BBC to film The Last Kingdom

The BBC and Downton Abbey‘s producer has teamed up to create the historial drama The Last Kingdom, set in the Viking age and expected to compete with Game of Thrones.

This week, it was announced that the BBC, together with Downton Abbey producer Carnival Films, have joined forces to develop and film the Viking series The last kingdom. To be shown in the UK on BBC Two and on BBC America, the 8-episode series will be based on Bernard Cornwell’s popular Saxon Stories novels, with the script being written by Stephen Butchard, the BAFTA nominated and RTS award-winning screenwriter of Good Cop, Five Daughters, and House Of Saddam. Bernard Cornwell (pictured below) was previously known for his Sharpe novels, which were turned into a series of TV movies starring Sean Bean.

Set in pre-England in 872, several kingdoms have become victims of invading Vikings. The kingdom of Wessex is alone in the war against the raiding Northernes, and Alfred the Great is one of the few who can hold up the defence. One of the victims is Uhtred, son of a Saxon nobleman. Uhtred was orphaned by the Vikings, then kidnapped and brought up as a Viking. This puts him in a dilemma, both personally and politically, as he takes part in the creation of a new nation.

-Cornwell’s Saxon novels combine historical figures and events with fiction in an utterly compelling way. In the hands of Stephen Butchard we believe it will make original and engrossing television drama. In part the epic quest of our hero Uhtred, it is also a fascinating re-telling of the tale of King Alfred the Great and how he united the many separate kingdoms on this island into what would become England, executive producer Gareth Neame said.

Neame, who won Golden Globe and Emmy awards for Downton Abbey, added: -How England was once a group of separate smaller Kingdoms and how its inhabitants the Anglo-Saxons forced out their Viking invaders and came together for the first time as a single entity called England. 

Richard De Croce, senior VP Programming for BBC America commented: -We couldn’t be more pleased to be working with BBC Two and Carnival Films – a hugely successful British production company that really knows how to create a hit for the US. The last kingdom is an engrossing story of epic scale that will feed our audience’s appetite for excitement, smart storytelling and compelling characters.

Bernard Cornwell’s The last kingdom was first published in 2004, with new installments coming out almost every year since. The 8th book is scheduled to be released this October.
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Ben Stephenson, drama controller of the BBC, said: -I hope The kast kingdom will expand BBC Two’s distinctive portfolio of drama. It’s an epic narrative with an extraordinary creative team. It will feel like nothing else on television, with all of the scale and intrigue of the best fantasy stories but the reality of fact. The BBC hopes that the show will become a long-running franchise, as the 8 novels holds enough material for multiple seasons.

Some of the characters of the series are given, thanks to the novels, and the series will mix actual historical persons with fictional characters, with themes like politics, warfare, religion and identity being explored. The last kingdom is expected to compete with Game of Thrones and Vikings and will offer “heroic deeds and epic battles”, according to Carnival Films, for example when warriors like Ivar the Boneless and his feared brother Ubba takes action. But unlike the HBO fantasy series, The last kingdom is a fictional world rooted in reality, about the birth of England.

Butchard, Neame, Chrissy Skinns (Mr Selfridge) and Nigel Marchant (Dracula, Downton Abbey) will produce the series, with Nick Murphy (Prey, Occupation) co-executive producing and also directing several episodes.

Fictional characters in the novels:

  • Uhtred – the protagonist, narrator, dispossessed Ealdorman of Bebbanburg originally called Osbert
  • Earl Ragnar the Fearless – Danish warlord who adopts Uhtred
  • Ragnar Ragnarsson (Ragnar the Younger) – Ragnar’s son, Uhtred’s foster brother and close friend
  • Rorik Ragnarsson – Ragnar’s younger son and Uhtred’s childhood friend
  • Thyra Ragnarsdottir – Ragnar’s daughter kidnapped by Kjartan
  • Brida – East Anglian Saxon girl, Uhtred’s lover and friend
  • Sigrid – Earl Ragnar’s wife and mother to Ragnar the Younger, Rorik and Thyra
  • Ravn – blind skald and Earl Ragnar’s father
  • Sven Kjartansson – Uhtred’s sworn enemy and Kjartan’s son
  • Kjartan – Danish shipmaster who destroys Uhtred’s future
  • Father Beocca – Alfred’s priest and Uhtred’s family friend
  • Mildrith – Uhtred’s pious West Saxon wife
  • Leofric – Uhtred’s friend, warrior and shipmaster
  • Odda the Younger – Ealdorman Odda’s son and Uhtred’s enemy
  • Ælfric – Uhtred’s uncle and usurper of the throne of Bebbanburg
  • Lord Uhtred of Bebbanburg – Uhtred’s father
  • Gytha – Uhtred’s stepmother

Historical characters in the novels:

