LONDON — The smoke machine puffs away, the director, James Keach, shouts "Action" and the actors, in medieval dress, spring to life.
C Stage at Shepperton Studios is the Great Hall of Allington Castle copied to the last detail. Medieval candelabra burn next to a long oak dining table. On a monitor in the corner Mr. Keach watches the first take of episode No. 1 of the new ABC television series "Covington Cross." (It debuts tonight at 10 on ABC, Channel 13.)
Films including "Superman," "Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves" and, most recently, "Muppet Christmas Carol" were shot at Shepperton. And now this is home to a television series with a difference and one of the biggest gambles of the fall TV season.
"Covington Cross" is an ambitious, expensive project that is, in essence, a typical contemporary family melodrama, minus 500 years or so. Gil Grant, writer and executive producer, says "It's got the look of a movie."
Location shooting takes place in the southeast of England at Allington Castle in Kent, which is referred to in the "Domes- day Book of Kent" (1086).
In the series, Sir Thomas Gray (Nigel Terry) is lord of Covington Cross Castle. He is a single father with three sons and one daughter. Tonight's pilot episode sets the scene with the Gray family locked in a feud with their neighbors.
King Edward Miles Anderson) demands a truce be called between Sir Thomas and his enemy, John Mullens (James Faulkner). To seal the rift, Mullens suggests that the beautiful Eleanor (Ione Skye), Sir Thomas' only daughter, marry his son, Henry of Gault. Eleanor, described by Mr. Grant as "a bit of a feminist," is unhappy about the arrangement. Though Eleanor's father isn't excited about his daughter marrying into the Mullens family, he is naive enough to believe it might work.
Besides Eleanor, Gray has three Handsome Young Sons; you almost get the feeling that you're watching "Melrose Place," though everyone isdressed in robes.
"Covington Cross" promises "modern themes, but the action and romance will be straight from the days when . . . knights and chivalry reigned," says Mr. Grant. It's "a 1990s take on family life in the 1350s, presented by a guy who grew up in the 1950s," he says.
The idea for the series came to Mr. Grant when he looked through the listings and "saw shows like 'The High Chapperal' and 'Little House on the Prairie,' all frontier shows." He has moved the frontier back 600 years and retained the same dynamics, he says.
The word on the set is that "Covington Cross" is a medieval "Bonanza."
Mr. Terry plays opposite Cheri Lunghi. They last appeared together in the medieval "Excalibur," directed by John Boorman. In "Covington Cross," Ms. Lunghi stars as Lady Elizabeth, a close friend of Sir Thomas and described as his love interest. Ms. Lunghi finds Lady Elizabeth "bright, witty and independent -- she's a free-thinker yet she's vulnerable and she's compassionate."
"Covington Cross" is the first American series to be filmed entirely in the United Kingdom in the past 30 years.
Steven Cole Smith of the Fort Worth (Texas) Star-Telegram contributed to this article.