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I see trouble ahead...
The new BBC Merlin looks pretty awful, in the recent grand BBC tradition of making people in the past pretty much culturally identical with yoof today.

Not for me, but it should do well with its British demographic. However, I cannot help but remember the fuss about Martha being a servant in the Cornell double episode of Dr Who...

I have nothing against colour blind casting (indeed, I'm all for it) except in a historical drama that is trumpeted as 'the way it happened' unless that particular historical figure was, indeed, not white. Which Merlin certainly isn't. But... while casting a non-white actress as Guinevere is fine, turning that character into a servant rather than a princess is going to touch some nerves.

Ouch. Plainly, the last fuss on the internets passed the producers by.

Oooooh, I do see trouble ahead. You would have thought the BBC would know better. (They can't win, of course, for if any of the not-wholly-human characters - Merlin, Morgan, Nimue - had been cast non-white, which would have been slightly more mythologically logical - dark-elves and all that - that would, have been, if anything, even less PC!)

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While in principle I support colour blind casting - changing a Welsh princess into a non-white servant seems just wrong on so many levels. I will be watching the series but I suspect some snark may be forthcoming given my background in Arthurian matters.

They did it with the Sally Lockhart series and in that historical context of the 19th century it gave a very odd perspective on the period because there was widespread racism and to try to wave it away with a pc casting policy just doesn't work.

Indeed. It was the "Daleks in New York" double episode, that particularly annoyed me in Dr Who because, unlike the Cornell episodes, it did nothing at all to address the racism of the period.

I find it amusing because I seem to recall that the original Welsh name for Guinevere - Gwenhwyfar - means "white - smooth".

Whether the character is white or non-white, why alter her from a princess to a servant at all? There seems to be no sense in that - wouldn't it bugger up the story? Are they changing any other well-known Arthurian characters, too? I've only seen a couple of trailers for the series, and haven't read any of the blurb about it.

There's an article about it in the new SFX which is deeply worrying, plus they are touting it in the cinemas at the moment, as a replacement for Robin Hood in the Dr Who slot.

They seemed to have changed an awful lot. It's about a young Arthur (who seems to be living with Uther Pendragon) and a young Merlin, in a Camelot? where magic is treated like witchcraft and "not allowed." It's all teenage angst, but there does seem to be a fair amount of fantasy in it, with dragons an' all.

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Well, in Merlin's case they certainly are not.

Normally, though, "the true story of" attached to a film or TV show generally means an outlandish theory roughly translated to the screen. It does make them easy targets, which is why I am a member of history_spork and why I really, really want to hear their take on Elizabeth: the Golden Age.

I have a video of The Magic Flute in which Kathleen Battle plays Pamina. She does a fine job of the part, but it's part of the plot that Pamina is white. English translations often translate "schwarz" (black) as "ugly" to obscure the racial aspect of the plot -- which, is, of course, distinctly racist.

Yes. It is very difficult. On one hand, a book or an film or a play or an opera is of its time, and should be read as such, in its original text without any pretense that people in those places and times had different values. On the other hand, we certainly don't want to block great actors and singers from certain roles because of their colour.

Josette Simon was wonderful in the National Theatre (London)'s production of The White Devil but, to be fair, they did make the entire family black, which helped a lot.

I was reading a much-loved children's book the other day (published 1961) which referred to "The n*gger in the woodpile." Should this stop people reading an excellent book? I've actually seen a recent edition of a very well known British children's book written during and about the second world war, where the editors felt it necessary to explain "Hun" and "the Boche" and tried to tone them both down for the sensitivity of any German readers. Oddly, at one stage translations of the originals were quite popular in Germany!

I'm afraid I took one look at Tony Head's modern haircut in SFX and concluded that it was going to be *bad*!

I've been pretty sure it was going to be bad from the moment they started talking about it in the same terms as Robin Hood.

Judy waved SFX at me - it's actually my subscription, but I barely bother even to look at it nowadays - and I winced, and said I would stick with Arthur of the Britons, thanks. Not that I am claiming that as a masterpiece, or anything, I just like it.

My favourite bit of colour-blind casting ever was long, long ago in a production of Hamlet, in which Hamlet, and no-one else, was Chinese. (He might have been what's-his-name, the Chinese Detective, but it's too far in the past to remember.) I think it was supposed to enhance Hamlet's alienation, but all that really happened was that I spent most of the play wondering what Gertrude had been up to - or, rather, who with.

Oh, and on the other hand, I must mention a La Scala production of Aida. Aida was fine, but her dad's make-up made the Black and White Minstrels look convincing, while a number of small chorus boys had been dressed in black leotards and given a lick of boot polish. They can get away with that sort of thing in Italy.

(Also: I can't abide Billie Piper in anything, so missed out on the Sally Lockhart adaptations. I doubt I missed much. I'm fine with the books, grim as they are.)

I suspect you can't get away with that kind of thing at La Scala anymore, though.

I wasn't keen on Arthur of the Britons meself, but that's only because I have no time for the 'historical' Arthur, who I don't think ever existed. It was very much of it's time, though.

Ahh, what next? Pakistani Churchill In Space?

Why are they so insistent on basing these things on the Arthurian legend anyway?

If they want to do an alternate universe story with magic and dragons why not just write one (or borrow the story from any one of a thousands books). Why rewrite one that is bound to upset so many people?

And why pick on historical drama for so much off-white casting anyway? What's wrong with having a few modern drama's with the token white thrown in?

I am thinking that if everybody playing doctors and nurses on Holby City and Casualty was 'of colour' that would be not only accurate but might break down some racial barriers.

I am sure you remember as I do, our council estate having meetings when the first coloured family moved on to it. 1964 if my memory serves me right. If I set a drama in 'low edges' Sheffield in 1955 there just wont be any black people in it. That's the way it was and we should respect the truth and not rewrite history.

This is all true... but a major problem is that the US experience is not the same as the British experience (again, not saying that we didn't/don't have racism, because of course we do, but it is not the same as the US.) The problem with Guinevere in Merlin being a person of colour and a servant is not going to bother a lot of people in the UK so much (though it will enrage some) but it will play very differently in the US, where almost all servants were black. In this country, the people 'in service' (like our British grandmother, for instance) were almost exclusively white.

And, of course, they will want to sell this series to the US.

Edit: I remember when The Knock premiered sitting around with other Customs and Excise HR folk and asking, "Oh, and how many black female S.I.O.s do we have?" I'll leave you to guess the answer...

Edited at 2008-08-31 09:04 pm (UTC)

The casting sounds like one of those reactive decisions made one late night when they weren't thinking clearly. You're right -- the connection of casting a minority in the Guinevere role *while* also rewriting her as a servant is the problem ... and is deeply troubling, imo.

BTW, we FINALLY are seeing Primeval over here. I have TIVO backups but am looking forward to them.

Edited at 2008-09-01 01:19 am (UTC)

Apparently the decision to make her a servant rather than a princess was made first, as I read what they're saying, and then the part was cast.

Of course, she won't be in maid's uniform or anything like that, and will, no doubt, be a throughly modern tomboy (as they all are, these days.)

All the same, it strikes me as a "courageous decision" (code for "suicidal", from the political comedy series, "Yes, Minister," and now used throughout government.) And if a middle-aged white old fogey like me, who rarely saw a non-white face until I was in my 20s, can recognise that, you would have thought that these smart, modern, media-aware types in Production might have thought about it too.

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