My wife and I have just finished watching “The Last Kingdom”, the BBC’s adaptation of the Bernard Cornwell novels “The Last Kingdom” and “The Pale Horseman” – the first two in the author’s Saxon Stories series.
Hopefully the TV series was successful enough that the BBC will want to carry on and adapt the rest of the books too – there are, to date, nine novels in the Saxon Stories (also known as the Warrior Chronicles).
The synopsis for the first book reads as follows : “Uhtred is an English boy, born into the aristocracy of ninth-century Northumberland. Orphaned at ten, he is captured and adopted by a Dane and taught the Viking ways. Yet Uhtred’s fate is indissolubly bound up with Alfred, King of Wessex, who rules over the only English kingdom to survive the Danish assault.
The struggle between the English and the Danes and the strife between Christianity and paganism is the background to Uhtred’s growing up. Marriage ties him to the Saxon cause but when his wife and child vanish in the chaos of the Danish invasion, he is driven the face the greatest of the Viking chieftains in a battle beside the sea. There, he discovers his true allegiance”
Book two, meanwhile, has this synopsis : “As the last unvanquished piece of England, Wessex is eyed hungrily by the fearsome Viking conquerors. Uhtred, a dispossessed young nobleman, is tied to the imperiled land by birth and marriage but was raised by the Danish invaders—and he questions where his allegiance must lie.
But blood is his destiny, and when the overwhelming Viking horde attacks out of a wintry darkness, Uhtred must put aside all hatred and distrust and stand beside his embattled country’s staunch defender—the fugitive King Alfred.”
An eight part series, the action begins in AD866 with the Lord of Bebbanburg (now called Bamburgh) in Northumbria, Ealdorman Uhtred (Matthew Macfadyen – “Spooks”, “Ripper Street”) looking to avenge the death of his eldest son, also called Uhtred. His second son Osbert, aged ten, now renamed Uhtred.
The Ealdorman enters into battle against the invading Danes at Eoferwic (now called York) but is killed during the battle. The ten year old Uhtred attempts to attack the Danes and is captured by Earl Ragnar the Fearless (Peter Gantzler – “A-klassen”, “Danny’s Doomsday”) who decides to adopt Uhtred into his household, along with a young Saxon girl named Brida.
During this time Uhtred’s uncle, Alferic (Joseph Millson – “I Give It A Year”, “Casino Royale”), claims the title of Ealdorman, along with Bebbanburg, for himself despite Uhtred being the true heir.
As Uhtred (Alexander Dreymon – “Blood Ransom”, “Resistance”) grows up with the Danes and learns their ways he grows close to Brida (Emily Cox – “The Silent Mountain”, “Futuro Beach”) and becomes like a son to Earl Ragnar – viewing Ragnar’s son, Ragnar Ragnarsson (Tobias Santelmann – “Hercules”, “The Acquitted”) as his brother.
When Earl Ragnar is killed Uhtred and Brida head off to Danish-held East Anglia only to find that Uhtred is being blamed for Ragnar’s death, and so soon find themselves moving on to Wintancaester (now called Winchester), the capital of the Kingdom of Wessex.
Once there they meet Father Beocca (Ian Hart – “Finding Neverland”, “Best”), a priest who knew Uhtred as a child in Northumberland, who is now in the service of King Aethelred.
King Aethelred is mortally injured in battle, and his very religious, and seemingly rather fragile, brother Alfred (David Dawson – “Ripper Street”, “Banished”) takes on the throne.
In his ultimate quest to reclaim his title and land back in Bebbanburg, and despite being labelled Uhtred the Godless, Uhtred finds himself working for the new Christian King Arthur against the Dane warlords Guthrum (Thomas W. Gabrielsson – “The Killing”, “A Royal Affair”) and Ubba (Rune Temte – “Hotel Caesar”, “Ulykken”).
Various other characters are added to the mix including Odda the Younger (Brian Vernel – “Let Us Prey”, “Offender”) who opposes Uhtred at every opportunity and who clearly has designs on Mildrith (Amy Wren – “Silk”, “uwantme2killhim?”) Uhtred’s pious Christian wife.
Others include Skorpa (Jonas Malmsjö – “Real Humans”, “Psalm 21”) a vicious Dane warrior, Leofric (Adrian Bower – “Mount Pleasant”, “Teachers”) a Saxon friend of Uhtred’s, Aethelwold (Harry McEntire – “Tower Block”, “Unconditional”) the son of the late King Aethelred, and Iseult (Charlie Murphy – “’71”, “Love/Hate”) a pagan Queen.
Some of these characters are based on genuine historical figures, some are based on the author’s own ancestors and others are from Cornwell’s imagination. This goes for the events contained within the tale too.
What is important though isn’t how true it all is but how entertaining it is. Well, quite simple it’s very entertaining! Condensing two full-blown novels into a little under eight hours of television drama is no mean feat, particularly as Cornwell’s books are usually pretty lengthy (there were around 800 pages to cover here), so there are obviously many things that didn’t make it to the screen.
What did make it to the screen, however, is a thoroughly engrossing saga. Lots of violence, as you would expect from such a brutal era, though not overdone, and what I presume to be a fairly accurate representation of the conditions folk lived in during that era of history.
Alongside the battle for supremacy waged between the Danes and the Saxons is the battle between paganism and Christianity on these shores. Ultimately we know who the biggest winner was in that particular battle but I did rather enjoy some of the scenes that came as a result of this particular struggle.
One such scene sees King Edmund (Jason Flemyng – “Gemma Bovery”, “Welcome To The Punch”) trying to convert the invading Danes to Christianity in return for him remaining King in name only. The Danes decide to test his claim that his Christian god, as the only true god, would protect him and do so with an onslaught of arrows despite Edmund trying to back out at the last minute! – which showed a nice touch of humour that was present in various places throughout the series.
Performance-wise I was really impressed with Dawson’s King Alfred, which was full of nuance, but clearly that star of the show was Dreymon as Uhtred.
My wife and I were unable to agree whether Dreymon was responsible for voicing Uhtred’s recap of the series so far at the start of each episode. I’m sure it was him but she is equally sure it was someone else trying to sound like him.
I am usually of the opinion that film or TV based on pre-existing novels are inferior to the source material and, in all honesty, that remains true here. That said, this was a high quality drama series in it’s own right and I do hope that the BBC continue with future adaptations of Cornwell’s series.
Visually, the show looks great, with not too much CGI evident making the whole thing feel more real than it might otherwise. Overall, fans of “Vikings” or “Game Of Thrones” should find much to enjoy here with the added bonus of some genuine history thrown in.