“Never before have the rulers of the Five Kingdoms come together in this way”, intones Uther to Arthur1, standing on the battlements with a vague air of “One day, my son, all this will be yours” with a definite overlay of “Not for quite a while if I can help it, the way you’re behaving at the moment, blimey if ever there was a justifiable cause for a king to slightly compromise his anti-magic stance and look into the possibility of a potion which might provide me a few centuries’ more life whilst you take your sweet time growing up into anything remotely resembling a mature human being…” The rulers in question are converging on Camelot for a peace conference of the kind I have a strong suspicion never happened, either in the Arthurian legends or in medieval history, but Merlin has cunningly wriggled its way into one of my many historical blindspots this week, and I’m not in a position to condemn it. Nicely played.
The diplomacy provides a lot of mail-clad glad-handing between kings who I’m sure were all on campaign together against the ogres on the northern marches at some point when they were headstrong young princes, and it never did them any harm. Mark Lewis Jones is not as unbearably hearty as that he might have been in his role as King Olaf From Back In The Princely Day, and for that he is owed our gratitude. He brings with him his daughter the Lady Vivian (Georgia Moffett), a mid-medieval Mean Girl who is immediately pegged as a wrong ‘un because she is rude to the servants (in the form of Gwen.) Hurrying onwards from the fact that the moral compass of this show at this point is so firmly fixed in Victorian notions of behaving well to your inferiors even if they don’t really deserve it, we may be pleased to note that when it comes to Lady Vivian, the clue’s in the title – she is a woman. Even among the back-slapping kings of the Camelot Conference, there lands the dainty treat and fluting pipe of feminine grace.
Because that’s really what we’re up against here. For those interested in the literary background of women being used as items of exchange in male relationships, Lorna Hutson’s The Usurer’s Daughter is worth a look, and this week’s plot revolves around how to stop Arthur shagging the Lady Vivian and thus precipitating the King Olaf into a murderous rage which may take out not only the peccant princeling, but a goodly number of his family, lands and retainers. Arthur and Vivian are so reciprocally keen because the deeply creepy jester Trickler (Kevin Eldon: he does the character in different voices, all of the somewhat shuddersome) has enchanted them at the behest of King Alined, a Bad King (see 1066 And All That, Appendix Arthuriana).
Arthur, who has clearly read the life of Cyrano de Bergerac, and know that if you have a friend with comically massive cranial appendages you get him to work up his woo for you, sets Merlin on to acquire the favour of the Lady Vivian. Merlin, with a level of misunderstanding which surely must be rare in one so aurally gifted by Mother Nature, thinks he means Gwen and cranks up the vicarious lovin’ in her direction, before having to hurriedly backpedal (which can’t be good for a young lad) and deal with the issue of Arthur and his peripatetic libido.
Whoever writes this stuff knows their audience, however, and before all can end happily we get quite a lot of Arthur being beaten up by King Olaf, then taking off his armour and wincing prettily. Then Gwen snogs him because either PLOT or MAGIC, I forget which, and the blonde (you could probably have guessed Lady Vivian’s tint already, but yeah) is sent away in tears. Which will teach her. Clearly if Gwen is going to have a passionately celibate attachment to Arthur, exacerbated by the chasm in their rank and station, it will not do if Arthur if having a rampantly uncelibate time of it with someone else. It all shows, as Bertie Wooster would say, a very proper feudal spirit.
1 And if you can’t read those last few words without thinking of that Auden poem, then neither can I and let’s take a few minutes out to read it.
Dr. Jem Bloomfield studied at the universities of Oxford and Exeter and is currently an Associate Lecturer in Drama at Oxford Brookes. His research covers the performance of Early Modern drama and the various ways it has been adapted and co-opted throughout the centuries. His own plays include “Bewick Gaudy”, which won the Cameron Mackintosh Award for New Writing, and he is working on a version of Oliver Goldsmith’s comedy “She Stoops To Conquer”. His writing on arts, culture, and politics have appeared in “California Literary Review”, “Strand Magazine” and “Liberal Conspiracy”. He blogs at “Quite Irregular” and can be found on Twitter @jembloomfield