Merlin desperately races to the King’s Chamber, trying to prevent Arthur from patricide. The loyal Sir Leon blocks the door, as within, Arthur gains the upper hand in a vicious sword fight, pinning his father to the chair. Suddenly the doors burst open, and Merlin uses the full force of his personality to get through to his Prince…
The above sequence probably took up about three minutes on screen at the end of episode eight of Merlin’s second season, Sins of the Father. Yet, like everything else in the show, it’s a combination of location and studio footage, mixing scenes shot in Cardiff and France weeks apart.
It’s a relief to learn that all the scenes being shot for Merlin are interiors on the day that we visit the set – it’s a very wet Welsh morning as we arrive. The studios, not far from the centre of Cardiff, and just round the corner from Doctor Who‘s headquarters at Upper Boat, hold many of the interior sets for the show – Arthur’s bedchamber, Gwen’s house, Gaius’ home, and the King’s Chamber principal among them.
To get to Arthur’s bedchamber, where most of the cast interviews take place, means walking through a huge gymnasium-sized room. At one end is the wardrobe department where ranks of armour sit beside clothing for peasants and kings alike. It comes as quite a surprise when you pick some of it up and realise that the chainmail and armour are the real thing, in terms of weight – although Health and Safety restrictions means that the armour itself has been slightly altered, with a neckpiece added to prevent serious injury during jousting scenes.
Next to the wardrobe are tents set up for lunch seating for cast and crew – as with most British shows, everyone mucks in together. After they’ve eaten, many of them repair across the room to a table tennis table, where a fierce competition develops between Bradley James, who plays Arthur, and one of the crew. There’s a strong atmosphere of community on the show – Richard Wilson, who plays Gaius, proudly tells us that a Merlin football team beat one from Gavin and Stacey 8-2 (although he admits that he wasn’t tempted to participate, wondering where the cast and crew find the energy after a 12 hour day on set.)
At the far end of the room is the workshop, where the crew are putting together the sets and props for the next block of episodes. It’s very rare that a piece of 21st century merchandise can be used as it stands, so the team race against the clock to fabricate the materials needed.
Off to the side of this working area, beside the entrance to the other sets, a large green area is painted on the wall and floor, ready for the many green screen sequences that are required for the show, notably Merlin’s encounters with The Great Dragon. Going through the curtains, you reach The King’s Chamber, the scene for most of the sequences being filmed today.
The sword battle between Arthur and Uther is rehearsed like a dance. The swords are heavy and could do damage if mishandled, so Bradley James and Tony Head as Uther prepare very carefully. Everyone stays out of their eyeline to avoid distraction, as they move backwards and forwards as if in slow motion.
To gain the shots he needs to edit this into a rapid battle, director Metin Huseyin films the sword fight from multiple angles, which means that James and Head aren’t actually at each other’s throats for as long as it appears on screen. However, it’s not just a physical battle between father and son – it’s an emotional one too, and there’s some discussion as to exactly where the lines of dialogue will come, and how both men will react.
In the finished episode, the battle is intercut with Merlin’s race – but those scenes have already been recorded some weeks earlier in France. Continuity is therefore vital, and pictures of how Colin Morgan and Rupert Young look are ever-present, since Merlin bursts through the doors on an exterior shot from France, and enters the Chamber in Cardiff, Sir Leon behind him.
While the actors take a needed break, we’re given a tour of the rest of the sets. For Merlin’s second year, the budget allowed for expansion of many of the standing sets – Arthur’s bedchamber is more elaborate; Merlin has gained his own separate room, rather than just disappearing behind a previously-unopened door; Gwen’s house is now a complete building rather than just a redressed portion of the set.
Painted backdrops match the exteriors of the French Chateau de Pierrefonds (plus whatever extensions to that the CGI experts had added). They look very fuzzy and unformed, but on screen they work perfectly, the false perspective afforded by that style tricking the eye on watching.
Attention to detail is everywhere. The scroll that Geoffrey of Monmouth used in the two-part Beauty and the Beast episode is on the props trolley – and it’s a fully-written out piece of medieval jurisprudence, with all the “whereats” and “heretofores” that you might expect. The show benefits from a good working relationship with some of the country’s leading historians who assist with Anglo-Saxon and medieval English translations where required.
That applies to the make up as well. After his interview, Richard Wilson invites us to watch him being made up as Gaius. A room off to the side of the stage is dedicated to hair and make up, with photos of all the regulars and guest cast adorning the walls.Wilson is clearly used to the process by now, as glue is applied to his head and the wig very carefully placed on, each strand brushed into place so that it appears natural.
The final scene that we witness is the confrontation between Merlin, Gaius, Uther and Arthur. After spending the day getting used to Colin Morgan speaking in his own soft Northern Irish accent, it’s a little disconcerting to hear his “Merlin voice” – at the same time as Tony Head plums up his accent for Uther’s regal tones. The scene is rehearsed a few times before the actors take a short break while the lighting is set up – a perfect time to travel forward the odd dozen centuries and step back into the reality of 21st Century Wales…