Prince Arthur took off his armor and put down his sword long enough to spend the past couple of New Years in downtown Jacksonville, watching the fireworks.
And years before he became the once and future king, you could often find him on the soccer field at the Beaches.
“Just a small kid with a mop of blond hair,” he says, “running around with my dad shouting instructions in his broad English accent, which I think intimidated the other teams.”
That’s Bradley James, 26, an English actor and star of “Merlin,” a BBC series that airs in 170 countries. In the United States, it’s on Friday nights on Syfy. James plays Prince Arthur, an arrogant, callow youth who has not yet ascended to the throne at Camelot.
He spoke over the phone from “Merlin’s” set in France. “We’ve got this castle that a madman decided to restore in the late 19th century. In the middle of nowhere. I think he had the foresight that the BBC was going to need a castle to film in some day.”
James is very British, with that dry sense of humor and a passion for football – soccer, that is – that’s almost all-consuming. (“The World Cup,” he says, “is my religion.”)
But he likes American football, too, courtesy of his strong connection to Jacksonville.
“As we’re talking, I have my Florida Gators hoodie on, a white hoodie with that familiar gator on it,” he says. “Pure coincidence.”
His family moved from England to Jacksonville when he was 9, when his father took a job as … well, that still remains unclear, to James at least.
“It’s one of those jobs where he explains what he does and I go, yes. I know it involves business.”
The 9-year-old James went to Crown Point Elementary School first, then to Fletcher Middle when his family moved to the Beaches.
That’s where he met Chris Crider, who played with him on a KYX soccer team. They’ve remained friends all these years, and James still comes to visit Crider, now a 26-year-old physical education teacher at Lakeshore Middle School, and other friends.
Crider says James hasn’t really changed since he got the Prince Arthur gig and became a heartthrob and star.
“He’s very modest,” Crider says. “I have to do all the bragging for him.”
Crider’s phone does ring a lot, though, when James is in town: women calling, wanting to meet him.
He remembers James telling him he was going to try acting. But he didn’t figure him for a medieval fighting man.
“I think it’s funny. We all know Bradley. Nice guy, charming. But whenever he’s on the show he’s a big tough guy – that’s not normally the guy I’d see him as.”
With much swordfighting and many stunts, Prince Arthur is a bruising role. It’s one James got when he was 23, cast right out of school, the Drama Centre in London.
“It’s been great. I swing a sword around for a living. I dress up like a knight, I sort of be the hero, have these heroic quests. It’s fantastic.”
For now, his Arthur’s not King. That role’s held by his father, the ruthless Uther Pendragon, played by Anthony Head, who was Rupert Giles on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”
That could change, he hints, before the series ends.
“Hopefully, I’ll get to sit on that throne, ponce around it like I own the place.”
James spent four years in the Jacksonville area, and he thinks it gave him a certain open-mindedness and an American attitude of striving for success.
“For me, I supposed I’d been given that sense of adventure, so when you’re older it doesn’t seem like that big a jump – you can try things out, try this crazy thing called acting.”
His time in Florida also made him a lifetime fan of a professional football team – albeit one at the wrong end of the state.
“I have to admit that my team’s the Dolphins,” he says, explaining that when he was here, the Jaguars weren’t. And there was Dan Marino down in Miami, throwing touchdown passes.
Then he tries some diplomacy.
“I technically have two teams – Chris very kindly bought me a Jaguars jersey this past Christmas. I always keep an eye on the Jaguars now.”
And that Gators hoodie he was wearing? That was sent to him by a fan after she saw a video of him wearing a Seminoles T-shirt.
They’re all links, James says, to a place he still thinks of, in some way, as home.
“I have fond memories of Jacksonville. I’m always pleased when I get to the airport and get that kind of balmy feeling on my face,” he says. “It’s a little part of home. That might be hard to believe, coming from someone with an accent like this. But it’s meant.”