Monday, September 13, 2010


Some years ago, we were in the dollar store and we picked up a couple of those cheap-o DVDs, the sort with the ultra-thin cases with the bad center teeth that almost always result in the disc rattling around inside. Japanese monster movies, obscure action films, and fifties television seem to be what dominates the rack, and having something of an interest in all three, we have on occasion plonked down a buck. A lot of them we haven't even seen.

Such was the case with The Adventures of Sir Lancelot (1956-57). It wasn't until we were going through our DVDs three or four weeks ago that we came across it on our shelf and finally popped the sucker in our player. We were expecting something that, if not bad, at the very least hadn't aged very well. To put it mildly, we were wrong; it's an absolutely terrific piece of television, and we were so impressed with the four episodes on the fly-by-nighter that we actually purchased a box set containing the entire series. Said box will set you back fifteen dollars and two quarters, and it's well worth that paltry investment, as you get all thirty episodes (sixteen in black-and-white, fourteen in colour) in reasonably attractive packaging with some nice digital restoration work (for the most part; some of the colour elements have faded beyond the point of repair). The fly-by-nighter, which presents four episodes that had been in colour in black-and-white, with a lot of artifacts and freeze-frames, is not recommended.

The show presents a realistic yet romantic (in the classical sense) slant on Arthurian legend. It's a world without Magic-- all sea serpents, enchanted blades, and wizards (including Merlin) are thoroughly but cheekily debunked-- but with plenty of magic: strange adventures, black-hearted villains, and daring rescues of damsels in various states of distress abound. The writing is pretty damn sharp most of the time, utilizing a lot of humour that's still pretty rib-tickling over fifty years later without undercutting the sense of simple honest adventure at the heart of the program.

There's a fair amount of nuance to be found, too. The first episode, The Knight of the Red Plume, is a good example of what I mean. All but a few of Arthur's knights have been slaughtered in battle with another king's forces, many by the hand of the titular knight. Sir Gawain's brother is among those slain, and possessing a piece that was broken off of the Red Plume's sword, he swears vengeance. Lancelot (William Russell) shows up, wishing to join the Round Table. He only asks that he be judged for his actions henceforth. It's soon made clear why: Lancelot's sword and Gawain's shard are a perfect match.

First episode of a new TV series, and you have the untrusted new arrival blamed for scores of deaths. Think of the ways this could go, the ways it would go in so many other series: Lancelot didn't do it after all and he proves himself, slowly gaining their trust. Or, Lancelot did do it, but he wants to redeem himself, slowly gaining their trust. What the series gives us, instead, is: Lancelot did it, he was indeed the Knight of the Red Plume. He killed all those other knights, sure, including Gawain's brother, but it was in honourable combat. He didn't do anything wrong, so he damn well isn't going to apologize. Just because someone is on the other side of the battle doesn't mean they're evil.

Lancelot always conducts himself with honour, hewing impeccably to the code of chivalry, and is always presented as being exemplary in all things: moral, intellectual, physical. He's the sort that gets to express outrage at a wrong that needs righting and make the occasional high-minded speech about the true nature of chivalry. Which could be really insufferable if it wasn't leavened by a whole lot of charm on Russell's part. When he takes the piss out of Merlin's "magic"-- and it's something he does quite a bit-- it's always with a smile, with a sense of bemusement. His interactions with his squire and the various damsels-of-the-week have a similar playfulness that goes a long way towards preventing Lancelot from being some kind of stuffed shirt.

There's also the way Russell conducts himself in the swashbuckling scenes. Almost without exception, whenever he crosses swords with a villain, no matter how foul, and no matter how dire the consequences, he does so with the biggest, goofiest, most wonderful and infectious grin you've ever seen: a big open mouth of pure soundless-squealing joy as he hacks away at someone's shield. It gives the fight scenes an incredible energy that sustains them despite some pretty bad staging (said staging being the only part of the show that really hasn't aged very well).

Equally appealing is Lancelot's squire, Brian, played by Robert Scroggins. Scroggins excels at wringing laughs from looking slightly bewildered, put-upon, and clueless. He also gets a lot of the show's best lines, often exploring a tension between his gallantry and cowardice. Usually, a juvenile lead in this sort of show exists merely for viewers to roll eyes at; Scroggins makes Brian's appearances a surprising delight.

Also surprisingly delightful are the aforementioned damsels-of-the-week. Each is given a distinct personality, from the sniffling girl of The Ugly Duckling to the captive who doesn't much feel like being rescued thank you very much in Roman Wall. It's rare for a damsel-of-the-week to have much of a personality today; 'twas even more-so in 1956.

The show does have a few mis-steps (avoid Theft of Excalibur and Lancelot's Banishment if you can, as they turn on the characters acting like gibbering asshats all of the sudden and for so discernible reason), but on the whole it's excellent entertainment; when it's at its best-- Caledon and The Outcast on the more serious side of things, along with slyly comic concoctions like The Black Castle, Sir Crustabread, Ferocious Fathers, and The Ugly Duckling-- it's really quite exemplary stuff.

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