Seraphina Allard-Bridge discovers how the fifth century was recreated for ITV’s historical epic The Winter King
Based on The Warlord Chronicles trilogy by Bernard Cornwell, the 10-part ITVX drama The Winter King is an intense, action-packed series that transports the viewer back to the depths of Britain’s dark ages, where Arthur Pendragon has been banished from his kingdom. In December, the cast and crew spoke at an RTS Cymru Wales event about how they approached this Arthurian retelling.
“There is so much pressure when you’re doing such a well-known story,” said Lachlan MacKinnon, series executive producer. “[Bernard Cornwell was] always like the North Star for the project.”
Reiterating the importance of the source material, the supervising art director, Daniel Martin, added: “The books are almost like a love letter to this country.”
Otto Bathurst, known for his work on Peaky Blinders, directed the first four episodes and had a strong sense of how he wanted to tell the story, as MacKinnon explained: “[His] vision was to make an Arthurian legend where Arthur was the real Arthur – the person [who] would be the man in the field leading the country…. He was very keen to ground it in a way that hadn’t been done before.”
The series, produced by Bad Wolf in association with One Big Picture, strives for accuracy in its historical setting. “One of the big challenges with a show like this is that it’s set in the fifth century and a lot of the Arthurian legends we’ve seen before have been medieval,” said MacKinnon.
But setting the series in the dark ages was a difficult undertaking. “We discovered quickly that there isn’t much left from the fifth century,” said producer Catrin Lewis Defis.
MacKinnon added: “It’s literally a pile of stones – that is all that’s left.”
Costume designer Sarah Arthur said: “When I started doing some research, I realised that there were no records available for costume until 300 years later than we were shooting.”
The art department had a particularly ambitious feat to pull off. Martin recalled: “We went to various locations and tried to work out how we could blend the sort of historical reality… and the gritty texture [in the books], with something we could achieve practically.”
Key to achieving this was finding the right locations. The series was shot across Wales and the South West in remote, cinematic landscapes. Martin said: “The joy of the show being [filmed] where it was, is that’s exactly where the books are based as well. Dumnonia is essentially Devon, Somerset and Cornwall.”
Defis said of the locations: “Dumnonia is the kingdom of kingdoms, and that’s how you felt, when you were standing on top of the Quantocks.”
Martin continued: “[The fortress] Caer Cadarn was a studio set for the most part, but… the lead up to it, the gate, was actually something built on location in Morlais Quarry [near Merthyr Tydfil].”
The studio sets were as authentic as possible, with real wooden doors and metal handles.
“It’s great as an actor because it’s all there; you don’t have to imagine anything, which is not [usually] the case on a modern TV show,” said Emily John, who plays Ceinwyn in the series. “You felt really immersed, which makes my job very easy.”
Making TV, though, is a demanding job. Addressing those in the audience hoping to break into the industry, Martin said: “You have to want to be there at 6:00am on top of a mountain, when it’s hailing and it’s snowing, and you have to want to be there at 7:00pm that evening when you’re getting a set ready for the next day.”
The RTS Cymru Wales event, ‘The Winter King’, was held at USW’s Atrium building in Cardiff on 7 December. It was hosted by Lachlan MacKinnon and produced by Edward Russell.