The first couple of decades of the 00s have been great for Viking films and TV, at least in quantity. As producers try to tap into known franchises, the ancient Beowulf poem is a natural choice, giving the opportunity to mix fantasy into the stories of heroic barbarians. Medieval times and fantasy blended well in Game of Thrones, so it should work for Beowulf too, right? Well, it did not work for Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands, which aired for 12 episodes from January 2016 in both the UK and the US, without a renewal.
The epic fantasy drama was ordered by ITV and was created by James Dormer, Tim Haines, and Katie Newman. Dormer wrote the series and executive produced along with Haines and Newman, with Stephen Smallwood producing the series. ITV dubbed it “essentially a Western set in Britain’s mythic past, filmed amongst the breathtaking beauty of England’s North East”.
First news of a Beowulf TV series emerged in 2013 when a series was in development for the Syfy channel. Nothing came out of that, unless the concept was directly ported to ITV, as they in 2014 announced they were going for a Beowulf franchise.
The series was loosely based on the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf, which runs more than 3000 lines of verse, containing new characters and storylines not related to the poem. When the titular character Beowulf returns to his native Herot, he discovers that the old Thane, Hrothgar (his adoptive father), is dead. Hrothgar’s wife Rheda is named his successor. His step-brother is furious, both because of Beowulf’s return and also for not being appointed Thane. Now everything is a political game, because Rheda, the regent, has to bet on the support of the heads of the other villages, to keep the title of Jarl, head of the alliance, a position everyone would kill for. The political war for power is combined with the struggle for survival among men (the red blood) and those creatures born of mud (the black blood) that once ruled the lands.
Green Street star Kieran Bew landed the title role and explained to The Mirror what fans could expext: -Beowulf is going to be thrilling entertainment. This show is not elitist or overly earnest, we want families to enjoy it. We’ve filmed very ambitious stunts and fight sequences with all these scary beasts. There’s conflict, love interest and almost a Wild West feel in some respects.
The series was described as a “re-imagining” of the ancient and anonymous Anglo-Saxon literary classic, and was filmed on elaborate custom-built sets in Blyth and in a former quarry at Eastgate, near Stanhope, UK. The production company had secured permission to use the grounds for five years from the local council, as well as offered actors 5-year contracts. Downton Abbey star Ed Speleers, who played Slean in Beowulf, said: -The fact that someone wants to offer me a five-year contract… A lot of people would look at this as being tied down but I take it as a compliment. I hope this goes on for years and years, and that this is just the beginning. The series also featured William Hurt, Laura Donnelly (The Fall, Outlander), Joanne Whalley (Willow), David Ajala (Doctor Who), Ellora Torchia (Broadchurch) and Gisli Orn Gardarsson (Beowulf & Grendel).
Unfortunately, ratings were poor, with only about 1.4 million viewers on average in the UK on Sunday nights. The 17 million pound fantasy drama was planned to run for 5 years, and was ITV’s hope for a Game of Thrones type success. However, after only a few episodes, ITV axed the series’ future. Tracey Jaques, head of press at ITV Studios, made the official statement in April 2016: -Beowulf isn’t returning. ITV regularly refreshes its drama portfolio and consequently Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands isn’t returning to the channel.
The series was met with mixed reviews among critics and viewers:
- Ed Power, The Telegraph: “Judged as medieval soap opera, Beowulf delivered the occasional cheesy thrill. Yet it lacked the otherworldly flourishes and rich world-building of the source material – or of Game of Thrones for that matter. There was plenty of blockbuster sparkle here but little true magic.”
- Jo Berry, Digital Spy: “If the premiere episode is anything to go by, we can expect an action-packed adventure that boasts enough intrigue and nifty CGI monsters to please Game Of Thrones and Lord Of The Rings fans, who’ll also be impressed by the bleak, mythic setting.”
- Juliette Harrisson, Den Of Geek: “However, there are elements of world-building that are a bit more interesting and a bit different. The series’ take on the leadership of the Shieldlands and the place of certain mythical creatures among them beyond the bog-standard, seen-it-all-before fantasy setting, and have the potential to grow into something really interesting as the series progresses […] If you’ve ever enjoyed The Last Kingdom or Merlin, then this show might be for you, and if you have any interest in fantasy television, then it’s more than worth a look based on this initial instalment.”
- The Guardian: “But what was the Beowulf piece of godrot? Return to the Shieldlands bore as much relation to the old English epic poem as would Tolstoy to a note for the postie. Quite why ITV chose this as a title is a mystery – actually it’s utterly not – they were hoping to cash in on a spurious Game of Thrones / Tolkien / Vikings vibe that might loosely be described as Saxonpunk without doing any of the work or betraying any understanding of what makes a hero or a story.”
- Andrea Price on Twitter: “ITV stop the show. was amazed by the trailer. pilot was pretty bad. worst new series & the year hasn’t even begun.”
The cancellation of Beowulf followed ITV’s decision to not renew its other big Sunday night drama hope, Jekyll and Hyde, which also only got one series. Both shows were cancelled after ITV struggled to find a replacement for Downton Abbey, which ended its run on Christmas Day 2015. In April 2016 ITV also confirmed that a second season of Jericho, a historical drama set in the 1870s, was not going to be commissioned.
Some hardcore fans started an online petition to save Beowulf, to no avail. The petition attracted only 610 signatures.
In the US, Beowulf aired on Esquire, where episodes averaged about 200.000 viewers.
Northern Film & Media, which promotes the TV and film industry in the North East of England, issued a statement, saying: -Beowulf was great for the North East, bringing a lot of money to businesses here and employing a lot of our professional crew. It also had amazing production values that we can all be proud of. Our experience with ITV has been a very positive one and we look forward to helping support them on future productions in the region.