Chris Chibnall was the only writer, other than the show’s creator, to write for both series of the BAFTA award-winning BBC One police drama Life on Mars. He became head writer and co-producer of the science fiction drama Torchwood, writing eight episodes during the first two seasons, including both series finales.
His new drama for the Starz Channel, Camelot, tells the story of King Arthur (Jamie Campbell Bower) from a new perspective. Here the son of King Uther is placed on the throne by the sorcerer Merlin (Joseph Fiennes). But Arthur’s ambitious half sister Morgan (Eva Green) will fight him to the bitter end, wanting the throne for herself.
Chris Chibnall spoke with the members of the TV Critics Association about his new take on an old legend.
As a child growing up, do you remember the very first version that you encountered of the King Arthur legend?
My embarrassing confession is that my father is Camelot, the musical, obsessive. So as a child, when we were going to visit relatives on the weekend, whenever we were driving back on these three-hour drives, he would be playing the musical soundtrack on repeat on the cassette in our car to the extent that we begged him never to play it ever again.
That was my first exposure to Camelot and King Arthur. So it’s been in me ever since then.
Is this the Camelot from the sword in the stone to the death of Arthur, or is this taking the story in a different direction so there could be a Season 2?
We have a grand plan, which if we get things right, I hope we’ll have multiple seasons. We are telling the story of Camelot, really using Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur as our source material.
We’re starting right from the birth of Arthur, and we’re going through. We are just about to do our version of sword in the stone this week, which is not like any other version you’ve seen.
What we’re looking at is what might be the truth that lies behind the myth. If you or I were in the Dark Ages and transplanted there today, what would have been the events that could have contributed to these myths, because myths grow and change and shift in the retelling over time.
What was interesting to me when we were talking about Camelot was excavating what it might be like to have lived then and how these stories might have come about.
Can you talk about the cast?
We’ve got Joe Fiennes playing Merlin, Eva Green doing her first television series. We’ve got a wonderful Arthur in Jamie Campbell Bower who is a really terrific actor. We’ve got Tamsin Egerton as Guinevere. And we’ve got some great guest stars coming, including Fitz Regan, Sinead Cusack and Sebastian Koch.
How important is magic in this version?
The magic is very much a part of our storytelling. What powers Merlin has, how much he can control them, and how that plays into his character is really part of the story that you will see in Camelot.
Because of the grandeur of the setting, did you have to create a lot of these structures or are you using some of those wonderful castles that exist now?
No, we’ve pretty much created most of the things you’ll see on screen because obviously when you talk about Arthurian legend, you’re talking about the Dark Ages essentially in terms of when the myth is supposed to have taken place.
Rrally very few of those structures are still in existence. So what we’ve done is found great landscapes to put those in. And a lot of it is down to our amazing designer, Tom Conroy, and some great effects work as well. I hope you’ll agree. So it’s pretty much all constructed.
There are a few Irish ruins in there; I don’t mean any of the actors. I just mean the buildings! But mostly it’s stuff that we’ve constructed ourselves. But the landscape is the thing that is a real part of the show’s voice. And doing it in Ireland has been amazing for that.
Do you see this as something akin to Spartacus, which is a historical romance for grow ups, or do you see it as a more family-oriented show?
I would say this is absolutely a drama for adults. I think there are aspects that older members of the family will enjoy.
We’ve approached it as a drama for adults about characters with complex, conflicting desires. There is some sex in there. There is some violence in there. It’s a show for adults.
It’s not really a family show. There are other versions of the myth that have been told in family shows really brilliantly, but we’re more in the Rome mold or the Spartacus mold.
I imagine this Arthur is going to be a bit more randy than Richard Burton played it on Broadway.
This is an adult drama, but I think we are our own show.
I think the amazing thing about Camelot is you can talk about political pursuits. You can talk about great agendas. You can talk about a king bringing hope to a turbulent kingdom. But the extraordinary thing is all of the versions of Camelot and Arthurian legend is it’s all about the romance.
It’s all about the passion. It’s all about great ideals compromised by falling in love with the wrong person.