Arthur of the Britons is a short-lived 24-episode British historical drama produced by Harlech Television (HTV) (now ITV Wales and West) in 1972 and 1973 and syndicated to the United States in the mid-1970s. The series departed from previous versions of the Arthurian legend on screen and placed events in the 6th Century, not long after the Romans left Britain. Previously reviewed media associated with Arthur of the Britons on Aeolus 13 Umbra include the 1975 film compilation of several key episodes, King Arthur, the Young Warlord and Arthur of the Britons: Original Soundtrack Recording (see separate articles on Aeolus 13 Umbra). In the U.K., it originally aired on Wednesdays at 4:50 p.m. and repeated Sundays at noon. The complete series is available below at the end of this article from a dedicated Aeolus 13 Umbra YouTube channel.
The series features Oliver Tobias as Arthur, not as a king, but rather as a local Celtic chieftain, one of many, who are disunited in the face of a Saxon invasion. Michael Gothard plays Kai, a Saxon orphan raised as a brother to Arthur by Llud (Jack Watson), a fearless one-handed warrior (his missing hand replaced by a silver one) who adopted both Arthur and Kai. The overall plot involves Arthur trying to unite the Celtic tribes, including his cousin the vigorous Mark of Cornwall (Brian Blessed), against the Saxons, led by Cerdig (Rupert Davies). Along the way, he forms fragile alliances with other tribes, such as the Jutes and their chief, Yorath (Georg Marischka) and his daughter Rowena (Gila von Weitershausen).
Set in 6th Century Britain, there are no mailed and armored knights jousting for the hand of some fair maiden in distress. Indeed, reflecting the women’s movement of the time, the “maidens” are often fiercely independent, such as Rowena. Characters retained from the Arthurian legend include Arthur, his adopted brother Kai (analogous to Sir Kay), and Mark of Cornwall, who in the Arthurian legends is the uncle of Tristan and husband of Iseult (Isolde). Nevertheless, there are notable differences. The sword in the stone is actually a sword under the stone placed there by Arthur himself. There is no Guinevere, no Lancelot, no magical or supernatural elements, and, significantly, no Merlin. Maurice Evans, Dr. Zaius in Planet of the Apes (1968), was slated to play the mystical mentor of Arthur, reported TV Today in an article dated June 15, 1972, but producer Paul Dromgoole dropped the idea as being out of step with the more "realistic theme" of the series.
While there was no actual King Arthur, the folk lore surrounding the tales could have its origin with several Romano-British or early British military commanders/war chiefs whose exploits melded together over time to form the basis of the Arthurian myth. Putting the Arthurian Legend into its historical context provides a matrix for audiences to gain an appreciation of a little-known period of time in the guise of an action-adventure drama.
|(Left to Right) Jack Watson (Llud), Oliver Tobias (Arthur), and Michael Gothard (Kai).|
Paul Dromgoole, executive producer for Arthur of the Britons, in his introduction to the book, Arthur of the Britons, by Terence Feely (adaptations of five episodes) acknowledges the Arthur of legend is “a fantasy.”
We do not pretend these television stories are based upon fact. They are as fictitious as all other Arthurian myths. They differ only in that they stay firmly within the bounds of historical possibility.
Upon first look at the series, one notices no castles or stonework ramparts, no fluttering banners, and no Round Table. It is a world of iron and wood and mud. This is the dirty Dark Ages, and one can almost smell it. In some respects, Arthur of the Britons takes its cue from the 1969 film Alfred the Great, starring David Hemmings, which took pains to provide a more realistic look at the clothes and dwellings of the inhabitants. This stands in direct contrast to the musical Camelot (1967), starring Richard Harris as Arthur and Hemmings as Mordred, whose fantasy of knights in shining armor, jousts, and immense castles more typify the classic Arthurian look.
|The gate to Arthur’s village. Not exactly Camelot.|
According to the liner notes for Arthur of the Britons: Original Soundtrack Recording, released in 2013 by ITV Global Media, to effect the look of a Dark Age settlement, producers constructed ”two complete palisaded villages of thatched wooden huts and halls, cattle and livestock and rare breeds.” Appropriate for the period, little in the way of armor is seen and no more than a dozen mounted men are typically on screen at any one time, which no doubt helped to save money on the underfunded production.
This more modest version of the Arthurian legend also fit the small budget the series had to work with. There are seldom more than a dozen mounted knights on screen at any one time, and far less in some episodes. Given the fashion of the times, many actors, such as Tobias and Gothard, wear their own, long carefully coiffed hair. The women also often have long, naturally-styled hair not much different from then-contemporary styles, though the exception is with the short-haired Rowena. The clothes have a raw, organic, almost unfinished look appropriate for a people living after the collapse of the Roman Empire, the loss of the trade goods that came with it, and were almost wholly dependent on local resources for their sustainment.
