Part 1 / BBC1 - 24th October 2009 - 6.15pm
Part 2 / BBC1 - 31st October 2009 - 6.05pm
There are two series on British telly at the moment that have both had rather shaky starts to their new seasons but over the last few weeks have blossomed and flowered. The Sarah Jane Adventures certainly started out rather rockily this year but has over the last fortnight hit its stride again. Merlin likewise dipped when its second episode The Once And Future Queen was transmitted, threatening to plunge back into some of the rather turgid moments of its first series. Similarly the series has turned round and the last month's episodes have been consistently entertaining.
That standard has certainly been maintained with the producers attempt at a two-part story. In the past, the show has struggled to make decent single episodes so the thought of a 90 minute story over two weeks didn't exactly have me full of joy. However, Beauty And the Beast wins on many fronts. Central to its success is a quite extraordinary performance from Sarah Parrish as Lady Catrina. Parrish is fast becoming the queen of acting through latex prosthetics. After giving us a spirited turn as Empress Of The Racnoss in The Runaway Bride a couple of years ago, she's here slapping on the rubber as a revolting lady troll and channelling Les Dawson.
She's joined by Adam Godley as her lizard tailed majordomo Jonas who equally grabs onto his role and never lets go. He's fantastically slimy and unctuous with a dark undercurrent of threat and danger. Side by side with Parrish, the pair of them absolutely dominate the story with performances that are florrid and camp but remain entirely in keeping with the heightened comedy of manners of Beauty And The Beast.
Essentially, Catrina and Jonas plot to take over Camelot with Catrina marrying Uther and ruling the land. To do so Jonas concocts a potion to transform Catrina from the revolting, shit eating (yes, the episode makes no bones about about the coprophagia) troll into the scintillatingly beautiful likeness of Parrish in order to snare Uther. The episodes' main delight is in the farce-like elements of the story as Uther becomes smitten, unbeknownst to him until the last half of the second part, to a troll and Catrina tries desperately to maintain her form with regular doses of the potion.
It's an hilarious set of sequences of Parrish rushing from room to room, using a great deal of physical and vocal comedy, avoiding proper food served to her with amusing results and with her and Jonas trying to outwit both Merlin and Gaius who cotton on to their subterfuge in the first part of the story. Merlin spends a lot of time desperately trying to convince Arthur that Catrina isn't whom she seems to be and that too lines up a series of jokes and one-liners. See it as a hybrid of medieval fantasy and a Brian Rix farce. A sort of Run For Your Troll.
The story is certainly the most fairy tale like the series has ever been and the funniest thanks to Parrish's gusto in performing as the troll, including some outrageous farting and belching. Anthony Head is finally given more of a chance to stretch himself as Uther, again playing for comedy value but also showing that the man is what he is because of the loss of his love Ygraine. The symbolic aspects of the story tap into folklore and old Germanic descriptions of witchcraft and magic tricks. The power of the female unconscious to seduce Uther is embodied in Catrina who is both beauty and beast, unless of course the title here is also referring to Uther's psychological make up too. Perhaps the troll is also a symbol of the times, a representation of the greed and abuse of power at the heart of a good society.
The initial confrontation between Catrina and Merlin is an exciting and terrifying encounter and there is a very physically brutal battle between Merlin and Jonas that literally brings the house down. As the second half of the story proceeds, Merlin and Gaius realise they have to find a way to reveal Catrina's true appearance. As Catrina becomes Queen and holds sway over Uther through magic, the peasants are taxed into starvation and Arthur is disinherited. Catrina hilariously keeps Uther's sexual advances at bay by knocking him out with her bad breath but she gets her comeuppance when Merlin replaces the potion with a placebo. Uther eventually sees her for what she is, after he's made to shed tears of remorse over Arthur's (faked) death and he's rather embarrassed about the whole affair.
It's a cracking little story from Howard Overman and Ben Vanstone, full of pace and wit, slapstick humour and graced by excellent performances. The relationship between Arthur and Merlin is back on the right track and there's little of the bullying that marred Arthur's character in the first few episodes. In fact, there's a lovely scene which shows Arthur's potential as a future King when he rescues one of Camelot's subjects from the unreasonable tax demands and disagrees with Uther's view of the relationship between those who rule and those who serve.
Let's hope they can maintain the quality from now on.
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Series 1 Reviews