More alternate-history than sci-fi, is this late ’80s tale of a fascist takeover of Britain a little too close to home to ever be seen again?
The brainchild of TV writer and playwright Richard Cooper (1930-1998), Knights Of God is a true enigma in genre TV, even among other British productions: it was shown precisely once in its home territory in 1987 and never again, never to be issued on videotape or DVD. What most viewers remember about it is that it was the last production ever broadcast featuring ex-Doctor Who Patrick Troughton, and that it starred former Blake’s 7 freedom fighter Gareth Thomas as a more down-to-earth Welsh freedom fighter. Knights Of God is more speculative fiction than science fiction, offering a bloody alternative future history of the British Isles.
Set in the distant future year of 2020 – oh wait, that’s now – Knights Of God depicts a Britain laid to waste by a civil war sparked by domestic issues. The uprising was led by a man named Mordrin under the cover of a divide over religious issues. His right-hand henchman, the bloodthirsty Hugo, personally executed the Royal Family, and the two formed an order known as the Knights of God – jackbooted, heavily armed soldiers executing Mordrin’s orders (and his enemies) across the country. Mordrin’s 20-year reign of terror still hasn’t seen the end of his opposition, however: an elderly man named Arthur coordinates the resistance from within the rebel state of Wales, his orders carried out by his right-hand-man and strategist Owen Edwards.
At the time he wrote Knights Of God, Richard Cooper was no stranger to writing for TV, having graduated to the small screen after gaining favorable reviews for a string of well-regarded stage plays. But this work occurred relatively late in Cooper’s life; even after his plays began to be performed at the Edinburgh Festival, he remained with his teaching career until he was 50 years old. Cooper’s careers as both educator and playwright were closely intertwined with his Catholic beliefs; one such play was the first script of his to be bought with the intention of turning it into a television project in the 1970s, but it was never produced, souring him on further involvement with television for several years.
In 1979, his TV career began in earnest with the series Quest Of Eagles, which also landed his first award for scripting children’s television. The BBC quickly took notice, producing his next series, Codename: Icarus, and the BBC producer of that series later moved to the regional TVS network (now, like so many other small regional British broadcasters, absorbed into ITV), and commissioned Cooper’s next series, Knights Of God.
Knights Of God was made in 1985, shot entirely on film (unlike the BBC’s output, which still danced between studio video and location film at the time) in southern England and Wales. It wasn’t Patrick Troughton’s last television performance chronologically, but to Cooper’s frustration, the series was quietly sidelined for two years; Nigel Stock died in 1986 and Troughton died early in 1987, making this series their final (posthumous) appearance. (Troughton himself was a replacement for the producers’ original choice of Peter Cushing to play the part of Arthur; Cushing died in 1984 before production began.)
The series was never repeated in the UK, perhaps owing to the theme of Wales and Britain at war. The late ’80s saw something of a surge of Welsh nationalism, with some proponents advocating a complete split from the UK. It’s possible that TVS opted not to repeat the series in this environment, where scenes such as Gervase Edwards (Owen’s son) being prodded through a prison camp and being called a “Welsh git” might have inflamed sensibilities. Knights Of God was also never released in any home video format except abroad, where it was also graced with repeats. Only Germany and Denmark saw VHS videotape releases of the series, which was heavily edited into a single lengthy movie. (TVS and its production library have changed hands numerous times, so bizarrely, Knights Of God technically now rests as an untapped obscurity in the Disney vaults.)
Cooper moved on to other television projects, from 1989’s adult-oriented historical drama Shadow Of The Noose to further children’s series such as Eye Of The Storm (1993) and Children Of The New Forest (1998). It was shortly after finishing work on the latter that Cooper died at the age of 67. His last produced project was dedicated to his memory.
Fast-forward to 2020: Knights Of God languishes in obscurity (and on the internet, naturally – the entire series can be found on YouTube), a victim of being a story that was bound to be misread or creatively reinterpreted to fit agendas that had little to do with the story itself, only to be unjustly remembered as little more than an epitaph for two popular character actors. A modern-day repeat might prove to be just as problematic, what with the backstory mentioning that the Royal Family was executed at the beginning of the insurrection. Richard Cooper’s slightly-futuristic, politically-charged reinvention of Arthurian myth continues to sit in the vaults, too controversial to be broadcast soon after its completion, and apparently too controversial to be revisited over 30 years later.