Starz’ take on the Camelot legend hit the screen April 1. Just prior to that, co-creator Chris Chibnall spoke with our own Seth Arenstein  from Dorset, England, about this very political "Camelot," working with Starz chief Chris Albrecht and how his original pitch took a page from the ’08 U.S. presidential election.
CableFAX: After watching the first 3 episodes of Camelot, we were scrambling to find our old high school copies of Mallory and Tennyson to fact check. Are those books just the framework for your story or did you just want this Camelot to be good entertainment?
Chibnall: That’s a really good question. First and foremost I think I want it to be rollicking good entertainment. Then I want it to make people think about their own lives, a bit about the world we live in. And if it sends people back to look at the source material, the [Arthurian] legends, there must be thousands of them, that’s all to the good, because I do think it’s one of the great enduring stories and myths. And the fact that there are so many different versions tells you how potent all the ideas in it are.
CableFAX: When you plotted the series were you consulting the books? Several cast members told us they’d been reading the Arthurian legends.
Chibnall: Joe [Joseph Fiennes] and Eva [Green] particularly, I gave them a lot of source material to read and they went off and did their own investigations. There are so many different versions of these characters, they’re so iconic. For the actors, then, they need to see the possibilities of the character, you need to rule some stuff out. For me and Michael Hirst, who I co-created this with, it was very much about Thomas Mallory and the Morte d’Arthur, starting from that because it was very much the definitive start-to-finish version of the myth.
I think what’s fascinating about Mallory is that he was telling the Arthurian legend, which had been told before. But he was telling it in the 15th century as a way of commenting upon his own society. He was in prison when he wrote it. It’s a huge, 12-volume thing, it took him more than a decade to write while he was in prison, and it’s a political tract. How leaders should behave, what their responsibilities are, what we should expect from them. It’s about ideals and behaviors and principles.

