What can we expect from new BBC drama, The Last Kingdom?

Feature Nick Horton 10 Jul 2014 - 07:00

Nick talks us through Bernard Cornwell's The Last Kingdom, soon to be a BBC Two TV series...

So it seems Vikings are in this season. Casting envious glances at the success of Vikings on History and wanting their own Game Of Thrones phenomenon, the Beeb has ordered an eight-part series based on the first novel in Bernard Cornwell’s hugely successful Saxon/Viking saga, The Saxon Stories.

At an unspecified future date, we will be able to watch The Last Kingdom on a viewing device of your choice.

What’s it all about?

Set during between 866 and 879, The Last Kingdom charts the Viking invasion of Britain and the collapse of the Saxon kingdoms of Northumbria, Mercia, and East Anglia, leaving only Wessex, and King Alfred, standing. Set against this is the story of Uhtred of Bebbaburg, a young Saxon nobleman who is captured by the Vikings as a boy, raised by them, and then finds his way back to the Saxons, where his conflicted loyalties are tested during war.

Is it worth reading?

Very much so. If you’re a fan of Cornwell’s then it’s a given you’ll like this. Fast paced narrative, quickly sketched but engaging characters, and epic battle scenes interlaced with history that comes alive in the pages. Guaranteed you’ll be checking the internets to find out more once you’ve polished off each novel – which, despite their size, you can speed through at a lick. The first three novels are great, before a slight dip in quality on the fourth one, before it picks up again with the later books.

Is it right for TV?

The reason I started reading this series of novels was thanks to an email from my brother, suggesting they’d make an excellent Game Of Thrones-style epic TV drama. (If anyone at the broadcasters is reading this, sign my brother up immediately to scout other future projects for you, as he was bang on the money.) Cornwell is no stranger to his work being put on screen. In fact, he’s indirectly responsible for the career of Sean Bean thanks to Sharpe. Without suggesting Mr Cornwell was aiming for a drama series, there’s a definite film/telly dynamic to the writing, and adapting it shouldn’t present any particular problems. You can understand why they went for this over his earlier (and possibly superior) Warlord Chronicles, which reimagined the legend of King Arthur in spectacular fashion – The Last Kingdom feels like a ready made project which just needs a shooting script.

I liked Sharpe, will I like this?

Definitely. Sharpe stands as one of the finest action/drama series ever to be produced in the UK, and if done right The Last Kingdom has the potential to match it. But while Sharpe as a protagonist was a bit rough round the edges but ultimately a true hero, The Last Kingdom’s Uhtred is much more complex character. Brutal, conflicted and untrustworthy, he’s more of an anti-hero than any type of traditional heroic lead. You’ll see him cheat, murder, and enjoy being bad. At times I actively disliked him in the book, but you always end up rooting for him against the odds. His revenge story ultimately drives the plot, and revenge always makes you want to keep reading/viewing.

What about the other characters?

One of Cornwell’s strengths is populating his books with side characters that inevitably steal the who damn show, both good guys and bad guys. Whether it’s Patrick Harper and Obadiah Hakeswill in Sharpe, or Thomas Truslow in the Starbuck Chronicles, they’ll always someone who’ll you love, or love to hate. The Last Kingdom is no different. Ragnar the Fearless and his son Ragnar Ragnarsson represent the joyous and destructive nature of Vikings. They love fighting, drinking, and women – free and wild, they’re temptation to English Uhtred to turn his back on his Saxon roots. Then there’s priest Beocca, the wise teacher who never gives up hope for Uhtred, Brida his mysterious first lover, and Eofric - the tough, dependable and ultimately loveable right-hand man.

As for baddies, there’s no shortage of memorable enemies for Uhtred including the weak-willed Saxon noble Odda the Younger, and the despicable Viking father/son combo of Kjartan and Sven One-Eyed. And of course, the main man on which the entire historical novel hangs on plays a major part. Alfred, the only English king to be named ‘Great’ is first seen as a booze-soaked younger brother to the king. However, he gradually becomes the deeply devout battle commander that history records him as. He’s equally compelling and repelling as a character – his cause is just, you want him to succeed, but you don’t really ever warm to him. He’s basically the Stannis Baratheon of the piece.

People are saying this is the BBC’s answer to Game Of Thrones (and Vikings) – any truth in this?

The similarities are there. There’s an epic sweep to the novel, the politics of a kingdom in chaos, with many different contenders to the throne(s), and a whole load of sex and violence to keep everyone entertained. The Viking time-frame is also a great draw, and there’s plenty of raiding action to be had. The main Viking leaders - the Lothbrokkson brothers - are also associated with legendary Ragnar Lothbrok, hero of Vikings, which is nice and neat. There are plenty of set-pieces to look forward to in the series. Without spoiling anything, there are shock betrayals, brutal murders, and a huge battle to save a kingdom. It’s going to be great. Hopefully…

If this is a success then expect to see the next few novels swiftly adapted. Book number three, The Lords Of The North, is probably the best and wraps up many of the narrative threads laid out in The Last Kingdom.

Lastly, who should be in it?

Fan-casting is always a hopeless task, but for my money I’d pick Damian Molony for Uhtred, Charlie Hunnam for Ragnar the Younger, Sean Bean (as nice nod to his Bernard Cornwell past) as Ragnar the Fearless, Arthur Davill as Beocca, Kaya Scodelario as Brida, and Eddie Redmayne as Alfred. What do you think?

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