I wasn’t going to bother with The Last Kingdom. *Saxons vs Danes isn’t a period of history I’m much interested in. However Tom Holland, who is researching the Heptarchy was on Twitter saying that the portrait of Alfred was very good, so I scrolled through Episode 2 till he turned up, and he is good (played by David Dawson). A melancholy intellectual, visionary yet shrewd. Fragile, delicate and only an adequate warrior whereas the Danes thoroughly enjoy the whole business of close combat sword and shield play. His intellectualism takes the form as it would in his time, of theological debate, his politics are cool and ruthless.
“Most prudent, far-seeing in wisdom, and hard to overcome in any crisis’ – Æthelwold on King Alfred & his heirs. “ (stolen from Tom Holland).
So I went back to episode 1 and followed the fortunes of Uhtred (Alexander Dreymon) a handsome young man who was born a Saxon and brought up a Dane. We get shots of him bathing – not just for a sight of his nice body but to reassure the audience that our ancestors weren’t the epitome of stench that so repels us now. (They did the same thing for Liam Neeson’s Rob Roy).
Uhtred – quite clean you know
He does choose odd times of the year to bathe though. It has been winter for 5 episodes. Once there was a clump of daffodils suggesting it might be at least be late March then it got back to winter. I was hopeful that we would have changed seasons in episode 5 when Uhtred’s missus was bathing with a pregnant belly, showing time would have passed since their arranged marriage but evidently she conceived in about May, since it was winter again. This is Wessex, the West Country (though it it was shot in Hungary and Wales) and that part of England has early springs and hot summers. This series won’t have done the tourist trade any good.
Uhtred is supposed to be avenging the death of his adoptive father, a Dane, and is also trying to get back the kingdom of Northumbria*, of which he is the rightful heir. He has plenty of adventures but he is a dull character not a patch on Alfred. His girlfriend, Brida (Emily Cox), is an early version of the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, foul mouthed and wantonly cruel which couldn’t be allowed to Uhtred, supposed to be the hero after all. His other companion is Leofric (Adrian Bower) the classic sergeant major rough diamond, obscene-speaking and straight-talking, the kind of part that would normally be played by Sean Bean.
The series is propaganda for paganism. The Danes are buoyant and colourful. They wear wonderful animal skins (though no-one ever scratches for fleas), are finely tattooed, have wild hair, and love a fight, followed by massacre, torture and rape. The biggest, and baddest of them, Ubba (Rene Tempe), has finally been laid low and he really did have the presence of a manic head of a motorcycle gang – The Marauding Mob or the Plundering Pack. Meanwhile the poor Saxons frump about in long drab gowns, go to Church and eat gruel and apples because it is always Lent. And on that kind of diet they have to fight these evil brutes with their ultra cool ships.
The manic Ubba
Some genuine suspense has built up. Uhtred, tired of being pissed over by Alfred, is going rogue and is setting to do a little plundering of his own. With 3 more episodes to go I’m fairly sure Uhtred will be reconciled with Alfred and get Northumbria back. The Danes will be expelled and converted to Christianity. So far when they come up against priest or devout king they have Richard Dawkins style objections to the faith. The nature of conversion is something that the script-writers in our agnostic age can’t handle.
This is supposed to be the British Game of Thrones which I don’t watch as it has too much explicit torture for me to stomach. Here the violence is knockabout and doesn’t make me wince. It looks good, it’s lively and there’s always the chance of seeing Alfred dragged away from discussing scripture for yet another wretched battle, glumly putting on the chain mail helmet while the Danish roaring boys, in the ninth century equivalent of revving their Harley Davidsons, knock up yet another painted shield wall.
Alfred at yet another sodding battle
* Someone commented on another site that it wasn’t Northumbria, but Bambrugh. “The Angle (not Saxon), Kingdom of Northumbria stretched from Edinburgh to south of the Humber. Bamburgh, is a small patch on the North East coast where there was a royal capital. It was a fine time, when Geordies and the Irish ruled.”
I am sorry to see such narrow nationalism entering into discussions of events over a millennium ago.
Update:- In the last episode Uhtred teamed up temporarily with a startlingly evil war-lord called Skorpa who was a cross between Charles and Marilyn Manson with a Sadhu thrown in. The problem with Uhtred is that he is pretty and boring like Orlando Bloom. Whoever appears in a scene with him – his seamed side-kick Leofric,the fork-bearded king Peredur in Cornwall, the clever buffoon Athelwold, even his kind, pious wife Mildrith, over-shadows him by having more character and zing. I cannot warm to Uhtred at all.
He has now got together with Iseult, a pagan queen resembling Kate Bush and is about to undergo a trial by single combat. Sadly there’s no chance he’s going to lose, as he deserves.
And it’s still bloody winter! There was a hint of green on one copse for a minute but alas, back to the bare branches and brown sward.