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?

Follow our Twitter feed for faster news and bad jokes right here. And be our Facebook chum here.

Disqus - noscript

I enjoyed the first season of Vikings without realising that Ragnar was actually a character from Norse mythology, until now

DoG not just informative it's educational too!

I've love these books since the start, thought they've dropped off a little recently the last one brought it back up a notch, they could make a great long-running TV series.

However it cannot be, Saturday evening Merlin/Atlantis nonsense, has to be 9pm, sweary, bloody, nudey TV. I'm not sure the BBC will have the bottle to do that though.

HAS to be after the water shed, else it will just be another limp BBC tea time effort ala Atlantis.

I'll be teaching Norse Myths & Legends every Thursday (it's mainly based on Marvel comics...)

It's on BBC2, which suggests they'll go for the 9pm slot rather than a glossy BBC1 teatime family affair. Which would not work whatsoever...

It is uncertain whether Ragnar himself existed. Many of the tales about
him appear to originate with the deeds of several historical Viking heroes and rulers.

I think the success of the TV adaptation of Sharpe changed Cornwell's writing. Cornwell worked for the BBC so had a working knowledge of budgets and how programmes were made. I think he definitely had his eyes on a big US TV adaptation of The Starbuck Chronicles and when this didn't materialise, the series stopped dead a quarter of the way throught the American Civil War. He went back to writing Sharpe. ITV duly obliged by producing some of the later (though set earlier chronlogically) Sharpe books. I think the Game of Throne's tag is misleading as the cast isn't as big and the stories are nowhere near as intricate.

I'm not knocking Cornwell, he's a great action writer and if the Pagan Lord books are made well they will be a huge hit. I think that Cornwell's Warlord Chronicles would be the better TV show but with the lack lustre box office of King Arthur, critical derision of Camelot and the imminent arrival of Guy Ritchie's adaptations its probably a wise move.

Mads Mikkelson should be Ragnar the Fearless! Good luck getting him though!

In fact I always avoid Revenge stories, since revenge is a self destructive and vicious motive that makes the revenger do worse things than his or her victims. Since I would also be rooting for the Vikings in this story, that's another reason for me to avoid it, as would its presumably pro Christian, anti Pagan ethos (the free pass given to revenge motivated atrocities not withstanding). I have enough of double standards and hypocrisy in real life, thank you. Didn't like Sharpe anyway - I don't watch war porn.

I hope the BBC get this right. It has to be Vikings style bloody or it will be a joke. And I hope they put some money into it so the battles look like a battle instead of a 20 man a side skirmish a la Sharpe (The Vikings suffers from this too).

I love revenge stories. It allows inherently good people to do horrible things to truly despicable people.
"The Count of Monte Cristo" is still the best but there are sooo many good revenge tales out there.

This and the Warlord Chronicles (most of Cornwell's works to be fair) are very anti-christian/anti-organised Christianity (The Thomas of Hookton books are very anti church). Uthred holds to the old gods, while all around him embrace the new one for their own personal gain, which, in itself, is anti-Christian.

"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."

Vikings already did this with a Saxon monk. Obviously Cornwell did it first, but I'm worried it will seem a little too familiar. The fact that Vikings is awesome might make it a victim of unfair comparisons too...

Sounds a bit too much like Vikings

as long as its not the usual BBC pc tea time drivel

Yes sean bean should be init

Made by the BBC so we will have a bunch of incredibly good looking young Vikings strutting about in clothing that looks like it was only made earlier the same day and was sent directly from the dry cleaners and the screenplay will almost certainly be godawful.

Revenge is indeed a double standard, but the trouble with morally unambiguous characters is that they're so hard to credit.
All the more so here since the "eye for an eye" mentality more or less defined Anglo-Saxon Britain.

Is this going to be solely produced by the BBC or will it be a joint production between BBC and an American cable company like HBO/Showtime/Starz etc? I just don't see the BBC giving something this "epic" the budget it would need to be really good.

I'd rather see Sean Bean play Leofric than Ragnar the Elder. I think he could do the gruff older warrior really well

Are the BBC capable of doing this kind of drama anymore? If this goes into the Robin Hood/Merlin/Atlantis/Musketeers time-slot it is completely doomed.

The last time they did anything resembling a period piece of quality was Rome and that was a co-production with HBO.

It isn't pro christian, in fact you can tell from Cornwells writing he falls very much on the side of the pagan, he even says in an interview I read on his website that he hasn't written about the English civil war because he hates Papism and puritanism in equal measure.I admire your stance on this but looking back or around us when has the human race ever really learned from it's mistakes. Also if your're looking at anglo saxon/ viking Britain this was very much part of culture. Blood oaths, revenge etc. Horses for courses though, you like what you like...........I like war porn.

Yes, no more stuff like Dr Who or Merlin. Thanks.

I'd prefer if Rutger Hauer plays Ragnar the Fearless than Mr Bean

I'm expecting/hoping it to be more like The Tudors, which despite its flaws (and it's, uh...let's call it courageous...attitude to historical accuracy) was a highly engrossing and entertaining show. In fact GoT itself reminds me quite a bit of The Tudors, only with much more violence and a higher tit-to-word ratio.

MOST importantly of all, apart from the usual quality script, excellent cast etc is 1, it has to be on at 9 at the earliest. No bland, tea time family show please!! 2, it has to have a decent budget. Please BBC, don't make this look like a poor man's Game of Thrones.

Also, with a name like that...can't tell if serious. O.o

I would definitely cast the actor Richard Armitage, he latterly of Thorin in The Hobbit film, and who is currently appearing in The Crucible at the Old Vic. He narrated the audio books for the Lords of the North, and undoubtedly would be unrivalled as the main character of Uhtred. No contest, Richard Armitage it is!!!!!! (Plus he has a large fan base which always helps to get the series off the ground and high viewing figures!)

I watched the whole The Tudors series, but you have to admit, it was basically Henry VIII getting the hots for someone, merries her, get tired of her, gets the hots for someone else, gets busy with some wenches, flips, tries to get out of his marriage via divorce or decapitation and have a drink with his buddy Superman. Repeat.
It was a good series, but the rewatchablity is very low.

Revenge is a self destructive and vicious motive --that's why it's the stuff of great drama and literature.

Only really watched it through once, but you may have a point. Still, it was enjoyable at the time.

Yes! So excited about this! Sharpe was one of the first grown-up shows I ever feel in love with (I think I was about nine at the time) and I've been reading Cornwell's books religiously as a result for years. I think this could be awesome as long as the BBC compliance don't wreck it.

In terms of your casting suggestions - Charlie Hunnam, Sean Bean and Kaya Scodealario are all top choices I think, but not convinced by Davill and Redmayne and Damian Molony (who I loved in Being Human) doesn't fit Uhtred for me at all. I'm really struck for who I think could play him though.

Good call.

Sponsored Links