Magazine article The Spectator

Television: The Last Kingdom; Fargo

Magazine article The Spectator

Television: The Last Kingdom; Fargo

Article excerpt

The opening caption for The Last Kingdom (BBC2, Thursday) read 'Kingdom of Northumbria, North of England, 866 AD'. In fact, though, an equally accurate piece of scene-setting might have been 'Britain, Saturday teatime, the 1970s'.

The series, based on the novels by Bernard Cornwell, has been described in advance as the BBC's answer to Game of Thrones -- and, as various thesps in furs and long beards began to attack each other with swords, it wasn't hard to see why. Yet, apart perhaps from the level of the violence, the programme's real roots seem to belong to less sophisticated (and less expensive) shows than that: the kind set firmly in the period known as 'yore' and that many of us will dimly remember from our childhoods. On the whole, these were shows where depth of characterisation came a distant second to a seamless blend of the exciting and the solemnly cheesy; where the dialogue was a curious mix of archaic and modern ('Do you know what I'm tasked with?' asked one seventh-century Northumbrian on Thursday); and where few male wrists went unadorned by a bird of prey.

To its credit, The Last Kingdom didn't waste any time getting started. Within 20 seconds, the Saxons, on what would one day become the Geordie shore, had spotted the seaborne approach of a group of Danes, aka 'the Devil's turds'. 'Every man,' the Saxon leader Uhtred urged his troops, 'must be prepared to die.' And in the event, this was just as well -- because the Saxons were comprehensively defeated in the first battle. Uhtred himself got a sword through the neck and throat. Any Saxon survivors were then killed in a wide-ranging selection of ways by the guffawing Danes over supper. (The Danes, incidentally, proved rather fond of guffawing, greeting almost every plot development with a solid burst of actorly laughter.)

One Saxon male who did live on, mind you, was Uhtred's young son, also called Uhtred. After seeing -- and guffawing at -- his naive bravery, the Danish warlord Ragnar increasingly took the boy under his wing. He even saw him safely through to manhood when, after a quick change of actors, Uhtred junior instantly demonstrated what a hunk he'd become by the traditional method of emerging topless from some water. …

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