On the night before the most important battle of his life, King Arthur is visited by an old friend – one he never thought he would see again…
For the next six weeks, there’s a chance to dive into T.H. White’s wonderful evocation of the story of Arthur and Merlyn, courtesy of Radio 4’s Classic Serial. Adapted by Brian Sibley and directed by Gemma Jenkins, Marc Beeby and David Hunter, this new version tries to encompass all of White’s writings about the Once and Future King, with elements from all the books incorporated into the tale.
Rather than simply relay Arthur’s story chronologically, Sibley has made the wise decision to tell it as a series of flashbacks, as Merlyn finds a way to see his student for what may be the last time (as seen in The Book of Merlyn). The hordes of Mordred are gathering, and Arthur and his knights are preparing for battle, but Merlyn takes the king on a trip down memory lane – and into the events of The Sword in the Stone.
Arthur (or the Wart as he is more properly known here) goes through various transmogrifications, with his time as an Ant particularly well realised, as he begins to learn about the human condition, and how it differs in so many ways from other forms of life. We’re kept aware of the passage of time and the propinquity of the battle with reports coming in from around the country, and the final part of the hour introduces us to one of the other key characters in Arthur’s life.
Sibley maintains the humour of the situations, with scenes which feature mustard pots that serve themselves, and more than a few sardonic asides from Merlyn. The casting seems to work really well too: Paul Ready and Edward Bracey as the older and younger Arthur both spar well with David Warner’s Merlyn. Elizabeth Purnell’s music score has the capacity to surprise, sometimes providing exactly what you expect, and then doing something quite different.
Verdict: A very strong start that balances the lightness of young Arthur’s adventures with the more serious themes and events of the rest of the book. 8/10