TV Review: The Winter King (Series 1, Episode 1)

The latest retelling of Arthurian legend comes with this Bernard Cornwell adaptation – The Winter King – a dark and gritty opener just about passes muster

“He won’t welcome you for this”

As the wheel turns, so must a new adaptation of the story of King Arthur appear (alternating with Robin Hood…) and the latest to emerge is The Winter King. Created by Kate Brooke and Ed Whitmore, this 10-parter takes Bernard Cornwell’s The Warlord Chronicles novels as its starting point to give us a new take on Arthurian legend, whilst Game of Thrones seems to be a visual reference point as it aims for historical epic status.

Whether it achieves that will become apparent later; on the evidence of this first episode, it feels that potential is there. But it is an episode weighed down with a whole lotta exposition, including an opening crawl that tries to situate us in the wartorn strife of 5th century Britain. This Arthur (Iain De Caestecker) is Uther’s illegitimate son and barely tolerated, so when he returns from a bruising battle with the Saxons with the body of his brother Prince Mordred (no, not that one), Uther is quick to exile him.

We then follow Arthur to the safe haven of Avalon, under Merlin’s control (a good Nathaniel Martello-White), as he saves a Saxon slave boy Derfel along the way, and then we get a swift 8 year time jump. This gives us a grown Derfel (Stuart Campbell) who looks set to be our protagonist, as he tries his luck with girlfriend Nimue (who can’t have sex if she wants to be a sorcerer), becomes a warrior on the sly (thanks to Daniel Ings’ handsome trainer Owain) and seeks to avenge his mother.

Arthur only reappears at the episode’s end, located by Merlin in order to save a Britain even more wracked by war and as a reward, he’s having a shirtless shower at that point. It is a densely plotted episode altogether and is a bit of a slog in all honesty. The Dark Ages are rather dark (literally so) and not much life accompanies the storytelling needed to get us up to speed but one hopes that now the scene has been thoroughly set, future episodes might prove a touch sparkier.

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