Jamie Campbell Bower and Tamsin Egerton

They brought us the wildly carnal and grotesque Spartacus: Blood and Sand. Now the folks at Starz are having a go at King Arthur. Their sprawling new series Camelot — shot in Ireland — is a risqué, politically feverish reboot of Arthurian lore that twists and turns the beloved saga in radical ways. Assume nothing.

 

"We want you to forget everything you know — or think you know — about the legend of King Arthur," says creator Chris Chibnall. "This is not the pristine fairy-tale fantasy version of the story. People live and die brutally. These are the Dark Ages, and they are very dark indeed." Though set in 6th century Britain — a time of feuding warlords and pagan barbarism — this Camelot is "very much a tale for today," Chibnall says. "It speaks to very simple values: How do we create a good land in which to live? How do we make our rulers be decent and honorable?"

 

Starz has gathered quite a classy cast for this: Jamie Campbell Bower (from the Twilight films) stars as the impetuous young pup Arthur, Joseph Fiennes (FlashForward) is his wily mentor Merlin, and former Bond girl Eva Green (Casino Royale) plays the bitcherella sorceress Morgan, who kills her daddy, King Uther, only to see his crown fall to Arthur, the half-bro she never knew existed. Everyone is ridiculously gorgeous, natch.

 

"Arthurian myth, at its very core, is all about lust and passion — people fall in love, have sex and bear children with the wrong people," says Chibnall. "These are things that form the kingdom of Camelot and then, at the end of the legend, tragically bring it down. That's why this is a good fit for Starz, though we're very careful that the sex is story-driven, not gratuitous."

 

True, Camelot is not the full-frontal fleshfest that is Spartacus, but it's undeniably steamy. Our first glimpse of Arthur finds him lounging nude with his brother's girlfriend in post-coital bliss. Likewise, the luscious Guinevere (Tamsin Egerton) is first seen in Arthur's dream, emerging stark naked from the sea. These kids don't waste time. Just before Guinevere is to wed the gallant Leontes (Philip Winchester), she and Arthur have hot, heaving sex on the beach. Then Guinevere, who is supposed to be a virgin, goes ahead with the marriage, pouring deer blood on the bedsheets to fool her hapless hubby.

 

"People are going to hate me!" says a half-worried, half-thrilled Egerton. "Guinevere is a passionate teenager with raging hormones. God, does she make mistakes! I'm afraid the audience will have to cut her quite a bit of slack."

 

They'll need to do the same with Merlin. This is no merry, wand-waving, pointy-hatted wizard. Rather, he's a control-freak warmonger with a military buzz cut who is haunted by apocalyptic visions of the future. Fiennes unapologetically likens his character to Donald Rumsfeld. "Merlin is not to be trusted," says the actor. "He is a brilliant, Machiavellian puppeteer who intends to use Arthur to bring unification and democracy to the land. His power lies in politics and manipulation." And not so much in sorcery. "Merlin's afraid of magic, actually," reveals Fiennes. "He will only use it as a last resort."

 

This being Starz, the sexual tension between Merlin and Morgan is palpable — at one point she slips him the medieval equivalent of a roofie and handcuffs him to her bed — but Fiennes ain't crazy about it. "Merlin is a father figure, Morgan is like an awakening schoolgirl," he says. "I'd like to think my character is a cut above that." Green agrees. "Morgan is this big, ballsy warrior queen who will do anything to put herself on the throne. But sex with Merlin would be so forbidden!" says the actress. "The show can't go in that direction. Although, maybe next season..."

 

For now, mad Morgan is plenty busy trying to destroy Arthur, a tricky matter to be sure. "There is a very real love between these two because they are each other's only connection to the past," says Bower. "Like everybody else in this series, their emotions are sweeping and epic. We're not telling the legend here — we're creating our own truth behind the legend."

 

And Arthurian purists be damned. "This Camelot may piss off quite a lot of people, but we'll also draw a new audience to the story," says Bower. "We can't worry about being irreverent to the myth. After all, it's been with us for centuries. And it will outlast us all."

 

Camelot premieres tonight at 10/9c on Starz.

 

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