Arthur of the Britons had much to draw on in its recreation of Dark Age Anglo-Saxon villages as post-World War II archeological efforts provided a great deal more insight into how ordinary people lived and worked during those times. Today, recreations of the villages and living history demonstrations, much like Colonial Williamsburg in the United States, take place in such sites as The British Danelaw Centre for Living History at The Yorkshire Museum and West Stow Anglo-Saxon Village. The set design for Alfred the Great and Arthur of the Britons reflect this increasing awareness.
As discussed in the liner notes to the soundtrack, all 24 episodes of the series were produced for GBP500,000 in 1972, which equals approximately GBP6,480,746.79 (US$8,343,223) in 2019. This turns out to be just approximately US$347,634 per episode, far less than the estimated US$785,596 budgeted per episode for the notoriously cheap 1972-1973 Canadian sci-fi series, The Starlost (in approximate 2019 dollars).
|Period news clippings.|
The performers are, with a few exceptions, generally little-known outside the United Kingdom and Commonwealth countries. Oliver Tobias (Arthur) has had a long career in film and TV in Britain, Germany, and Switzerland which continues to this day. Michael Gothard enjoyed a successful post Arthur of the Britons career with roles in such films as The Three Musketeers (1973), For Your Eyes Only (1981), Lifeforce (1985), and Jack the Ripper (TV mini-series, 1985, starring Michael Caine). Unfortunately Gothard, suffering from depression, committed suicide in 1992.
American Fans of British comedy, drama, mystery, and sci-fi may recognize some of the other faces. Most familiar likely is Brian Blessed (Mark of Cornwall), whose appearances in such films and TV shows as Space: 1999 (two episodes), I, Claudius (TV mini-series, 1976) including Flash Gordon (1980), The Black Adder (1983), Henry V (1989), and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991) have made him one of the most well-respected genre actors on both sides of the pond.
Jack Watson (Llud) is much less familiar to American audiences, but Brit TV fans may recognize him from appearances in such shows as The Avengers (1965 & 1967), Upstairs Downstairs (1977), and All Creatures Great and Small (1978, 1988, & 1990). He also turned in memorable performances as the noble Cpl. Peacock in the 1968 film The Devil’s Brigade and as R.M.S. Young in The Wild Geese (1978), starring former King Arthur Richard Harris.
Guest stars include Tom Baker (Dr. Who, The Black Adder, Monarch of the Glen, and many more) in a dual role as Brandreth/Gavron in the episode “Go Warily,” which also features future Darth Vader David Prowse as Brosk (Prowse also turns up in “The Slave”). Peter Bowles (I, Claudius, To the Manor Born, Rumpole of the Bailey) stars as Hecla in “Rowena,” Michael Gambone (Dumbledore, Harry Potter series) appears as Roland in “The Prisoner,” and the lovely Catherine Schell (Space: 1999, The Return of the Pink Panther) plays Benedicta in, “The Girl from Rome.”
|(Left to Right) Llud, Arthur, and Kai. Mounted and ready for battle.|
My recollection of the series dates back to about 1975, probably during its first syndicated run in the U.S. on PBS stations. My brother, a dedicated Arthurian scholar even then, made the family watch it every week, and I was immediately taken with the series, the action, and the revolutionary approach in putting Arthur within the historical context of the time from which the legend sprang. It was some four decades later before I saw the series again and, to my surprise, I was pleased to see I had remembered the final episode, “The Girl from Rome.”
While definitely a fringe genre series, fan interest remained sufficient enough for the release of the four-disc series compilation Region 2 DVD box set in 2008 and the Arthur of the Britons: Original Soundtrack Recording in 2013, featuring the epic, rousing opening theme by Elmer Bernstein. That’s pretty good for a series nearly five decades old.
Descriptions by G. Jack Urso. Click on the links below to view the episodes
on the Aeolus 13 Umbra Arthur of the Britons YouTube channel!
Series 1 (1972–1973)
Episode 1: Arthur is Dead | Original Airdate December 6 1972
Arthur fakes his death in order to unite the various Celtic factions against the Saxon invaders led by recurring antagonist Cerdig (Rupert Davies), the Saxon chieftain.
Episode 2: The Gift of Life | Original Airdate December 13, 1972
Kai must return two orphaned Saxon girls to their village, but trouble erupts when the girls reveal Kai’s identity to the villagers.
Episode 3: The Challenge | Original Airdate December 13, 1972
Two cousins fight over their inheritance, leaving their village open to a Saxon attack.
Episode 4: The Penitent Invader | Original Airdate December 20, 1972
Rolf, newly converted to Christianity, continues his violent ways. Llud tries to convince him to change.
