Winter (King) is coming
As epic Arthurian drama The Winter King nears completion, executive producers Julie Gardner and Lachlan MacKinnon tell DQ about adapting Bernard Cornwell’s Warlord Chronicles for television, playing with magic and being inspired by The West Wing.
When it comes to making television series, schedules will often dictate that cast and crew start with a some of the more genteel scenes before building up to a crescendo of emotionally driven moments or action set pieces.
However, that convention didn’t apply on the set of forthcoming historical drama The Winter King.
“Normally, as the producer, you try to do a soft day one. You’re building to the difficult stuff,” explains executive producer Julie Gardner. “But on this show, Ellie James was tipped from a capsized boat into a river on day one. I remember thinking, ‘Oh my God, this is how it’s going to be.’”
That fast start exemplifies the “bold, revisionist” approach Gardner, fellow exec producer Lachlan MacKinnon and the production team from Bad Wolf have taken to dramatising Arthurian legend, based on Bernard Cornwell’s The Warlord Chronicles.
Commissioned by ITVX in the UK and MGM+ in the US, The Winter King is set in the fifth century, long before Britain was united, in a brutal land of warring factions and tribes, as Arthur Pendragon evolves from outcast to legendary warrior and leader.
The ensemble cast is headed by Iain De Caestecker (The Control Room) as Arthur, with James (Giri/Haji) as Nimue, Eddie Marsan (The Thief, His Wife & the Canoe) as High King Uther, Nathaniel Martello-White (Small Axe) as Merlin, Stuart Campbell (SAS Rogue Heroes) as Derfel, Daniel Ings (I Hate Suzie) as Owain, Valene Kane (The Fall) as Morgan, Jordan Alexandra (Mammals) as Guinevere, Aneirin Hughes (Keeping Faith) as Gorfydd and Simon Merrells (Good Omens) as Gundleus.
With Australian streamer Stan announcing that the series will launch down under on August 21, the same day as it arrives in the US, work is rapidly progressing to deliver the finishing touches to the show, which is distributed internationally by Sony Pictures Television.
For Gardner, who is based in LA, making a series about Arthurian legend has been a lifelong ambition after growing up in a Welsh village shrouded in its mythology.
“There was a rock that was said to be Merlin’s rock, and there was a myth that if the country’s in trouble, you go to this rock and Arthur will return,” she tells DQ. “To be a bit political, I remember in the [Margaret] Thatcher years, in this working-class Welsh village, the joke was constantly, ‘My God, we’ve got to go to that rock.’”
Bad Wolf is no stranger to epic productions, with credits including His Dark Materials and A Discovery of Witches. It is also currently filming new episodes of Doctor Who, starring Ncuti Gatwa as the latest incarnation of The Doctor.
But as work began on The Winter King, a big question Gardner pondered was what an Arthurian series might look like.
“When you’re doing deep period, it’s like doing an alien planet on Doctor Who. You’ve got to build the rules and the logic,” she says. “We felt a lot of deep period could either be muddy, brown, dark and rainy, and a tough visual viewing experience, or incredibly beautiful, where you’ve got gorgeous people in chiffon and furs. What we’ve tried to do in this piece is bring the two together and give it real beauty, but also make it quite grounded so there are real emotions and real issues playing through the piece.”
The starting point was working out exactly what story the series would tell, with Cornwall’s Warlord Chronicles stretching across three novels. MacKinnon originally thought the series could be drawn out across three seasons – one per book – as was the approach when adapting Philip Pullman’s novel trilogy His Dark Materials.
But once writers Kate Brooke (Bancroft) and Ed Whitmore (Manhunt) began work, “we started to realise there’s way more than three seasons here,” MacKinnon says. “The books are just so rich in character and story, and also in a political context.”
As such, it’s no surprise to learn that iconic White House drama The West Wing proved to be an important reference point for the producers and lead director Otto Bathurst. “We wanted it to feel much more like a political show, and [The West Wing] led a lot on our thinking of the tone,” MacKinnon adds.
The series also adopts the multi-character perspectives used in Cornwell’s novels, following Derfel, who as a child is saved by Arthur from a death pit, and Merlin’s apprentice Nimue, alongside Arthur.
“They’re much younger characters, so we see the whole world through their eyes,” MacKinnon says. “And of course, we still have the familiar characters like Merlin and Guinevere. But what Bernard did so well in the novels is give the female characters agency, so Guinevere is Arthur’s consigliere, so she’s always part of his political thinking and planning.”
Just as Cornwell’s novels blend historical fact with fiction, The Winter King embraces that reinterpretation of the Arthurian story – but has made two key changes to the source material. The first is introducing an origin story for Arthur himself, who doesn’t appear until later in the novel of the same name. The second is structural: Cornwell’s novels have Derfel retelling the story as an old man, but that device has been removed for the screen.
In fact, such is the depth of Cornwell’s work that The Winter King includes material from just two-thirds of the first book in The Warlord Chronicles, with stories tackling deep emotional themes, friendship, betrayal and adultery. It also raises questions of leadership, how you unite a country and what you have to sacrifice to do so.
