Typing the name “Merlin” into Wikipedia is a frustrating exercise, particularly if you’re attempting to summarise the facts behind the legend which resulted in Thames Televison producing their 1979 series, The Boy Merlin: fact is, there aren’t that many “facts” out there.
The legend portrayed in Anne Carlton and Stewart Farrar’s six-parter, spun-off from the anthology series Shadows, takes as its basis Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae, the 1139 tome which itself took elements from various sources to portray a wizard called Merlin Ambrosius living under the rule of King Vortigern.
As its title suggests, The Boy Merlin gives us a younger Merlin (Ian Rowlands) who is living in Wales with his foster family: Dafydd (Donald Houston), Blodwyn (Margaret John), and Myfanwy (Rachel Thomas). Merlin’s mother is a princess who lives close-by in Vortigern’s castle, knowledge of the boy’s magical prowess (which is nurtered by Myfanwy) suspected by the royals and their servants.
As established in the original pilot, Merlin’s powers are still a little rough around the edges, his abilities resulting in concern from his family when they fear he may “out” himself to the authorities. As the series progresses Merlin learns new tricks, such as refilling empty cups with wine and making his foster mother invisible, but the threats he faces remain minor until towards the end of the run.
Rowland may not be the most natural of child actors but he does well with the straightforward scripts. In just six episodes there’s not enough evidence of the character’s development, but his confrontation with Grimbald (Derek Smith) in The Book of Magic, showed promise.
Rachel Thomas is the most enjoyable aspect of the series, her old granny character initially an irritant before it becomes clear that she’s wiser than all of those around her.
Budget was clearly something of an issue for the production team, much of the series filmed indoors, including the exteriors of Merlin’s home. For anyone used to dramas of the period this isn’t a major problem, but it can be jarring when actual exteriors make an appearance straight after an interior.
These six episodes suggest that an interesting world was being formed around Merlin, one which deserved further exploration. As it is we’re left with a fun little entry into the Merlin cottage industry, one which may not have generated its own magic in such a short run but which, with a little of Myfanwy’s assistance, could have gone on to bigger and better things.