Episode 5: People of the Plough| Original Airdate January 3, 1973
Kai, on his way to acquire weapons, encounters a Saxon woman whose husband was captured by a man who turns out to be the weaponsmith Kai is looking for.
Episode 6: The Duel | Original Airdate January 10, 1973
As the Celts ready for battle against the Saxons, Llud accidentally kills Mark of Cornwell’s second-in-command. Arthur must deal with the fallout and keep the Celts united.
|Ready for the charge in “The Duel.”|
Episode 7: The Pupil | Original Airdate January 17, 1973
Arthur is approach by a young man (Peter Firth) seeking to be trained as a warrior supposedly to protect his village, but really to take revenge against the man who killed his father, only to later learn Arthur is the killer.
Episode 8: Rolf the Preacher | Original Airdate January 24, 1973
Rolf, once a fierce warrior, returns in this episode now taking his conversion to Christianity seriously and preaching a doctrine of pacifism, which soon robs Arthur of fighting men needed for his army.
Episode 9: Enemies and Lovers | Original Airdate January 31, 1973
Arthur and Kai visit a village whose residents question whether they are really Saxon spies. The situation becomes more complicated when Kai gets involved with a former lover and the two plan marriage.
Episode 10: The Slave | Original Airdate February 7, 1973
With all the men of a village enslaved by the Saxons, Arthur, Kai, and Llud instigate a daring plot with the help of a Saxon girl to free captured Celts.
Episode 11: The Wood People | Original Airdate February 14, 1973
A former Saxon gladiator captures two children of the Wood People to trade for Arthur. Arthur’s men unite with the Wood People to save the children and bring yet another tribe into alliance with Arthur.
Episode 12: The Prize | Original Airdate February 21, 1973
Arthur, Mark of Cornwall, and a select group of men disguised as Saxons plunge deep into Saxon lands purportedly in search of treasure, but Arthur’s real prize is the lives of the captured Kai and Llud.
Series 2 (1973)
Episode 1: The Swordsman | Original Airdate September 12, 1973
Defending Kai from a false accusation of murder, Arthur must face a great swordsman in a duel to the death.
Episode 2: Rowena | Original Airdate September 19, 1973
In exchange for new horses from Yorath the Jute, Arthur must escort his Yorath’s reluctant daughter Rowena to her betrothed, the Celt Hecla (guest star Peter Bowles).
Episode 3: The Prisoner | Original Airdate September 26, 1973
Mark of Cornwall hunts a Saxon who injured him in battle and who turns out to be a childhood friend of Kai. Guest Star Michael Gambone as Roland.
Episode 4: Some Saxon Women | Original Airdate October 3, 1973
Yorath the Jute must turn five Saxon women over to a Greek trader in exchange for wine. Rowena seeks Arthur’s help to stop the deal. Arthur must find a way to help the women without damaging his alliance with Yorath.
Episode 5: Go Warily | Original Airdate October 10, 1973
Two twin Celt brothers disagree over whether to join with Arthur’s alliance. Llud has a dream which may be key to resolving the conflict. Guest stars Tom Baker as Brandreth /Gavron and David Prowse as Brosk (as Dave Prowse).
Episode 6: The Marriage Feast | Original Airdate October 17, 1973
Mark of Cornwall plans to marry Rowena in order to get her father Yorath’s land. Yorath agrees to fight the Saxons for Arthur if Arthur can prevent the marriage from happening.
Rowena (Gila von Weitershausen).
Episode 7: In Common Cause | Original Airdate October 24, 1973
When the Saxons’ livestock begin to die off due to disease, a monk who claims to have the cure forces the Celts and Saxons to work together. A wary Cerdig, the Saxon chieftain, demands a hostage from Arthur before he agrees to cooperate.
Episode 8: Six Measures of Silver | Original Airdate October 31, 1973
Kurk, a friend of Llud, sells three head of cattle to Rowena, but trouble erupts when the man form whom Kurk stole the cattle from wants them back — at any cost.
Episode 9: Daughter of the King | Original Airdate November 7, 1973
Eithna, the daughter of Chief Bavick finds herself captured by Arthur’s men. Arthur wants to use her to compel her father to enter into alliance with him, but the fiercely independent Eithna has other plans.
Episode 10: The Games | Original Airdate November 14, 1973
Mark of Cornwall tries to use the annual Celtic Games to maneuver out of his alliance with Arthur.
Episode 11: The Treaty | Original Airdate November 21, 1973
Scots invaders lead Arthur to try and convince Cerdig the Saxon and Yorath the Jute into alliance with Arthur’s Celts
Episode 12: The Girl from Rome | Original Airdate November 21, 1973
Despite protests from Kai and Llud, Arthur finds himself falling in love with Benedicta (Catherine Schell), an imperious Roman aristocrat shipwrecked in his territory.
|Benedicta (Catherine Schell).|
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