This is an account of the visit to Woodchester National Trust Park, where the early episodes of “Arthur of the Britons” were filmed in Summer 1972.

The event was organised by a fan of Oliver Tobias, Wendy Van Der Veen and this visit took place on Sunday 29 August. It was attended by Oliver Tobias, his brother Benedict Freitag, and a small group of fans of “Arthur of the Britons.”

We wanted to see where Arthur’s village had been sited, and to dedicate a tree to the late Michael Gothard, who starred as Kai in the series, alongside Oliver.
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At a fan meeting in August 2010, Oliver Tobias spoke about the filming of “Arthur of the Britons.”

“Out of the blue, a memory which I had closed away … it’s quite emotional …”

When asked about the casting, he said that his and Michael Gothard’s audition consisted of them, and 4 horses – they had to ride various horses to the top of the hill and back together a number of times. Obviously the chemistry between them was an important factor, as well as horsemanship.

“They cast us for who we were at the time. We were allowed complete freedom as … how we were.”

He said that they improvised a lot of the action, and they weren’t given any direction on how to deliver any of their lines.

He remembered filming as having taken a year, though in reality it must have been closer to eight months. “We [Oliver Tobias, Michael Gothard and Jack Watson] more or less lived on set.”

During ‘The Challenge’, the third-filmed episode, in which Arthur (Oliver Tobias) and Kai (Michael Gothard) spend at least half of the episode fighting each other, they worked with Bristol’s champion javelin thrower on the spear-throwing scene.

Oliver thought he was young and athletic enough to jump out of the way in time, but he didn’t make it. The spear glanced off the inside of his shield instead of the outside, and hit him on the back of the head. “When it hit me it was like a ship running aground.”

He remembers looking around, and seeing Michael. Later he said Michael held his head in his lap. “Christ I’m lucky to be here – I nearly died during filming …”

He is said to have thought of Michael like a brother. He and Michael used to play tricks on each other, and to try and pile up mounds of earth to stand on, so they would be taller than the other. Oliver said that the stories were so harsh, they needed an outlet. The series was “like a war zone.”

However, he also said that of all his roles, he identifies most with Arthur.

When dedicating a tree to Michael Gothard, Oliver said: “He was a sensitive man – perhaps too sensitive,” and spoke of remembering Michael holding his head on his lap when the spear had hit him, and he nearly died. He also mentioned Jack Watson. He said he felt privileged to be the one left alive. Then, clearly affected, he drove the commemorative stake into the ground with considerable force.

Oliver’s brother, Benedict, who had once met Michael, (before ‘Arthur of the Britons’) and performed a Cheyenne ceremony at the site, said that Michael didn’t have the filters you need, to stop yourself feeling all the suffering going on in the world – “otherwise you give yourself the bullet.”

Though Oliver had gradually lost touch with Michael Gothard after filming the series, it seems likely that Michael’s death was the reason he had closed away the memory of ‘Arthur of the Britons.’
Getting a job on ‘Arthur of the Britons’

By a series of total coincidences, (mainly running low on money in Bristol, England) I heard Harlech TV was having open casting sessions for the extras for the townspeople [for “Arthur of the Britons.”]

I got it, and worked 6 days a week until the end of the series. For me it was a paid graduate school, with plenty of time to watch the different methods of the rotating directors, and some very good character actors to bolster roster.

Gerry is the extra standing in the middle of the picture, immediately below Oliver Tobias (Arthur).
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Atmosphere on set

It seemed like there was much pressure to hit the short deadlines for a quick turn-around. The filming was extremely well organized and all the crew and actors created a friendly but always moving forward atmosphere.

… I remember hearing that was sometimes a B crew shooting cutaways and other footage at different locations to help keep things moving. It seemed to me that they were trying to keep to filming one a week and having a B Unit get any extra coverage needed to keep the pace up ...
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The cast

It was openly acknowledged that Michael Gothard added quality to the series and he was hired to bring up professional acting level. The word was that the producers were worried a bit that the young star, Oliver Tobias, was too new, and not that experienced, although … Tobias did a really good job as it turned out.

On set Oliver was always the most quiet of the three main characters. As the lead, he had the biggest responsibility and he was the youngest. While waiting, he seemed to keep it very serious. He was always very courteous to everyone. It was my impression that the three lead actors liked each other very much.
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From the parts that I observed it was always Oliver and Michael doing everything without stuntmen. When there was a group of riders I believe some of those others were stuntmen. Oliver and Michael were always doing their own riding from the parts I could observe. They both were very good at it.

I don't recall any stunt people standing in for either of them. For that matter, extras would get an extra £2 for the day if they were involved in something like that. I remember once Blessed had to rampage through the village knocking people out of his way, the director picked me to be thrown by him over his shoulder, and that take was done at least five or six times.

Getting to know Michael

Having already worked in TV in NY before I left, I already knew to never bother the actors; they need their space to think about their lines, get into the character, etc. Always wait until spoken to and stay on business unless someone else brings up another topic.

But somehow, Michael Gothard began talking with me, and found out I had just been travelling about Europe, much as he did some years earlier. During that period, we hit the pubs a few times.”
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On Michael and his girlfriend

In “Some Saxon Women” I am in quite a few shots, but more interestingly there are good shots of the young woman that Michael was seeing ... at the scene starting at 7:00 where the two men look over the Saxon women that are chained up.