  • King Alfred of Wessex (Alfred the Great) – the King of Wessex
  • Æthelflæd – Alfred’s eldest daughter, Lady of the Mercians.
  • Guthrum the Unlucky – Danish warlord called the unlucky
  • Ubba Lothbroksson – Danish warlord feared by many, older brother to Ivar and Halfdan
  • Ivar Lothbroksson (Ivar the Boneless) – Danish warlord feared by many, brother to Ubba and Halfdan
  • Halfdan Lothbroksson – Danish warlord and younger brother of Ubba and Ivar
  • Ælswith – Alfred’s wife who dislikes Uhtred
  • Æthelwold – Alfred’s nephew and friend of Uhtred
  • Ealdorman Odda – Earldorman of Wessex
  • King Edmund of East Anglia
  • King Osbert of Northumbria

The series, which will start shooting in the autumn, is planned to open on TV in 2015.

Review: Vikings (docu)

In this three hour BBC documentary, celebrity archeologist Neil Oliver presents the Vikings and travels through the landscapes of the “barbarians of the North”.

The BBC, UK’s public broadcaster, neil-oliver-vikings3has produced several documentaries and fact series about the Vikings. This is their latest.

In the first episode, Neil Oliver travels to Scandinavia to find out about the roots of the Vikings; where they came from, what formed them as inhabitants of the North, and how they evolved from iron and bronze age tribes. We don’t actually get any Viking information in the first part, but we do learn why it was possible for the people of Scandinavia to become Vikings. For example, the fact that the Roman expansion stopped somewhere in Germany, which left the Scandinavians alone for another 1000 years, free to worship their own gods and rule by their own laws (also, not learning to read). In other words, Scandinavia was left behind the rest of Europe, delaying the development enough for a separate culture to develop.

In the second episode, Oliver takes us on a journey in the footsteps of Vikings as international traders. He shows how Vikings made it to Russia and Konstantinopel, and how they set up slave trade from Ireland as a business. We also learn that Danish Vikings invaded England and actually ruled half of the British isles for some years. Viking evidence is found in abundance everywhere in what would become the UK, including many everydays words like knife, boat, leg, angry, skull and bag. Some 1500 modern English words are believed to be remnants of the Viking settlement in England.

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In the third and last episode, we briefly learn about the Vikings’ expansion into the North-West, including how they discovered America 500 years before Columbus. The bulk of the programme is taken up by the Christianity of the Viking countries. The Nordic region was one of the last places in Europe to receive Jesus, and that effectively marked the end of the Viking era, as national states and powerful kings replaced local lords at the same time. What I miss from this episode though, is how Christianity was brutally enforced on peasants and fishermen (“convert or die”-style), and how Viking culture continued to live in paralell with the new, official religion.

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While being very enthusiastic about the topic, Oliver keeps refering to “the Vikings did this and the Vikings did that” as if they were one, big, united empire spanning the entire Scandinavian area. They were not. There was no one Viking king with a master plan, there were no Viking nations and they were not formally synched in their work, culture, religion or development, like our EU or NATO today – still, that is the idea you get from hearing “the Vikings did this” all the time. It can be downright misleading if you don’t know your basic Viking history. In fact, we are told very little about how the Viking era societies were organized. Who did rule, how did they rule, what were the local and regional ranks, how did ordinary people live? Nothing of that is touched, even though it would be more interesting than maps of Scandinavia showing where the Vikings lived, which actually makes up a portion of the series as Oliver travels from here to there.

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We are also not informed about the amount of piracy and looting the Vikings did. Was that really the only thing they spent time doing, since they are known for it? No, but this point is not investigated. It would be nice if we could get some explanations for their raids. Was it merely a way to get rich quick? This series does nothing to educate me on the most popular Viking topic. Not to mention that it would be great to get more insight into their peaceful activites and religion. In fact, most of the information presented is basic Viking knowledge one learns in elementary school, at least in Scandinavia. Has no new Viking knowledge emerged, have no theories and finds been revised?

A 304 page book authored by Oliver and titled Vikings: A History was published by W&N in October 2012. In addition, a 177 minute region 2 DVD version of the series was released by the BBC in November 2012.

This BBC documentary is jampacked with information, presented by Neil Oliver in a popular manner, as he walks back and forth in museums, between landmarks and on excavation sites. You have to pay attention to what he says, in his charming Scottish dialect, because there are no (or very little) re-enactments, computerized illustrations or archive footage (from other films) to spice things up. In many ways a low budget production that does not use the TV medium for what it is worth. Kind of like reading a book, where the images have to be produced in your mind. Oliver is, however, good at explaining facts, and seems very enthusiastic about the topic, so it does not get boring as such. Seen as a basic introduction to Vikings, the series work well, but for a recent documentary by the big BBC and their fourth on Vikings in a decade, one does expect more than a man standing in front of a museum piece and talking.

Rated 5 of 10.

BBC, 2012, directed by Jon Eastman, Rosie Schellenburg, Simon Winchcombe.