Iain De Caestecker is an appealing Arthur in the darkness of the Dark Ages where we find Series 1 of The Winter King
“Only you can save the isle”
Pitched somewhere between Merlin and Game of Thrones, The Winter King is a 10-part adaptation of the first of Bernard Cornwell’s The Warlord Chronicles novels, retelling Arthurian legend through the prism of historical fantasy epic and more or less doing the job (thoughts on the opening episode here). Created by Kate Brooke and Ed Whitmore, it offers enough of a spin on the familiar to seem intriguing enough though not having read the books, I can’t speak to its fidelity there.
We’re very much in the pagan Dark Ages (literally so, gloom is the abiding atmosphere here!) and tribal kingdoms dominate, constantly fighting each other whilst keeping one eye on the invading Saxons too. Chief among them is Dumnonia, ruled by Eddie Marsan’s brutish King Uther who has little liking for his bastard son Arthur (Iain De Caestecker) and soon banishes him under the pretext of a military defeat. A swift 8 year time jump later, some chap called Merlin is picking Arthur up and asking him to save everyone.
What follows is a whole lot of tribal politicking, betrayal, violence and death – such fun! There are perhaps a few too many names and other kingdoms to easily keep track of, thereby making this camply enjoyable. Instead, you do have to concentrate and remember things (imagine!) in order to make sense of the dense but fast-moving plot. De Caestecker is very handsome but his Arthur isn’t actually given the most characterisation here to really make him stand out.
Rather, it is Stuart Campbell’s Derfel – a young warrior in the making rescued from death by Arthur – who is the beating heart of The Winter King and that actually makes for a nice change. His chemistry with Ellie James’ Nimue is the highlight of the show and the camaderie he shares with Arthur’s other men is good fun, Daniel Ings’ Owain and Ken Nwosu’s Sagramor great value for money. I would have liked to see more of Nathaniel Martello-White’s Merlin, just since he’s such a good actor, but as the finale suggests, there’s certainly the intention of more series to come.