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On Michael

It was a time of discovery for people willing to travel to really delve into a culture and take risks. I think "La Vallee" expresses that for Michael, and he liked that film very much.

As an example of this, Michael was different than, let’s say, Oliver Tobias or Brian Blessed. One small example would be that the latter two would never talk with extras …
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In conclusion

When I put the first DVD episode on I was very happy to see that it really was a great show. It was also sad to think that Michael Gothard left this life far too soon …

It is amazing how popular and long lasting ‘Arthur of the Britons’ has been. Many of the Brits and Aussies that I have known here in the US remember the show very fondly and vividly. It is an incredible testament to the actors, writers, producers, etc.

* with regard to Brian Blessed:

I (Joya) met Brian Blessed on 23/10/2011, talked to him about 'Arthur of the Britons', and showed him some pictures of us dedicating a tree to Michael.

Brian hadn't been aware that Michael had died: hardly surprising he missed the news, given how little coverage it got at the time. I told Brian that Michael had killed himself in 1992. He became serious, and said that he was sorry, and that Michael had been depressed when he knew him, and that Michael had confided in him over some of his problems.

It seems possible that, as someone who already knew Michael, and seems to have considered him a friend, Brian's disapproval of the extras getting a ride in the stars’ car was due to the suspicion that these extras were just taking advantage of Michael.

When I suggested this to Gerry, he agreed that it was possible.

In the poster shown below, Michael Gothard's Kai has been depicted looking very much like Hansen in "The Last Valley", not clean-shaven as he actually appeared in "Arthur of the Britons." The artwork must have been from quite an early stage in the production, before Kai's appearance had been decided upon.

HTV publicity 1 small

The poster below shows scenes from some of the earliest episodes filmed: "Arthur is Dead", "Daughter of the King", "The Challenge", "The Gift of Life", and "The Penitent Invader."

HTV publicity 3 small
A new ‘Arthur.’

On 15 June 1972, ‘The Stage’ reported that HTV West was to spend £500,000 on “a new adventure series", and by 17 August 1972, that "Filming ... is now taking place."

‘Arthur of the Britons’ was a re-telling of the story of King Arthur, with some big differences: no shining armour; no castle – just a well-defended village, and Arthur, played by Oliver Tobias, wasn’t a king, but a wily Celtic chieftain, struggling to unite his people against Saxon invaders.

Michael Gothard was cast in one of the lead roles, that of Kai, a Saxon whom Arthur calls ‘brother.’ They were backed up by their adoptive father, Llud of the Silver Hand, played by Jack Watson.
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Shooting “Arthur of the Britons” on location.

Filming took place over about 8 months, from June 1972. The first few episodes were shot at Woodchester in Stroud, but the main village set was then moved to Woollard, on the River Chew. Individual episodes were also shot in the Blackdown Hills, the Mendips, on the River Severn, and at Black Rock Quarry, Cheddar Gorge.

According to the Executive Producer, Patrick Dromgoole, the actors in lead roles stayed in hotels or apartments leased for them for the duration, mostly in Bristol, though it seems possible that some of the cast, on occasion, unofficially spent the night in their location caravan.

Michael Gothard as ‘Kai.’

For the first and only time in his career, Michael Gothard played an action hero, and he played it well.

As a Saxon adopted by a Celt, and living among them, often fighting his own people, Kai was sometimes conflicted, but he was neither a social outcast, a political or religious fanatic, a criminal, nor a psychopath. He was a reliable lieutenant, and a good and loyal friend, to Arthur.

This was also one of the few occasions when the character Michael played gets to smile, and have some fun that isn’t at someone else’s expense, in between being forced into situations where he has to fight to survive.

As for how he got the role – the Executive Producer, Patrick Dromgoole had seen him in 'The Last Valley", but the choice of Michael to play Kai seems to have been thanks to Peter Sasdy, the Director of the two pilot episodes, ‘Arthur is Dead’, and ‘Daughter of the King.’

In correspondence, he says: “… I had very little time during pre-production, but I was happy with the casting of the main characters”, “Oliver Tobias was already cast before I was asked to direct the first episode and on casting the final decision was always – and with my full backing! – in the hands of Patrick Dromgoole.”

“As far as Michael Gothard is concerned … I cast him because I thought of him as a very interesting actor, with strong personality and in the right part he’d always give a good performance. He was rather a private person and because of this I didn’t get to know him beyond the set.”

In August 2010, when Oliver Tobias was asked about the casting, he said that his and Michael’s audition consisted of them, and four horses. Together, they had to ride different horses to the top of the hill and back, a number of times.

“They cast us for who we were at the time. We were allowed complete freedom … Each has a chemistry.” He also said that they improvised a lot of the action.

Of the scripts, Patrick Dromgoole said: “We had enough to start filming, but made a lot of changes according to the performances of the actors and what seemed to make a successful episode as we went along” – so the initial choice of cast was vital to the success and long-lasting appeal of the series.

Trivia: Michael often wears the same studded tunic as Kai in “Arthur of the Britons”, as he wore in “The Last Valley.”



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October 2013

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