about it now, I’m taken back to the mental environment I had for it. But I have a feeling if I were to watch the show back, I have a feeling I’d feel like I was watching a completely different human being swinging swords, delivering orders and riding around on horseback.
CM: I feel so proud of the show and everyone who made it possible and incredibly lucky that I got to be a part of it all.
You can watch the entire run of Merlin on Netflix now