This interview contains spoilers for The Last Kingdom series one.
It’s a year of inadvertent real-world relevance for escapist TV drama. As right wing nationalism bleeds into European politics, SS-GB happens to imagine an England occupied by Nazis. As Donald Trump sits in the white House, American Gods happens to show a con-man’s rise to power in the US. And as the UK flounders through Brexit and the Scottish government moves to hold a second referendum on independence, The Last Kingdom happens to dramatise King Alfred’s ninth-century campaign to unite a divided England into a single country. None of it was intentional, but all of it makes for richer viewing.
The parallels between The Last Kingdom’s political questions and today’s haven’t been lost on its cast. David Dawson, who plays King Alfred of Wessex in the Bernard Cornwell adaptation, tells us how apt the show’s portrayal of identity currently is. “Especially now. This whole question of identity and what it means to be English or British or European… At that time the Angles, the Goths, the French, the Scandinavians were all here, and we now are an amalgamation of these gorgeous cultures coming together. That’s who we are.”
The Last Kingdom’s lead Uhtred, a hot-headed young warrior born a Saxon but raised by Danes, embodies that combination of heritages. “He’s caught between two different cultures,” explains Dawson.
That’s what makes Uhtred compelling to modern audiences, suggests the actor who plays him, Alexander Dreymon. “Uhtred is a very modern character. He forms allegiances with people disregarding their background and religion, which for the time was quite revolutionary and progressive. Even though he adheres to the Viking gods, he doesn’t let himself be limited by that.”
Other characters in The Last Kingdom are more bound by their faith. Christianity, says Eliza Butterworth of her character, Alfred’s wife Aelswith, “defines every action she takes. The way she raises her children, the way she thinks about Uhtred and him being a Pagan, which is why she distrusts him all the time. All of her arguments and tension with Alfred are usually based around what Uhtred wants to do, which she finds completely immoral.”
“If only [Uhtred] would accept God, then we’re all sorted!” says Dawson.
“And stop being such a c***” laughs Dreymon under his breath.
He means an arseling, surely? Of The Last Kingdom’s many gifts, reviving that old Saxon term, used half-affectionately to describe Uhtred by his brother-in-arms Leofric, is near the top of the list.
Series two has changed Uhtred, Dreymon tells us. He’s now less an arseling and more a man: “The boyish moments still come out—I think it’s really important to keep that because it’s what makes the character—but he does change quite a bit. In the second series his journey goes on and he becomes older and has more responsibility.”
After losing his childhood love to his adopted brother, his infant son to illness, his wife to a convent and his lover in battle, it’s little wonder Uhtred is different. “I think little parts of him keep dying,” says Dreymon. “It makes him tougher, more resilient, more determined, less impulsive, but with that also comes positive things. Growth, he becomes wiser and stronger, he becomes more of a man really, because he starts off as a boy.”
“Those are hard blows to take and it gets tougher in season two. Losing the love of my life…” he starts, before correcting himself in light of Uhtred’s wandering eye. “Well, the love of my life – that’s debatable I guess” he laughs. “The love of that season, yes, or one of them…”
Like his character, Dreymon is being playful. The Last Kingdom’s humour is one key to its success – infants may die and characters may get beheaded, but this isn’t a show you could accuse of dreary moroseness. Nor could you accuse its laugh-happy lead of being a typical brooding hero. As Dreymon says, “Who wants to watch a series without humour?”.
Uhtred of Bebbanburg isn’t the only one changing in series two. King Alfred of Wessex is also on his way to earning his epithet ‘the Great’ Dawson tells us. “This time, you’ll see him determined to create an identity. What does it mean culturally, morally to be English. He believed hugely in education and that working class people should be literate. He wanted to protect the people so they could flourish in trade and farming, so he’s a real people’s king. Even if he’s a bit of a stubborn bugger, generally, he’s determined to do it for the greater good of the Wessex people.”
“If you think of the stereotypical king of that time,” Dawson continues, “they’re covered in bling and generally what they say goes, but he believes that he’s God’s servant and that his duty is to do this for the best for his people, it’s not about his own selfish wants.”
Dawson talks about his character with such pride that when it’s suggested he has Uhtred’s talent for military strategy to thank for his victories in series one, he leaps to Alfred’s defence. “Historically, Alfred did it all himself. There was no Uhtred.” He pauses. “It’s so funny, I felt like I was getting my back up then!”
The dynamic between pious, contemplative Alfred and impulsive, reckless Uhtred is a real draw to the series for Dawson. “They can’t stand each other,” he says, “but they need each other to achieve their goals. If they both had a bit of what the other one’s got, they’d both be sorted. That’s what excites me about the show, these two men who need each other but don’t like the fact they do.”
