Beyond the Castle – Pt 1: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at Merlin

Anticipation was the order of the day as the train I was on headed to Cardiff and the sets that bring a warlock, his king and a merry band of knights to life every series. Sitting in a large room with fellow journalists, we chatted with the cast and crew of the hit BBC series Merlin about their 4 year journey and for one, the excitement and nervousness that comes with starting a new job.

While I loved seeing the cast again, my favorite part of the day had to be walking past the giant backdrop of Pierrefonds and through the massive soundstage that engulfs the sets and standing where Merlin, Arthur and others have stood on my TV screen each week. I might have done a little excited jig when I walked into Merlin’s room. Maybe. But that’s not what you’re really here to read is it? Quick warning that there may be spoilers so read on at your own risk!Throughout this week and next, I’ll be bringing you interviews with the cast including series leads Colin Morgan, Bradley James, Katie McGrath, Angel Coulby, the Knights of the Round Table – Rupert Young, Eoin Macken, Tom Hopper and returning warlock (but newly joined cast member) Alexander Vlahos.

But it’s not just the folks in front of the screen that help make the magic happen. We spoke with Propmaster Jason “Big J” Wood, Production Designer Ed Turner and Costume Supervisor Samantha Cousins to see just how Camelot ticks. Taking a stroll down Merlin Mews – that would be one of many creative signs helping direct you through the costume department’s massive tents – I looked on in awe at the sheer amount of items that have to be managed, sorted through and provided on set every single day. It’s like the Camelot Superstore of clothing!

With that, we spoke with Samantha Cousins, who’s been costume supervisor on Merlin since the show’s start in 2008. Spoiler alert! Merlin will be going undercover as an old woman and apparently, it’s Colin’s favorite costume this series!

Q: How do you manage the costumes on a day-to-day basis?

SC:  When we’re on tour, this [one-level trailer] is what we go but yeah we’re just taking out what we need each week. So we’re unloading and reloading all the time. Have you been into the tent area?

Q: Can you tell us what you’ve got here?

SC: So you’ve got all the main characters, Merlin, Gaius, Arthur, the Knights, Gwen, Morgana on the other side.

Q: Do you have any pieces that you’re particularly proud of?

SC: I’m the supervisor so I can’t take credit for it but this is Dolma – this is when Merlin becomes a woman – an old lady. And this is all hand sewed – you’ve got a petticoat and dress and a little cape and a little head scarf and in here – he [Colin] absolutely loves this costume – you’ve got a hump which is strapped on and then he wears a bra which is like heavy if you feel it – the weight feels like the real thing. It’s bean bag padding. And then he’s got bum padding in his trousers. So that’s quite a fun one.

GS: Can you describe a typical day for you?

SC: I would say I start off setting up all the costumes and I talk to the actors about if they’ve got any queues about what they should be wearing. I normally get in about 6-ish, 6:30 [loud groans from all at the early start], maybe have a quick bit of breakfast, get everyone on to set and then start doing the washing, doing other changes and then setting up for the next day really. It’s kind of constant – always running around.

Q: Are all the costumes completely made from scratch?

SC:  Yeah, everything and dyed to the color palette that we use. All of these fabrics started off as cream/white so we do hand dye it. All the trims are all vintage trims we’ve collected over time at Portobello Market.

GS: Do you set the color palette?

SC: Well its kind of set by us but sometimes set by the producers. We’ll do a selection of samples and then we’ll present it to the producers and they kind of decide. It depends on the colors of the sets and things as well.

Q: Has there been anything that’s been difficult to get your hands on or make?

SC: Most of it! [Laughter] Everything! I guess when it’s a specific character – because Jane the designer, will have an idea of what she thinks it should be and the producers say ‘Yeah this is what we want’, we’ll make it and then they’ll have a fitting or send them the photographs and then they’ll go ‘No actually, that’s not what we want’.

Then it’s “What do you want because this is how we think it should be’ so it kind of can be quite hard to kind of read. And sometimes you don’t know until you see it in the flesh that it’s wrong because it depends on the cast and what suits them. Because we normally make the costume up before we see the character in person. It will sometimes be different to what we expect.

Q: What happens to the costumes you’re – well I guess some of them get reused – but what happens to the one’s your finished with?

SC: A lot of the time we recycle things – we keep them all in storage and we keep all the characters together and then sometimes we’ll recycle them. Sometimes characters come back – even if its just basic things like trousers and shirts, we reuse and a lot of the stock goes into extra stock because it’s just generic kind of stuff. Obviously some things are specific for a character and we have to keep those things to one side.

Q: How many costumes do you have for a character like Merlin for example?

SC: We have for each character – so he’s got 3 or 4 different color shirts that he wears  so we have 4 of each, and then 4 of each scarf and then several pairs of trousers but that’s actually not a lot considering how much action there is and stuntmen, there’s always riding doubles so we really have to take care of the stuff because it gets so much wear.

Q: Do you have any idea of how many total costumes you have here altogether?

SC: I have no idea! Ok – if you say like cloaks, I’d say about 80 cloaks and this is a very vague guess like chain mail probably have about 100 sets of chain mail. Have you seen it? You can feel it if you want! We have it made in India but it’s actually aluminum so it’s a lot lighter than it could be but it’s still pretty heavy.

GS: Do you have any costumes that are you particular favorites?

SC: Well these main guys because I see them every day so it’s kind of a bit mundane but I guess the ones that are in the tents because they’re for characters that are in only one or two episodes like Princess Mithian or the Dolma costume. Gwen’s costumes are lovely. Her dresses are amazing – they’re just so well cut.

GS: Thank you so much!

That’s not all we’ve got though – make sure to keep an eye on this space for some audio & video interviews with the rest of the crew and cast in the run up to the series 5 premiere!

Reporter: Sharlene Mousfar

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