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The Last Kingdom

By on August 25, 2014

the-last-kingdom‘For some reason the history of the Anglo-Saxons isn’t much taught in Britain and it struck me as weird that the English really had no idea where their country came from. Americans know, they even have a starting date, but the English just seemed to assume that England had always been there.’

As Bernard Cornwell, author of The Last Kingdom, noted when setting out to document the beginnings of this great European nation the true history of England is a thing seldom taught in English schools even going as far to be better known abroad than on our own fair shores. Ask an English native to name one Anglo-Saxon king and I’m sure they’d answer ‘Alfred the Great’ but ask them to answer another and probably only a very small portion would give you a second name.

Starting in late 9th century Britain, before Alfred became king of Wessex, The Last Kingdom follows Uhtred of Bebbanburg from his childhood in which he has a distant relationship with his father (also called Uhtred) and where we are first introduced to one of the books main themes; Christianity versus paganism. The young Uhtred is averse to the teachings of the new religion, of this pious and demanding God and would rather be a pawn in the game of the old gods, much to the chagrin of his mentor, Father Beocca.

Tragedy strikes Uhtred early in the novel and he is kidnapped by a family of Danes who take him into their home and who he eventually loves as his own kin. This device helps provide a struggle between the two main factions, the Danes and the Anglo-Saxons, both for Uhtred and for the reader as our protagonist knows he has Saxon blood but has been raised with a Danish heart and this straddling allegiance is called into question at various points throughout The Last Kingdom and its subsequent novels.

Bernard Cornwell’s first novel in his Saxon Stories series has now been picked up as a Carnival Films and BBC America co-production for BBC Two for an 8 episode season long run and will be adapted by BAFTA nominated and RTS award-winning writer Stephen Butchard (Good Cop, Five Daughters, House Of Saddam).

One of the biggest initial concerns I had for this adaptation was whether the Beeb would follow the right themes of the novel. Thematically it covers loyalty, religion, warfare, love and violence. And violence. It is very violent and one of the book’s strengths is just how intricate and detailed Cornwell is with his battle scenes and how he zooms in on smaller fights within battles to give you an idea of the horrors of bloodlust and war but how we, as humans, are fascinated by it at the same time. This is an important device in the book as it shows the gulf between us now and us then but it is like a circus attraction that keeps you baying for more axes to the jaw and more spear-thrusts to the groin but will the BBC see this as an important theme in their version of the story? One fears not but if they want to go toe-to-toe with big hitters like Game Of Thrones then they’ll need to remain a little bit faithful here.

As with any good book, having interesting and rounded characters is a must and Cornwell again achieves here. Uhtred himself is a believable leader and one we grow up with from the very beginning so we see how he is forced to mature in the ever volatile terrain of 9th century Britain and follow his development from insolent boy to protector of countries. Something that never fails to provoke a misty-eyed reaction from me is his meetings with Alfred as I personally find Cornwell’s treatment of England’s only ‘Great’ very gratifying and their love-hate relationship fuels the narrative of Uhtred’s hatred of Christian piety and often tests his wavering loyalties.

Carnival Films, the co-production team behind the BBC Two adaptation, are the company who produced Downton Abbey which relies heavily on character based, period drama and Nick Murphy will be co-executive producing and directing multiple episodes as confirmed by the Beeb. Murphy has previous with historical drama as he was behind the camera for the Rob Brydon starring Napoleon and, more recently, he was behind the critically acclaimed BBC series, Occupation.

These give me reasons to be positive about how the show will look but the biggest boon could be the involvement of BBC America. Where BBC history dramas usually end up as shiny, flimsy tosh like Merlin or Atlantis its American arm is responsible for the brilliant Orphan Black and if they can contribute writing and character development like in Orphan Black then The Last Kingdom is in very safe hands indeed.

Cornwell of course has a successful past with television from the ITV adaptation of his Sharpe series with Sean Bean in the lead role. As an aside, BBC America jointly produced Sharpe’s Challenge with ITV in 2006 so they are on familiar ground.

So, The Last Kingdom has the potential to be a good series that could really be a benchmark for the BBC, all the ingredients are there; it has a successful crew in place, two good production companies behind it and excellent source material to work from. All it really needs is the BBC to give the project a decent budget that meets the novel’s ambition and to stay resolute with the tone and themes so it can stand shoulder to shoulder with other daring, contemporary television shows that it is obviously striving to be in the company of.

About Greg Foster

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