The patchwork of fields around Wicklow, Ireland, are echoing to the clash of heavy broadswords as King Arthur’s knights ride into battle. The young Arthur himself is leading his men in defence of throne and realm.
From the castle on the hill behind him he is watched by his half-sister, the sorceress Morgan Le Fay, who is plotting his downfall so she can inherit his crown.
Yes, just another working day in Camelot, the fabled capital of Arthur’s medieval kingdom and also the title of a mega-budget TV series that begins next month – shifted from its mythical location of Cornwall to the Irish Republic to take advantage of the stunning scenery and the local tax breaks.
‘Arthur has got his hands full with me,’ says sultry French actress Eva Green, who plays Morgan. A former Bond girl, her double agent Vesper Lynd broke Daniel Craig’s heart in his 007 debut Casino Royale and won her a Rising Star Bafta. ‘Morgan is a mass of contradictions – a saint, a healer and a witch – which confuses Arthur. She starts as somebody damaged and bitterly ruthless, yet little by little she shows her vulnerabilities.’
Arthur is played by Jamie Campbell Bower, in his first major acting role. He was cast alongside Robert Pattinson in Twilight, as powerful vampire Caius, and the dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald in Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows. Joseph Fiennes plays Merlin – ‘although this is a new take on an old sorcerer’, he insists, anxious to distance this role from BBC1’s more family-friendly Merlin.
For Eva Green, though, making the ten-part Camelot for TV helped her overcome a disturbing crisis in her professional life.‘I had suddenly developed stage fright and lost all my self-confidence on stage. In my last show, in Paris, my mind kept going blank on stage. I just wanted to die each time. So working on Camelot was a lot easier, because with TV and films you can keep going back until you get it right. There are some big crowd scenes in Camelot, and I did wonder if performing in front of them would be like going on stage, and I’d dry up, but luckily it all went well.’
The story tells how in the wake of King Uther’s sudden death – a murder orchestrated by his daughter Morgan – chaos threatens to engulf Britain. Merlin installs on the throne the young and impetuous Arthur, Uther’s unknown son and heir, who has been raised from birth as a commoner. But Morgan plans to fight him to the bitter end, using magic and womanly wiles.
Camelot is being brought to the screen by the same American production team behind the raunchy, sexually explicit The Tudors and Spartacus: Blood And Sand. Its scale is big and bold, with dramatic costumes designed by three-time Emmy winner Joan Bergin, and certainly isn’t without generous helpings of lust and violence. ‘At drama school I always used to play Lady Macbeth or Cleopatra,’ says Eva, 30. ‘So I’ve always been drawn to complicated, dark characters. They’re more interesting.’
She says she received lots of Bond-style scripts after Casino Royale, a film she at first turned down. ‘People see me as this sexy French girl who drinks and smokes, which amuses me. I’m not a scarlet woman, but that’s how they like to typecast me. ‘British men seem obsessed with French women. They build up the idea of us French girls having some magic extra sex appeal so much, they lose their head. It’s such a cliché to think all French girls are elegant and sexy. Some are utter slobs.
‘As for the sexual self-confidence that men seem to think we have, well, that’s a myth, too. I’ve done a lot of screen nudity but I could never bear to watch myself in any sex scenes – or any scenes, to be honest.’
More than £25 million has been sunk into Camelot, so it needs to become a worldwide success to claw back its investment. Naturally, a little bare flesh helps. ‘You do see my buttocks at least twice,’ says Jamie Campbell Bower. In the first episode, there is a nude outdoor scene with Arthur and a girl, where they are kissing under a tree. They are caught making love by young Arthur’s adopted brother Kay, played by Canadian Peter Mooney.
Later, there is a raunchy scene with Eva and muscular James Purefoy (Mark Antony in TV blockbuster Rome) who plays bloodthirsty King Lot. He is Morgan’s father’s sworn enemy and strongest opponent and she forms a dangerous allegiance with him.
Fiennes has made his Merlin look more sinister and hard by appearing with a completely shaved head. ‘I didn’t want to create a wizard stereotype with the starry pointed hat, long beard and a wand,’ he says. ‘I wanted to have fun with Merlin, because the more I read about him, the more mercurial and enjoyable he seemed. He’s an angel and devil rolled into one. I like to think of my Merlin as a thuggish monk or as a brutal politician. I think a lot of his power lay in his skill at manipulating people.’
Bedales-educated Jamie Campbell Bower is 22, with long blond hair and prettyboy looks – an unusual choice to portray Arthur, traditionally a rugged, squarejawed monarch. Bower, from Petersfield, Hampshire, who has never been to drama school, made his debut in Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street starring Johnny Depp. ‘I was so high on the adrenaline, I’d get back to school at 9pm – I was a boarder then – and everyone would be ready for bed but I’d be saying, “I’ve just been filming with Johnny Depp!” No wonder I couldn’t sleep.’
His first day of filming for Camelot was an ordeal, he admits. ‘I was incredibly nervous. We’d had a month of boot camp, learning to fight and ride, and swing those heavy broadswords. Excalibur, in particular, is huge. Those first scenes were a blur but I was fulfilling all my boyhood fantasies. It doesn’t get better than that.’