CableFAX: I guess that’s why the myth endures, because it applies today as well.
Chibnall: Yes. I think the amazing thing about it is this, it has to be reapplied for every generation or every new set of people who is coming to it. The enduring thing about any myth is each person who retells it provides their resonances, their own emphases, their own particular set of characters and emotions. So the myth provides the framework and the detail, the texture and the tone is hopefully what each individual telling it brings to it himself.
CableFAX: So, that begs the question, what does Chris Chibnall bring to this tale?
Chibnall: (laughter) Two things I wanted really: A leader who promises hope; and then how as a leader and person do you deliver hope to a fractured and fractional society? How do you as a person try and  lead a country or a group of people? How do you live up to your promises? How are you compromised? How do your personal actions compromise your political ideals? That felt to me endlessly interesting and resonate throughout the ages. But really this issue of hope in a troubled world drove a lot for me.
So that’s the big theme that I think you’ll see during these first 10 [episodes].
The other thing I think you will see in these first 10, is that it’s about the foundations of Camelot. The series doesn’t arrive to find Arthur in place with all golden chairs and thrones. This is a Camelot that has to be built. The people have to be found, the materials have to be found. The building is run down. Nothing is in place at the start of this series. And the joyous thing about television is you have the space to show how you build that group of people. How does an ordinary guy put in place a kind of legendary court and administration?
Tonally, what always interests me is how you can tell these stories with modern emotional resonance. So, what I wanted all along is for the show to feel quite intimate and hectic at the same time. You have this huge landscape, these huge battles and issues of magic and sorcery.
But what I want more  than anything else is for the audience to be on Arthur’s shoulder and to really identify with him and think, OK, if I’m this guy who is 20 years old, sitting at home, cavorting with girls in the field, no real beliefs or ambitions. And this stranger comes out of nowhere and says, ‘Well, you’re adopted, and by the way you’re the new king. Now go and run the country.’ How does that feel? How do you even do that? How do you approach that?
I wanted to get right in amidst that and the emotions of that and what it would feel like if you grab a 20-year-old guy and take him to run the country. So the more emotionally connected the audience feels to the material, the better. I didn’t want it to be a detached period drama. I wanted it to feel very immediate and emotive.
CableFAX: You mentioned that ‘I wanted to show a young leader in a fractured country who promises hope.’ I must tell you, had you said that here in the US three years ago, you would have been describing the current US president.
Chibnall: Well that was my pitch when I went in to Starz really. I sat across the table from [Starz chief] Chris Albrecht and said this is what I think this Camelot has to offer. Because you’re always asked the question, well, why now? And why this version? And so the combination of that with the intimate emotional storytelling was the pitch.
CableFAX: OK, so at least I’m listening to you and picking up on what you’re saying.
Chibnall: Yes, you’re doing very well, and you now have a gold star (laughter).
CableFAX: Can I ask about working with Starz? Working with a cable programmer here in the US?
Chibnall: Yes.
CableFAX: So how does a Irish-Canadian production end up with Starz?
Chibnall: Camelot comes off the back of the model which “The Tudors” on Showtime was made from. That was also an Irish-Canadian co-production. Michael Hirst, who wrote and created all of The Tudors, and Morgan O’Sullivan, the executive producer of The Tudors, were creating this show. And Michael couldn’t see it all through because he had so many other commitments, including “The Borgias,” so I came on board at that stage.
And Starz was interested at this point, so I went across [the ocean] to pitch to Chris Albrecht, and GK TV were on board as well. So it’s a relatively complex set of terms, there are a number of producing partners. But it was pretty straightforward in that we were making it for Starz in the US and just the fact that it’s produced in Ireland is that it’s just where the project originated, really. That sounds like a complicated answer actually (laughter).
CableFAX: So when you were putting this series together did you have an American audience in mind? If so, does that change the way you work? The pace that you are doing this for a cable programmer in the United States?
Chibnall: Yes, I think you are aware of the dramas that are playing on cable in the US. So you are thinking about the kind of high bar that is set by cable drama in the US, with things like “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad” and myriad other shows. Anything on HBO, frankly. “Spartacus” on Starz. You are thinking of existing in that climate and ecology of shows. This is not a network show by any stretch of the imagination.
What it does, it certainly allows you time to investigate character. This series has a pace, but it also has an ambition to have those character moments and to really give space for the actors to breathe and give some depth to their performances.
And I think another thing it demands is a high quality of production. One thing that Chris Albrecht and [Managing Director, Media] Carmi Zlotnick of Starz were very clear about from the start was that it has to sit alongside movie programming, so it’s got to look good, guys. That was very clear from the start.
CableFAX: Well it does look good. I remember you saying most of the buildings we see in the series did not exist (they had to be constructed), but the landscape in Ireland does exist. Can you talk about that and the production values?
Chibnall: I think that’s massively important. Shooting in Ireland really, really works in our favor in Camelot, because what you have is these sweeping historical landscapes and a real sense of an epic country. It’s very hard to find green and lush landscapes that also have a sense of scale and not built upon. That gives us a cinematic scale… it’s a very mystical landscape, so it fits the story we’re telling wonderfully, to be honest. It’s also where John Boorman shot Excalibur, the movie, so we were following in some good footsteps there, I think.
When you’ve got Emmy winners like [production designer] Tom Conroy and [costume designer] Joan Bergin and their teams, they really know how to deliver high-class, period drama that also feels very accessible to a modern audience. Their ambitions were always cinematic and to better what they’ve done before. All along — and I think it’s reflected in the casting of people like Joe Fiennes and Eva Green and Jamie Campbell Bower — we’re looking at high-end actors who are used to working in the movies and who are used to seeing their faces in the cinema.
CableFAX: Let’s go back to Chris Albrecht, who’s not quite an Arthurian legend, but he’s a legend in cable here in the US.
Chibnall: (laughter) As he should be. One of the main reasons I took this project was to work with Chris.
CableFAX: So, what’s it like working with him? Did he impart lessons from Spartacus to you?
Chibnall: He essentially said, ‘Take you time, we have time.’ And what was great about that was it allows you to bookend these first 10 episodes as the building of Camelot. You can spend time with the characters, build things. He absolutely did not want plot, plot, plot. He wanted strong characters and strong performances from actors, but he didn’t want us to race ahead too fast. It was a very specific brief from Chris early on.
CableFAX: Did you feel the HBO tradition at Starz?
Chibnall:  I certainly felt that what they were after was quality. That’s what Chris and Carmi [Zlotnick] talked about all the way through. This has to be a quality-led production. It has to have emotion, intelligence and ambition. They wanted style, cinematic appeal, great characters, and I hope that’s what we’ve given them. They gave us the remit to provide something high class.

CableFAX:  Merlin and Morgan seems like a great rivalry. How does it develop this season?
Chibnall: (laugher) Well, there’s the Merlin-Morgan rivalry, but there’s also the Morgan-Arthur rivalry. This is a tale of two houses, a brother and sister who each have equal demand for the crown, but they go about it in very different ways. Clearly there’s a history between Merlin and Morgan, but how she deals with an imposter on the scene who’s being puppeteered by Merlin… that’s a thread you will really see poking through all the way.
CableFAX: Will the puppeteering continue all the way through or will Arthur come into his own?
Chibnall: A bit of both really. We had 2 phrases when we discussed Merlin. He’s this warrior-monk, but he’s also the ultimate spin doctor, he’s the first king maker. You never can quite trust his motives. He’ll continue to pull the strings behind the scenes, but also the story is of Arthur coming into his own and starting to make his own decisions. Both of those thing will play out.
CableFAX: Have you started working on the 2nd season?
Chibnall: After talking to you, I am putting the score to the final episodes, 9 and 10. So we’re putting the finishing touches on this batch. Give me a break! Let me have a holiday! (laughter)
(Seth Arenstein is editorial director of CableFAX).
[Next week, executive editor Michael Grebb interviews Camelot star Eva Green about her role as Arthur’s scheming sister Morgan].

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