Longsword by David Pilling

Monday, 3 February 2014

Screen Kays

Following on from my last post about Sir Kay and his development (or rather, degeneration) over centuries of Arthurian legend and storytelling, I want to post something about the various depictions of the character on film and TV. I am aware of four Screen Kays, though obviously there are many more screen versions of the story. If anyone knows of Kays I might have missed, please feel free to say.

First up is Cartoon Kay, from the 1963 Disney animated version of TH White's The Sword in the Stone. White's book and its sequels are, for me, far and away the greatest version of this very old story, full of pathos and humour and imbued with one man's righteous fury against the dreadfulness of humanity as a species. The film encompasses none of these things, but then it doesn't try to. It's an efficiently amusing cartoon for kids, in which a young Arthur - or Wart - gets turned into various creatures by Merlin, with the occasional sing-song and dancing teapot thrown in.

Arthur's older brother, Kay, is one of the most obnoxious depictions of Kay since Malory showed him slapping a woman to get Sir Percival's attention. This Kay is not only an unpleasant bully who makes Wart's life hell, but dumb as a post.

Even when Arthur draws the sword from the stone, Kay has trouble figuring out what's going on, and we last see him squinting miserably at his own feet after his father, Sir Ector, forces him to kneel before King Arthur.

Next up is Sexy Celtic Kay, from the 1970s series Arthur of the Britons. Made by HTV between 1972-3, this series was an interesting but flawed experiment, the first screen version of the legend to make an attempt at placing Arthur and his followers in a believable historical context i.e. post-Roman Britain. The warlord Arthur and his men are just a bunch of grubby Celtic warriors living in thatched halls and roundhouses, though they do have fabulous hair - none more so than Michael Gothard as Kay (Kai).

Kai is a Saxon orphan, reared as Arthur's brother by their father, Lud. Stern and loyal and perpetually unsmiling, the nastier side of the character is largely absent in this depiction. In general, Arthur of the Britons was a bold effort, but hamstrung by a tiny budget and some iffy pacing and editing. A remake might be interesting.

Screen Kay no.3 is my personal favourite. Played by Niall O'Brien, Sir Kay in John Boorman's Excalibur (1981) plays a subtle but important role in the film. Boorman clearly did his research on the character, and allows Kay his proper place as Arthur's loyal seneschal, a constant and dependable presence when all the other knights are falling to bits (quite literally, since they never take their armour off. That stuff rusts).

This Kay remains by Arthur's side when the rest of the knights ride off on the doomed Grail quest, here reinvented as an almost pagan symbol of fertility and renewal. A hint of his obnoxiousness remains, such as when he says to an aspiring young squire: "kitchen knives and greasy spits will be your weapons, boy - to the kitchens!" but otherwise he is a decent, upright sort of chap.

Me? Evil?
When the evil Mordred, played here by Robert Addie as a truly vile product of incest, rides up to Camelot and demands Arthur's castle and kingdom, it is Kay who (I'm paraphrasing) warns the horrible little jerk to back off unless he wants Kay's foot up his shiny metal ass. Kay is one of the few men to ride with Arthur to his first battle, and the few to ride with him to the last, a weird, mist-shrouded affair in which knights in shiny silver armour and knights in dirty black armour cut each other to bits. Kay is last seen hacking away at the bad guys, before a white-bearded Lancelot thunders in to save the day.

The fourth and last of my Screen Kays is sadly the worst. Played by Peter Mooney in the ill-fated Starz series Camelot - or Hack n'Shag, as it might have been called, such was the degree of naked tits and softcore humping on display - this Kay lands with a dull thud. Mooney is one of those routinely handsome actors that seem to populate all modern fantasy/sci-fi shows, and his character is as boring as his haircut. Not a whit of Kay's traditional nastiness remains. Without that, and without much natural charisma from the actor playing him, Kay is reduced to just another knight, though he keeps his role as Arthur's foster-brother.

Kay was spared the embarrassment of appearing in the 2004 Bruckheimer-produced abomination King Arthur. This was billed as the Truth Behind the Legend, in the sense that Kevin Costner's Prince of Thieves was a gritty, realistic, hard-hitting exposé of social conditions in late 12th century England.

So far as I'm aware, no more Arthurian films or televised dramas are planned for the near future, though doubtless there will be: one recent idea, apparently shelved, was a remake of Excalibur. Hopefully, the next time Sir Kay appears onscreen, he will be in his full glory as an obnoxious, sarcastic asshat capable of breathing underwater, shooting fire from his hands, killing oxen with a single blow and shooting up to the height of a tree. At least it would be good for a laugh.


  1. Hi David! :-) Now that I know what you think about Peter Mooney as Sir Kay, I would love to learn your opinion on Jamie Campbell Bower as Arthur :-)

    1. Hi Kasia! Long time no speak :) Perhaps the least said about Bower, the better...

    2. I dare to disagree :-) About Bower's performance. As the young Arthur he's very convincing. Besides, I will never believe someone may not like Eva Green's "naked tits" :-) But to be serious, I love how the screewriter solved the "sword in stone" problem. The scene is so very dramatic (and thanks to it Merlin appears as a really clever guy, not merely a wizard living off his magic tricks). Just my humble opinion.

      Yes, it has been a while... Would it be enough to say I've been very busy? :-)

    3. But generally you're right. I hated when they used contemporary English (in episode 1 Arthur says "Thanks!" to Kay. Ouch!), not to mention the Barbie doll-like Guinevere.

  2. Guy Ritchie may have something up his sleeve: http://www.ign.com/articles/2014/01/28/director-guy-ritchie-rumored-to-be-developing-a-six-film-king-arthur-series

    This is a great post. I really enjoy your writing, David.