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Review: The Last Kingdom 1x1 (US: BBC America; UK: BBC Two)

Posted on October 14, 2015 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

The Last Kingdom

In the US: Saturdays, 10/9c, BBC America
In the UK: Thursdays, 9pm, BBC2

A long time ago, I came up with 'Buckley's Crime Show Hypothesis'. Also known as Buckley's 'All producers live in Islington' Hypothesis, this hypothesises that all TV producers live in Islington, because only people who live in Islington say things like "Of course, we don't actually watch television. In fact, we don't even own a television set. Ha, ha, ha!" and it's very obvious that a lot of TV producers don't watch TV. Or at least not TV that other people have made - I bet they all watch their own stuff.

The change in name came about because it was clear that this was true of TV producers working in genres other than crime. And with BBC America/BBC Two's The Last Kingdom, which details how the plucky King of Wessex, Alfred the Great, defended England against the invasion of Vikings, we have proof that it's true of those working in historical drama, too, because watching it, you can't help but think "You guys haven't seen Vikings, have you?"

About
The Last Kingdom is a contemporary story of redemption, vengeance and self-discovery set against the birth of England. This historical drama comes from BBC America, BBC Two and the Golden Globe® and Emmy® award-winning producers of Downton Abbey, Carnival Films.

Adapted from Bernard Cornwell’s best-selling series of books “The Saxon Stories,” by BAFTA nominated and RTS award-winning writer Stephen Butchard, The Last Kingdom combines real historical figures and events with fiction, re-telling the history of King Alfred the Great and his desire to unite the many separate kingdoms into what would become England.

Alexander Dreymon (American Horror Story) heads up the international cast from eleven different countries. Emily Cox (The Silent Mountain) stars as Brida, David Dawson (Peaky Blinders) as King Alfred, Rune Temte (Eddie the Eagle) as Ubba, Matthew Macfadyen (Ripper Street) as Lord Uhtred, Rutger Hauer (Blade Runner) as Ravn, Ian Hart (Boardwalk Empire) as Beocca, Tobias Santelmann (Point Break) as Ragnar the Younger, Peter Gantzler (Italian For Beginners) as Earl Ragnar, Adrian Bower (Mount Pleasant) as Leofric, Joseph Millson (Penny Dreadful) as Aelfric and Henning Valin Jakobsen (The Bridge) as Storri.

Set in the 9th century AD, many of the separate kingdoms of what we now know as England have fallen to the invading Vikings, only the great Kingdom of Wessex stands defiant under its visionary King Alfred the Great (Dawson). It is the last kingdom.

Against this turbulent backdrop lives Uhtred (Dreymon). Born the son of a Saxon nobleman, he is orphaned by the Vikings and then kidnapped and raised as one of their own. Forced to choose between the country of his birth and the people of his upbringing, his loyalties are ever tested. What is he — Saxon or Viking? On a quest to claim his birthright, Uhtred must tread a dangerous path between both sides if he is to play his part in the birth of a new nation and, ultimately, recapture his ancestral lands.

The Last Kingdom is a show of heroic deeds and epic battles but with a thematic depth that embraces politics, religion, warfare, courage, love, loyalty and our universal search for identity. Combining real historical figures and events with fictional characters, it is the story of how a people combined their strength under one of the most iconic kings of history in order to reclaim their land for themselves and build a place they call home.

Is it any good?
Michael Hurst, creator and writer of Vikings, when accused of historical inaccuracy in his drama said: "We want people to watch it. A historical account of the Vikings would reach hundreds, occasionally thousands, of people. Here we’ve got to reach millions."

It's a point of which perhaps the creators of The Last Kingdom should have taken heed, because despite being only marginally more historically accurate, it's a whole lot duller. It's just not very interesting.

The first episode and subsequent story revolves around Uhtred (Alexander Dreymon), a member of Saxon royalty who gets taken into slavery by the Viking who killed his dad. However, he soon becomes a trusted member of 'Ragnar's (no, not that one) family and grows up a Viking. That is, until he's forced to return to the Saxon fold.

And he's dull. Dull, dull, dull, dull, dull. So's everyone he grows up with, beyond a couple of the older Vikings, including the blind-again Rutger Hauer. There's the beginnings of a romance with someone so dull I'm not sure they even gave her a name. Or any of the other women a name.

It's just lots of sitting around glowering in the dark, wearing dirty outfits, while people get killed off. 

To be fair, it has some really good battle scenes involving that old favourite, the Shield Wall and far more soldiers than Vikings ever manages to muster. But because everyone involved is dull, you don't care what happens to them. 

Honestly, I was more excited by the onscreen captions that turn from the old Saxon names for English towns to the modern names, than by any of the plot. Admittedly, King Alfred's not shown up yet, but for an opening episode, this doesn't exactly make you want to hang around to see if it gets any better.

What it did do is make me want to rewatch the first few episodes of Vikings (now available on Amazon Prime and YouTube, kiddies). So I did and they provide many an instructive lesson. In that, we have heroes and heroines to care about, action scenes where we're interested what happens. We actually have some daylight. There's comedy. 

People really need to learn: dark and dour do not necessarily make drama better.

But equally importantly, there are little touches that are really winning. The Vikings speak Old Norse, the Saxons speak Old English and aren't instantly mutually intelligible. In The Last Kingdom, everyone just speaks English with an accent (and that accent varies with age, with young Danish girls having pronounced English accents yet growing up to sound Danish by the end of the episode).

The Saxons may have more accurate helmets and domiciles in The Last Kingdom, but as a show, it's a victim of trying to be 'contemporary', depicting people who are 'just like us', just lacking an iPhone or two. And apparently any proper form of judicial system.

I will stick with this one, since I do love a Vikings show and I want to at least hang around for Alfred the Great. But The Last Kingdom could have been so much better if only they'd bothered to watch how other people had treated similar material, and learnt from the experience.

Still, that's what you get if you don't own a TV set, isn't it?

Related entries

  • October 19, 2015: Review: Truth Be Told 1x1 (US: NBC)
    A review of the first episode of NBC's Truth Be Told
  • October 26, 2015: Third-episode verdict: The Last Kingdom (US: BBC America; UK: BBC Two)
    A review of the first three episodes of BBC America/BBC Two's The Last Kingdom
  • October 16, 2015: What have you been watching? Including The Oresteia (Shakespeare's Globe), Y Gwyll and The Flash
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  • November 13, 2015: What have you been watching? Including Spectre, Master of None, Flesh and Bone, and You're The Worst
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