Series two sees Uhtred spend more time with soldier Halig (played by Shameless’ Gerald Kearns), but their relationship doesn’t quite fill the gap left by the tragic exit of Adrian Bower’s Leofric, upon mention of whose name, the cast spontaneously make the sign of the cross. “Halig’s more of a servant than Leofric,” says Kearns. “He’s on his right-hand side. Fetch the water. Stab that guy. Rent-a-Halig!”
Travelling with ‘Uhtred the godless’ does cause Halig some existential issues in series two, says Kearn. “I know in the first series, he would have followed the Christian code of the time. In the second series, being alongside the Pagan, he’s in a difficult place, it’s quite a conflict for him about how he exercises that while he’s under the rule of Uhtred. He’s aware of that in the second series, he is stuck in a purgatory, a no-man’s land.”
Series two is also set to welcome new characters, such as Toby Regbo’s Aethelred (“a godly man,” says Regbo, “but actually, what Aethelred does isn’t great. He talks the talk but doesn’t walk the walk”) as well as old characters with new actors playing them. The prominent role taken by Alfred and Aelswith’s daughter Aethelflaed this series required her to be recast with somebody slightly older.
“Some of the stuff that happens to Aethelflaed I don’t think they could have actually got an actual sixteen year old or anyone younger than that to play,” says new actor to the role Millie Brady. “She has a bit of a rough ride.”
The recasting has resulted in an odd turn of events in which mother and daughter pair Aelswith and Aethelflaed are played by actors with only six months between them in age. “It’s just good moisturiser!” jokes Butterworth. “We’re aged down and up.”
We can expect Aethelflaed to be much more than a subservient princess, Brady promises. “She’s taken on her dad’s fierce intelligence and her mum’s strong will. Her dad’s pushing her to be this warrior, and a woman who can converse with all of the men at the Witan.”
“Because Alfred isn’t as strong physically as he would want to be as a King,” Brady continues, “he’s really training his daughter up and pushing her to be this warrior that he couldn’t be physically.”
She won’t be the only warrior in series two. Many more large-scale battles and one-on-one fights are on their way, all of them very complicated to shoot, says Dreymon. “There’s never enough time to shoot battle scenes or fight scenes. It always feels rushed. Anytime horses are involved, it eats up time like crazy.”
Hasn’t Netflix coming aboard for series two led to an influx of new resources? Dreymon laughs, “No! I don’t know about you guys but I haven’t seen any!”
“We have a drone!” offers Regbo. It’s the same drone they had in series one, it transpires.
Dreymon explains about the Budapest-filmed battle scenes, “It’s tough when it happens to be night during the battle because that means you spend many, many, many nights just shooting from sundown to sun-up and you’re freezing. You go full on for a fight scene wearing thick outfits, furs, and you’re completely soaked by the end of it and then you have a two or three hour interval where you’re not fighting and you obviously freeze your arse off.”
The thick furs also make some everyday functions difficult, Dreymon goes on. “Peeing in the costumes is quite a challenge. It takes a while to get it out, you have to learn to undo lots of knots with one hand while holding a sword!”
It’s easier being a Mercian, says Regbo. “We’re a more cloth-based race. It only takes one Marilyn Monroe-style wind to…”
Enough toilet talk, back to the politics. Alfred has trained his daughter not only in fighting, but also to be as politically tough as himself, says Dawson. Her marriage in series two “is all about the political alliance” explains Butterworth. “As Aelswith, I am a Mercian and Alfred is from Wessex so together we’ve combined the kingdoms with our marriage and we’re also trying to do it in the younger generation too.”
Re-inserting Aethelflaed into the story of England is an aspect of series two that Dawson is particularly excited to share. “What I love about this series is Aethelflaed, historically, was this amazing, fiercely intelligent, political queen of Mercia who was a major part of why England emerged, and we don’t know anything about her. Generally, we thought men ruled, but she was a huge part of why England is now England. That’s one of my favourite bits of this series.”
Aethelflaed feels like such a modern character, when asked to imagine what he might be like in today’s world, Brady thinks she’d “slot in quite easily. She was a proto-Feminist so she’d slip into the feminism movement.”
Her mother Aelswith in 2017, on the other hand, “would be an extremely devout religious leader,” says Butterworth. “Archbishop of Canterbury!” she suggests. Or the presenter on Songs Of Praise.
As for dad Alfred, he’s riled by the accusation that today he’d be a Tory politician. “No! He’s for the people! He’s not a Tory!” says Dawson. Gerald Kearns, who decides on ‘infantry soldier’ for his character Halig, placates Dawson by suggesting that Alfred would be the Leader of the UN, an idea that seems to soothe him.
And Uhtred son of Uhtred? “The leader of some sort of revolutionary group, probably, something underground, maybe Anonymous?” says Dreymon, before pondering for a second. “Or he might be a pot-head? That would go better with the hairstyle.”
The Last Kingdom series two starts tonight, Thursday the 16th of March at 9pm on BBC Two.