The allure of the King Arthur legend has endured centuries and remains popular today. In the hands of Hollywood, the Arthurian legend often takes a bias towards emphasis on the more fantastic elements: the Lady in the Lake and Merlin most prominently. The History Channel has scoured its archives and collected various programs produced on Arthur, presented in a brisk two-disc set appropriately titled "King Arthur and Medieval Britain." Viewers interested in the subject should be warned though, as the two most recent programs in the set date back to 2004, with the oldest stretching almost a decade further, airing original on A&E in 1995. However, don't let that scare you away, because most familiar with the long history of The History Channel, much of the network's finest programming remains far back in its archives, before the days of sensationalism and "reality" programming.
The set begins on a very high note, with the 2004-produced "Quest for King Arthur." Running around an hour-and-a-half and narrated by none other than Patrick Stewart, the program has ample time to cover various aspects of Arthur's life, from his initial claim on the throne, the building of Camelot, quest for the Holy Grail, and eventual demise. The program features strong narration as one would expect from the caliber of Stewart, with historians adding their own thoughts often over recreated footage. While the production does make sure to highlight the major elements of Arthur's life such as his love of Gwenivere and the legendary Excalibur, overall the program attempts to try and dispel rumors and get to the bottom of the case: was there really an Arthur? The evidence laid out, while not nearly as intriguing as the myth it has been built into today, is believable and the viewer is left with some level of closure, despite lingering intrigue.
The same praise can't be heaped onto "King Arthur: His Life and Legends" which frankly, feels incredibly redundant following the superb opening. Produced in 1995 for "Biography" the program is incredibly dated, never stopping to catch its breath during its meager 45-minute runtime. Various historians lend their opinions as well as produce evidence, but viewers not fully captivated by this will fight the urge to tune out as the visuals are limited and bland, often consisting of ancient drawings. For its time and place in the "Biography" series, "King Arthur: His Life and Legends" is a moderately successful program, but placed against the other programs in this set, it feels like unnecessary filler.
To be fair, the same complaints could be leveled against a 1995 episode of "Ancient Mystery" titled "Camelot," but where the previous program is a bit bland and boring, "Ancient Mysteries: Camelot" brings Leonard Nimoy on board as narrator for a 45-minute journey into the life of Arthur, with the underlying question "Was Camelot real?" driving the narrative. At this point in the set, a lot of the information is duplicated, but here the focus is on the big issues in the Arthurian myth, and while "King Arthur: His Life and Legends" had a great quantity of facts, "Camelot" brings the quality. This program mostly survives on nostalgia and Nimoy, which might fairly be lumped together as the same thing. It's no "In Search Of..." but it still retains some minor elements from that classic series.
"Knights and Armor" is the odd-man out in this set but a welcome breath of fresh air. A 90-minute exploration into medieval technology, it has a very relevant place in a set detailing the Arthurian legend. It does an excellent job detailing the various weapons and styles of armor utilized by knights and soldiers of the time. The topics cover ground from how the weapons were used to how they were made and even some time spent on the role of the knight itself is examined. It's not overly flashy and thankfully straight-to-the-point in its approach to educating viewers. When I often rant about what The History Channel has become, it's programs like this that I cite as what made the network popular in the first place. It's inclusion in this set is a logical, welcome inclusion.
Last but not least, we take a journey back to "Ancient Mysteries," this time covering a specific saga in King Arthur's life, his quest for the Holy Grail. Airing in 1997 at the tail end of the series' lifespan, "Ancient Mysteries Quest for the Holy Grail" is another 45-minute, Leonard Nimoy narrated journey into intrigue. While Arthur does play into the saga of the famed chalice, this program is more focused on the overall myth of the Grail itself and might overall, be the most controversial inclusion in the set. Like "Ancient Mysteries: Camelot" there is a sense of fun to the program and the information is delivered at a steady, easily digestible pace. By and large, this program gives viewers a sense of why this was such an important object in history and why Arthur would be compelled to seek it out.
The 1.33:1 original aspect ratio transfer varies from program to program with "Quest for King Arthur" and "Knights and Armor" looking the best, but just barely. Both feature soft detail, some artifacting and slightly muted colors. The remaining three programs show aspects of video transfer with the "Biography" episode looking the worst in terms of color and detail.
The Dolby Digital English 2.0 audio track is serviceable, with the newer programs having a hint of warmth and depth, with the three 90s era shows having a flat, narration dominant mix.
"King Arthur and Medieval Britain" isn't a spectacular set, but what it lacks in grandiosity, it makes up for in fun. The truth Arthur nut might want to add this set to his or her collection, while everyone else would be best suited with a rental. At the end of the day, only "Quest for King Arthur" and "Knights and Armor" sport solid replay value, with the two "Ancient Mysteries" episodes acting as light entertainment and the poorly aged "Biography" episode disposable filler. Recommended.