Actor Colin Morgan discusses his title role in BBC One’s latest Saturday night night drama series, Merlin, which starts this Saturday, 20th September.
You’d be forgiven for thinking Morgan was born to play the part of history’s most famous sorcerer. He was warming up for the role when he was just three. “Even when I was really young I wanted to perform and do shows. I also had this fascination with magic. I was doing magic tricks when I was three,” explains the 22-year-old, who grew up in Armagh, Northern Ireland. “If I ever saw magic on television I would say: ‘I want that. That’s what I want from Santa Claus’. So the cupboard in my bedroom was full of boxes of magic tricks, cups and balls, cards and foam rabbits, all sorts of stuff.”
It’s little surprise, then, that Colin leapt at the opportunity of playing the young Merlin. “When they told me I’d been cast I was ridiculously delighted. I ran around my flat screaming,” he admits.
Morgan’s Merlin is a spirited but naive young man who, when he first arrives in Camelot, steps into a world more dangerous than he understands.
“When he first enters Camelot, Merlin is a loose cannon. He has this natural ability which he is aware of. He has the ability to do magic but he can’t control it, it just happens,” Colin explains.
“He believes he will be quite safe in that environment, that he will be able to use his powers in a free way. But, when he enters Camelot, he sees someone killed for using magic, so it becomes clear that using his God-given gift is a no go. And that’s a big shock to him. A lot of the story deals with Merlin keeping his power a secret, even as he uses it to deal with situations,” he adds.
Colin admits there are similarities between himself and Merlin that run deeper than their interest in magic. “They’ve very much cast this according to personality and a lot of aspects of Merlin’s personality are quite similar to me, in a way,” he explains. “For instance, I’m extremely enthusiastic about things and Merlin is like that. He gets involved in every challenge he faces and he always gives it his best shot, 100 per cent. During filming, I was asked to do some pretty outrageous stuff. Last week, for instance, I had to run full pelt into a freezing cold lake to rescue Arthur, in the rain,” he explains.
“I also tend to look for the funnier, lighter side of things which Merlin does,” he says. “At the same time, I am serious when I need to be, which is something Merlin also is when he slips into action-hero mode.”
The two also share a natural inquisitiveness. “Merlin has a natural curiosity about things.” Colin explains.
That curiosity was very much to the fore when Morgan was researching the “real” Merlin, no easy task given the lack of any real historical evidence about a figure whom some historians argue never existed. “There’s very little written about him and his early life in particular. There is a bit about him growing up without a father and being bullied and persecuted because of that. There is also a bit that claims his father was a demon and his mother was made pregnant by a demon,” he says. “There is a fair bit of strange stuff like that. One of the most bizarre things I’ve read about him is that Shakespeare knew where Merlin’s tomb was and was murdered for knowing the secret.”
Among the few pieces of hard information Morgan found, however, there were some that proved useful in creating the character of the boy wizard. “There are stories about Merlin as a boy having to deal with things that I found useful. He had a deep intelligence. He was not silly. He knew when he needed to stand his ground.”
Colin was intrigued by the idea of a figure who became powerful without resorting to violence. “He is not a fighter at all. He would not know how to wield a sword to save his life,” he explains.
Colin believes the enduring fascination with Merlin and the Arthurian legend is down to two main factors. “I think the simplest reason is that they are good stories. But they are also very intriguing and mysterious. The dark ages are called the dark ages for a reason; we don’t know much about them so we can’t separate fact from fiction.
“What’s especially good about that from Merlin’s perspective is that there is a lot written about Merlin as an old man. That’s what you think of immediately – an old man, with a beard and a cloak. There is a bit written about him as a boy but then there’s a huge gap that’s not dealt with. That’s what this series is dealing with, the period of Merlin’s life that’s not been dealt with before.
“The story is so fantastical and adventurous. We are not saying that this is the truth – what we are saying is that this is a version of his story that has not been written or seen before.”
There is something fantastical about the way Morgan’s life has gone in the past few years. Born and raised in Armagh, he came from a family with no background in acting whatsoever.
“My mother is a nurse and dad is a painter and decorator. So it was not an obvious choice of career for me,” he smiles. But, as his early magic shows testified, he had a burning desire to perform from an early age. “From when I was really young, one of the first things I did was to perform. It was like a natural instinct.”
After studying at the Belfast Institute, he went to the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow. He was planning on taking some time off after graduating but, purely for experience, went for an audition for a role in Vernon God Little, the stage adaptation of DCB Pierre’s Booker-winning novel.
“I was planning on travelling. All my friends were auditioning for something, so I thought I’d do it for experience,” he explains. “I got offered the part, which was a surprise. I decided to do it. It was the best decision I’ve ever made.
“I left college three quarters of the way through my final year and got assessed on the play as part of my grade. After that, it happened very quickly for me.”
Almost immediately, he was cast in two other plays. Television roles in The Catherine Tate Show and Doctor Who soon followed. He has been so immersed in filming Merlin for the past six months that he has had little time to dwell on the impact his latest – and biggest – role will have on his career and life in general.
With the show set to be aired in the US as well as here in the UK, he knows his face will soon be a familiar one on both sides of the Atlantic. Whatever happens, he will take it in his stride: “One of the most important things is to remind yourself of where you are from and be thankful. I don’t, for a second, take anything for granted. That’s a good way to start your day,” he says.