Saturday, 13 December 2014


Tomorrow's episode of The Once and Future King (BBC Radio 4, 3:00 pm), brings T H White's retelling of the Arthurian legend to an emotion-charged conclusion...

White takes his story from Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur, but imbues the characters with a contemporary sensibility that makes their drama one with which we instinctively identify and sympathize.

My dramatisation is tightly focused on the central, conflicted trio of Arthur, Guenever and Lancelot and the impact of others – Gawaine, Gareth and Mordred – on their triangular relationship.

Paul Ready (Arthur), Lyndsey Marshall (Guenever) Alex Waldman (Lancelot)

The concept of there being a romance between Lancelot and Guenever (making a cuckold of the King) became a part of the legend through an old French poem entitled Lancelot, le Chevalier de la Charrette, written around 1177 by Chrétien de Troyes. It is now a vital ingredient of the myth and, via White's 20th Century re-telling, immortalised in the Lerner and Loewe musical, Camelot and its doomful ballad, 'I Loved You Once In Silence'...

Inevitably, it is human passions and frailties – the desire for love or, out of hatred, for revenge –  that ultimately brings about the tragic collapse of the fine ideals to which Arthur had once aspired with his dream of a Round Table of noble knights committed to the revolutionary concept of 'might for right'.

The episode title, 'The Candle in the Wind' is taken from that of the final section in the 1958 one-volume edition, The Once and Future King, and symbolically refers to the fragility of Arthur's transforming vision for society. 

Did White know that Maxwell Anderson had used the title Candle in the Wind for a 1941 Broadway drama starring Helen Hayes? Probably not, any more than the 1973 translators of one of Alexander Solzhenitsyn's plays knew it had already been used or, the same year, Elton John and Bernie Taupin when writing their song of the same name in memory of Marilyn Monroe and, later, re-writing it in memory of Diana, Princess of Wales.

Youth, beauty and celebrity are, of course, as transient as ideals may sometimes be and it is  interesting to note that The Once and Future King was much-loved by the late President John F Kennedy, also tragically cut down in his prime and yet, as we subsequently learned, as flawed a human being as the Arthur and Lancelot in the book he so admired. It was seeing the book listed as a presidential favourite that spurred Moss Hart to suggest that it might provide Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe with a follow-up to their triumphant hit, My Fair Lady.

The title song they were to write (as reprised at the end of the show) carries the elegiac lines...
Don't let it be forgot
That once there was a spot 
For one brief and shining moment 
That was known as Camelot...
As a result the Kennedy administration became known as 'Camelot' and  the history of JFK's reign as 'one brief shining moment'.

Those who have listened to the whole radio series may recall the appearance, in the first episode, of a young page named Tom... Well, in Episode 6, the young lad returns – as he does in the closing pages of White's novel where he is charged with the daunting task of shielding the candle from the wind that would so quickly put out its light. 

White's Tom was – in a final extravagant leap of the imagination – Thomas Malory, later author of Le Morte d'Arthur, but, in another sense, he is each and every one of us who as the story comes to an end is encouraged to keep the flame alive and pass on its glorious light to those who are to come...

You can hear 'The Candle in the Wind' tomorrow, Sunday 13 December, on BBC Radio 4 at 3:00 pm and on its repeat on Saturday 20 December at 9:00 pm and, afterwards, for thirty days on-line here.

There is more information about the series, T H White, the Arthurian legends together with interviews with the cast and myself on the BBC's The Once and Future King web pages.

And if you have missed the series to date, there's still two days catch up with the first episode on BBC iPlayer before Merlyn magics it into oblivion for ever...


Boll Weavil said...

Malory also includes stories like 'The Healing of Sir Urry' to show the jealousy the other knights had for Lancelot. That kicked off their desire to expose his doings with the king's missus. Malory is a bit ambiguous initially as to what had gone off although everyone else afterwards seems a lot more certain :-)

Oliver Wakefield said...

Hi Brian - I caught one episode of Once and Future King and thought it was brilliant. Reminded me of how much I enjoyed your LOTR back in the day. Trouble is I can't download the first episode as its run out on Iplayer. Is this going to be released as a purchasable audiobook at some point so I can catch that episode?