Notably, The Winter King arrives at a time when fantasy and historical drama abound, with recent hits including Game of Thrones and spin-off House of the Dragon, Amazon’s mega-budget Lord of the Rings series The Rings of Power and another show based on a Cornwell literary saga, The Last Kingdom. But Gardner says she won’t feel any pressure to replicate those shows’ success when they are inevitably compared to The Winter King.
“We’re very different, obviously in budget but also in dramatic focus,” she says. “What we’ve tried to do with this piece is build a compelling, beautiful, relatable world that an audience wants to spend time in with a cast of characters where you really care about their lives and their dilemmas and what’s going to happen next.
“I personally think the Arthurian legend as a narrative has endured because it’s very soap-operatic in the best use of that term. It can be very domestic. It’s very relationship-driven. It’s about betrayal and this big movement in their personal lives. Plus, it’s miserable now, isn’t it? We’re all so stressed out post-Covid. There’s a value in seeing a period world that’s hopefully beautifully realised where you can just be transported somewhere.”
While the writing process was underway, the production team scoured South West England and South Wales to find the perfect locations to recreate Arthurian England and the key settings of Caer Cadarn, the base of High King Uther, and Gorfydd’s Caer Dolforwyn. Filming took place last summer in places such as St Audries Bay in Somerset, Rhossili Bay on the Gower Peninsula, Cheddar Gorge and Morlais Quarry, while Caer Cadarn was a set build near Cribbs Causeway. Avalon, Merlin and Nimue’s home, takes its exterior from Blaise Castle, while its interior was constructed at a studio in Bristol.
“It’s an epic story, so you want to reflect that, and we were blessed with the countryside,” MacKinnon says. “We centred it a lot on Bristol because it meant we could cover a huge, epic landscape. We were also working with VFX very closely because we wanted to make sure there was scale while ensuring we were as efficient as we possibly could be at every turn to get as much of the production value on screen as possible.”
“It’s also about the focus of the storytelling,” continues Gardner. “We haven’t attempted to do a Battle of the Bastards [from Game of Thrones]. We haven’t attempted to do the epic Saxons-meets-Arthur – that scale of battle – but I don’t think that’s a bad thing. We open episode one in the aftermath of the battle, which obviously helps the budget, but actually if you know Arthur’s fighting, you know he’s not going to be killed in the opening five minutes. What then becomes really compelling is the aftermath.”
Bathurst had previously directed episodes of His Dark Materials, but it was his “extraordinary” work on gangster drama Peaky Blinders that meant Gardner saw him as a perfect fit for The Winter King. They also backed his pitch that the world of Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot should be very sparse.
“We had a joke that there are no chickens in this piece,” she jokes. “You start to populate period villages and there are certain elements you go to and they’re right. I love a period chicken, but there are no chickens in this. That’s how I’d sum it up. It’s very sparse; you’re with the characters and the camera is moving a lot. It’s very stripped down.”
That approach further met the brief for the series to feel grounded and authentic, “which flows through every vein of the series,” MacKinnon says, “whether that’s costume, locations or production design.
“That’s not to say it’s a very grim world to live in. Avalon is full of colour and beauty. But Otto wants this to be the definitive version of Arthurian legend and to really get under the skin of the real Arthur. It’s not the slightly colourful Arthur who’s very pumped up with shiny armour. He’s very much a man of his time and of his people as well. It’s a different side from the Arthur we’ve seen before.”
With Merlin among the roster of characters, The Winter King features magical elements. But in keeping with the series overall, this is also approached in a way that fits the rules and logic of the world the characters inhabit.
“Every time there’s been a moment involving magic, we’ve always made sure it was grounded within the narrative and not making it feel like something that takes away from the power of Merlin, for example,” MacKinnon notes. “If it’s a vision or something that Merlin’s having, it will be within the narrative. It won’t be some sort of deus ex machina moment that takes away from the audience’s enjoyment of it.”
Sustainability has been a big watchword on the set of The Winter King, with vegetarian meal days during each week of production. Bad Wolf also offset the “huge” number of train journeys taken by the team.
Diversity in front and behind the camera was carefully considered too. “We’re not making, in 2023, the white King Arthur story,” Gardner says. “It’s key to us that we cast diversity in the main roles, and we had a script-editing team who really dug deep into the research of the period. This was quite a diverse moment for England at the time, so we’ve really embraced that.”
Early development is now starting on a potential second season, with filming likely to start this summer if it is greenlit or risk waiting another year. But should the show run to only its initial 10 episodes, despite the huge amount of Cornwell’s material left on the table, the producers are confident they have created wholly satisfactory story arcs for the main characters.
“As always, we go for broke,” MacKinnon says. “We just want to tell the best story we possibly can. What really drew me to the series was the fact the themes of the show were so incredibly contemporary, because Arthur is ultimately going to carve a new path in politics.
“The Saxons arrive on our shores and they’re the true enemy of the kingdom, so he was trying to find new way to rule and to unite the various tribes together to stand up against them. But, of course, it’s never that simple and love and Guinevere get in the way. There are so many different layers to it.”