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22 October 2015

Shoreditch or soldiers? The Last Kingdom’s bearded denizens are unexpectedly gripping

Uhtred doesn’t know if he fancies shepherd’s pie or gravadlax. For some reason, I'm in thrall.

By Rachel Cooke

Crikey, what’s this? A load of hipsters in particularly urgent need of a flat white? No. It’s an army of ruddy-faced Danes come to fight the pasty Saxons for the kingdom of Northumbria – though the two are, I agree, easily confused. The male denizens of Hackney and Shoreditch and these blokes straight off their longships are strikingly similar: the beards, the passion for red meat cooked over charcoal . . . Both are invaders, not wanted, and never mind that they might improve the locality. All that separates them is their footwear (the Vikings favour dirty puttees over box-fresh Adidas Stan Smiths), and their idea of heaven (the hipsters think Valhalla’s a new dirty steak joint in Hoxton Square that doesn’t take bookings).

In truth, I am unexpectedly gripped by The Last Kingdom (Thursdays, 9pm, BBC2), the BBC’s adaption of a series of novels by Bernard Cornwell (yes, he who gave us Sharpe). But then, I was a kid who loved Noggin the Nog. There are those who regard this festival of rape and pillage as a rather feeble attempt by the BBC to move its tanks on to Sky’s enviable lawn, most of which is inhabited at the moment by various dragons and psychopaths in the form of Game of Thrones, its huge international hit. But this isn’t quite right, for here be no dragons – thank God, or Odin, or whoever. The Last Kingdom, which is set in 866AD, is quasi-historical, some of its characters being based on real figures (King Alfred, Ubba the Viking, a certain Lord Uhtred). The nearest it gets to fantasy is in the complexions and teeth of its characters. Wipe off the mud and blood, and Vikings and Saxons alike would do well as GQ cover stars.

The story turns on a cuckoo-in-the-nest. After young Uhtred’s father (an excellently shouty cameo from Matthew Macfadyen) is killed by the Danes, they take the young man hostage and use him as a slave. In time, though, he goes native, and Earl Ragnar (Peter Gantzler) and Ravn (Rutger Hauer, cobwebby tattoos all over his face) bump him up to son status, admiring his pluck. This is just as well, because back in Bebbanburg (this is Saxon for Bamburgh) his dastardly uncle has pinched all his lands. But then . . . here it comes: yet another reversal of fortune. Renegade Danes kill Ragnar, Ravn and all the other people whose names begin with R, leaving Uhtred (Alexander Dreymon) with no option but to return to Bebbanburg to bag what’s rightfully his. The only problem now is that everyone regards Uhtred as a Dane, including himself. He belongs nowhere. He doesn’t know whether he fancies shepherd’s pie and peas, or gravadlax.

The Last Kingdom has been adapted by Stephen Butchard, who wrote the brilliantly nasty BBC/HBO miniseries House of Saddam (2008), and his dialogue is both murderous and quite witty. I don’t know if “turd” was a favourite Saxon insult, but Chaucer must have got it from somewhere. Butchard can’t have seen the British Museum’s big Viking exhibition, because we never see his Danes carving a walrus tusk or playing chess. But the flipside of this is that he has managed to keep a fairly tight rein on the emotional anachronisms; 21st-century sentimentality punctures their almost cartoonish brutishness only occasionally. Most of the Danes, incidentally, are played by Scandinavian actors, their fluting English a reminder of their otherness. Plus, in real life, Gantzler et al probably do know how to chop wood. In the authenticity stakes, this helps.

The whole thing looks OK, too. The battle scenes are shot so cleverly that you half believe you’re watching a vast army, rather than six extras and some cut-price CGI. Muddy, misty and generally grim, the landscapes take you straight back to those camping holidays you endured with your parents in the Seventies, when a Viking state of mind was all that stood between the guy rope you were holding and the force-nine gale that threatened to send all your possessions spiralling across the Yorkshire Dales. My stepfather’s battle cry as we tried to pitch our tent at the foot of Ingleborough in 1980 was quite the equal of anything Ragnar the Elder could produce – which is, perhaps, one reason why I’m already in the thrall of this somewhat peculiar series.

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This article appears in the 21 Oct 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The 18th-century Prime Minister