Thursday 23 November 2017

TV guide: Hero's leap

ITV's new 12-part drama, based on the story of Beowulf, is an expensive, ambitious and clever move


Emily Hourican

Horses galloping through ancient forests and across vast stretches of empty beach; men in ragged furs confronting each other across echo-y halls; the flash of sword-steel on firelight; strange creatures moving in the shadows - judging by the trailer, there is more than a touch of Game of Thrones to ITV's new 12-part drama, Beowulf: Return To The Shieldlands.

Written sometime between the 8th and 11th centuries, the original Beowulf is an epic poem in Old English by an anonymous Anglo-Saxon poet, set in Scandinavia, about a hero who comes to the aid of the king of the Danes who is under attack from a monster called Grendel. It has been translated many times, including by Seamus Heaney and JR Tolkien, and is now fully updated into exactly the kind of battle-heavy, historically remote, epic-style drama likely to be a TV hit.

Complete with fights, feuds, intrigues and love affairs, as well as monsters and magic, Beowulf: Return To The Shieldlands is positioned in the teatime slot and aimed squarely at families weaned on Doctor Who, Primeval and Merlin, as well as those who love the sets, the scope, the plots, the intrigue of Game Of Thrones, but who can't stomach the violence and misogyny.

Kieran Bew (The Street, Da Vinci's Demons) plays Beowulf, a warrior and heroic legend of ancient Britain, but also a solitary and complex figure, who returns to his childhood home of Herot, planning to set right the ancient wrongs that drove him from the place 20 years before. Except that he finds that the Thane of Herot, Hrothgar (played by William Hurt) is now old and infirm, and instead the land is governed by Hrothgar's wife Rheda (Joanne Whalley), who is determined to extend her rule, and can be ruthless as well as enlightened. Meanwhile, the town is under siege from a mysterious killer, who could be man or beast, and there are plenty who wish Beowulf himself dead, or at least gone. But he pledges to stay and face the killer, thus bringing himself into conflict with dark forces, both of man and nature.

With a huge cast, which includes Edward Speleers, David Ajala, Ellora Torchia, Laura Donnelly, David Harewood, Susan Aderin and many more, this is no two-men-and-a-drum effort, but something on a grand scale. Which means there will be a whole complex new fantasy world for audiences to get to grips with - various tribes, lords, villains, allegiances, ambitions, names, blood ties and back stories to absorb.

Beowulf owes as much to traditional Westerns as anything else, with the landscape of the north-east of England featuring almost like a character; vast and empty, populated by isolated and disparate tribes, connected to each other only by the loosest series of allegiances or grievances. This is England as it might never have been, but as audiences now wish to see it: rugged, untamed, a place where monsters lurk and men are constantly pitted against each other and their environment.

The series cost £17m and clearly sees itself as competing with feature films as much as in the TV market. Created by James Dormer, Tim Haines and Katie Newman, Beowulf is part of a deliberate ITV strategy to move away from the old model of relying predominantly on advertising income, towards the idea of revenue generated by international programmes sales. It's a bigger gamble - dramas need to be ambitious, and expensive, to compete - but also means bigger budgets for production, and longer runs than the usual six parts, as well as a commitment to three series rather than the traditional one-then-wait-and-see. It's a winner for audiences though, bringing a far higher quality of drama and production to screens.

Beowulf: Return To The Shieldlands starts tonight on ITV at 7pm

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