TV plunders Dark Ages for heroic hit
New historical TV dramas will turn the clock back from the Tudors to Saxon warlords
Move over Thomas Cromwell and Henry VIII: the heroes of this season's historical television are more likely to be sword-wielding warriors from the Dark Ages battling the occasional dragon.
The runaway success of HBO's Game of Thrones - as well as the BBC's Wolf Hall and Showtime's The Tudors - is encouraging the BBC and ITV to look back even further back in British history for a lavish new set of dramas starring heroic but flawed heroes alongside plenty of gore and pillage.
October sees the start of The Last Kingdom on BBC2, produced by the makers of Downton Abbey. It's a battle-packed ninth-century story of struggles between the Anglo-Saxons and Danes, with Alfred the Great saving Wessex and, ultimately, English society. "It caught my imagination," said the executive producer, Gareth Neame of Carnival Films.
ITV, meanwhile, is completing Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands, showing in January, a 13-part epic loosely based on the Anglo-Saxon poem - elegantly translated into modern English in 2000 by Seamus Heaney - complete with computer-generated dragons and monsters, including Grendel and his mother. Tim Haines, ITV drama creative director and executive producer, said: "I think it is another type of period drama. It has become a form of adult escapism."
It doesn't stop there. American cable broadcaster FX Networks, known for spicy drama, is filming The Bastard Executioner, a grim 14th-century tale of rebellion by the Marcher earls who guarded the Anglo-Welsh border against the English conquest of Wales. Some see it as a Welsh version of Braveheart, and an opening line declares: "There's nothing more dangerous than a Welshman who has nothing to lose."
Aimed at a broad audience, The Last Kingdom's £10m (€14m), eight-part adaptation for BBC2 and BBC America is faithfully based on the first of eight Warrior Chronicles/Saxon Stories by novelist Bernard Cornwell, which was published in 2004.
Cornwell is the author of the Sharpe novels set during the Napoleonic wars, which were turned into a TV drama series starring Sean Bean.
The Last Kingdom centres on the fictional Uhtred, a Northumbrian Saxon nobleman's son of Bebbanburg (Bamburgh Castle), who is orphaned, raised by a Danish warlord, becomes the leading warrior of Wessex, but retains a dubious view of King Alfred.
Neame said: "King Alfred the Great, the formation of England: it's a story never seen in drama, only perhaps as a BBC4-style dry history ... There is a lot of action, battle scenes, hand-to-hand fighting, romance and sex. But there is also a big political dimension. Alfred is Christian, a country - England - is being created."
Over at ITV, an estimated £17m (€23m) is being plunged into Beowulf, which would make it the most expensive drama series the channel has ever made. ITV has recreated an Anglo-Saxon timber village with the massive mead hall, Heorot, on a bleak hill 2,000ft up in Co Durham. ITV has a five-year lease on the site: if the audience approves, four more series are planned. Beowulf, a complex and dark hero, is played by actor Kieran Bew, a former fencing champion. Haines said that, until recently, British television had avoided "anything pre-medieval as unpleasant, dark ... But Game of Thrones showed something which was a fantasy could work."
Encouraging signs also came from the History Channel's niche hit drama series Vikings. The show, which is filmed in Ireland, proved that "people liked earthiness, rawness", Haines added.