“The Last Kingdom” – review

The BBC’s adaptation of Bernard Cornwell’s epic Saxon Stories series of historical novels began last Thursday evening, and for an opening episode – saddled with the usual problems of establishing setting, characters, and plot – it was pretty promising.

I haven’t read the original novels – indeed, I must confess I haven’t read any of Cornwell’s work – but I am certainly familiar with the time and place the tale is set – Ninth Century England – having long since fallen under the spell of the story of the Anglo-Saxons, that brave, melancholic people who created the English nation, and gave it its identity, its language, and many of its customs, leaving behind a rich cultural legacy which endures to this day.

Cornwell’s retelling of that story begins in 866, in the Saxon kingdom of Northumbria, with Viking longships bearing down on the coast, and a young boy named Uhtred, of Bebbanburg (later to become Bamburgh Castle), caught up in the dangerous battle between his father and the Danes. When his father is killed – and there was a great early scene where the Saxons were trapped between two Danish shield walls, and had to push against them like some particularly lethal game of rugby – Uhtred is adopted by the Viking Ragnar the Fearless (you’ve got to love those Viking names), and his blind father Ravn (played here in a lovely little cameo from Rutger Hauer). He adapts well to his new life, and before you know it he’s all grown up and heading off into the woods for a spot of (tastefully filmed) recreational sex with Brida, who like him is a Saxon orphan brought up by the Danes.

But while they’re away, Ragnar’s hall  – and Ragnar himself – are burnt to the ground by Kjartan, an old enemy, with the apparent connivance of Uhtred’s scheming uncle, Aelfric, and Uhtred is out for revenge, and to take back Bebbanburg.

Most of the main characters in the opening episode are fictional, though there was a brief appearance from Guthrum, a real Viking warlord, and – in a trailer for Episode Two – from Alfred the Great, the man with whom Guthrum would have an ultimate showdown at the Battle of Edington in 878.

The title – The Last Kingdom – refers to Wessex, the last Saxon kingdom to hold out against the Danes after they had overrun the rest of the country.

Inevitably, the new series has been compared to Game of Thrones, which Cornwell amusingly dismisses in an interview with the Radio Times, and indeed it’s rather more low key than that comparison would suggest, lacking (so far at least) the boobs and beheadings that characterise so many GOT episodes (though there was still a fair bit of gore, and Matthew Macfadyen, as Uhtred’s father, gets a very nasty sword to the neck).

Randy fourteen-year-old boys might be disappointed, then, but I think The Last Kingdom may provide subtler charms, and the story of how Alfred and his descendants, against the odds, rolled back the Danish conquerors, and created a united England, is always worth hearing again. And, what’s more, it’s true.