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A legend retold, but differently

By Cora Lucas
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 23:44:00 02/26/2009

Filed Under: Television, Entertainment (general)

MANILA, Philippines??If I had magic powers, I?d slow down time,? said Colin Morgan, who plays the young wizard Merlin in a fresh spin on the classic Arthurian legend. ?We?ve all found ourselves in situations where we [wish] to go back in time, or stop it.?

There?s no getting away from magic for the 23-year-old Irish actor, who obtained a National Diploma in Performing Arts at Belfast Institute of Further & Higher Education in Belfast, Northern Ireland in 2004. He went on to graduate from the prestigious Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow, Scotland in 2007.

He said he took interest in card tricks back when he was 3, which was why the cupboard in his room was filled with magic paraphernalia? cups, balls, cards, foam rabbits? name it.

So when he was cast in the title role of the forthcoming TV series, the actor from Armagh, Northern Ireland was so thrilled, it felt like a dream come true.

Episode 1 of ?Merlin,? which starts airing with a two-hour special on the Hallmark Channel on Sunday, 9 p.m., takes off with Merlin arriving in the mythical city of Camelot where, for mysterious reasons, magic has been banned by the ruthless King Uther. When he sees someone put to death for practicing magic, Merlin is left in the dark as to how he could use his gifts without risking his life.

Morgan said in an e-mail interview with the Inquirer, along with two other lead actors in the series: ?Merlin finds himself in a world where he can?t fully function. He very much relies on his mentor, Gaius, but he also receives advice from the Great Dragon, though more on a spiritual level. And we see him become more and more powerful.?

Interestingly, the series is not a rehash of the old legend that depicts the wizard in his older years. Neither is Prince Arthur the point of focus but Merlin, who becomes manservant to the future king. The retelling of the legend bridges the gap between Merlin the boy and Merlin the man.

The wise Gaius

?What?s interesting about the younger-Merlin aspect is that you can make up the history, the pre-history of that period of the Arthurian legend,? said Richard Wilson, who plays the royal physician Gaius. ?The producers have the idea that each episode is a sort of a series within itself so it?s a very large canvas to paint on. But you can see connections to the Arthurian legends being introduced. For example, Guinevere was a sterling maiden and then becomes queen.?

Wilson added that the exotic, medieval world of magic is also made different from past depictions by special effects. Fantasy is easier to create with computer generated image effects, he said, which producers in the past did not have access to.

?And we have a blended castle in France, which represents Camelot,? the Scottish actor and theater director said. ?And yes, we are much more able to do magic now.?

Bradley James, who plays the teenage boy who would become the legendary King Arthur, revealed that the producers unfold the story in batches?an interesting motivational technique to keep the actors on their toes.

?The producers tend to keep quiet about the development of the story,? said James, 24, who trained at Drama Centre London. ?Most of the scripts I?ve read are page-turners. That gives me excitement and I bring that level of excitement, that sort of passion to my work.?

Wilson was surprised to find out, for instance, that his character was believed to be dead. ?There are always surprises,? he said. ?That?s what makes it interesting.?

The most challenging scenes for the two young leads were the ones that propelled them to action. But for Wilson, it was simply getting on his feet the whole time. ?We go on set at 8 o?clock in the morning and we?re still standing until 8 o?clock at night,? explained Wilson, now 72. ?That can be very tiring for an old man.?

Getting along with the rest of the actors was a challenge as well, especially for Morgan and James who, like their characters Merlin and Arthur, took a while to warm up to each other. ?As the relationship between Merlin and Arthur evolved in this series, the relationship between Bradley and Colin vastly improved as well. It?s been a complete turnaround [since we first met]. So I?m looking forward to filming and doing scenes with him, preferably those where I can bully him some more,? James quipped.

There are similarities between the actors and the characters they play, according to the young leads. For Morgan, the likeness goes beyond their fascination for magic. ?Merlin and I put 100 percent in what we do,? said Morgan, who had to build his character from scratch in the absence of material for the young Merlin.

Enduring appeal

?I would say I have quite a similar athletic prowess as Arthur. Get me on a football field and I?ll show you an Arthurian-like performance,? said James, who watched the warrior-leaders in ?Gladiator? and ?300? to prepare for his role, which evolved from brat to epic hero.

As for Wilson, there aren?t many similarities between him and Gaius. ?I?m bald, so it?s very nice to use wigs and have hair, it feels very different,? he said.

Camelot seems to have an enduring appeal, and James believes it has something to do with the patriotic aspect everyone can relate to. ?A sense of pride,? said James, noting the ?noble greatness? of King Arthur. ?It all boils down to certain characteristics of heroism and leadership. I think people want stories of that nature told.?

Succeeding episodes of ?Merlin? air Tuesdays starting March 10 at 9 p.m.

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