You Can Keep Your Dragons, Uthred Is Coming

The BBC’s latest adaptation, Bernard Cornwell’s The Last Kingdom

It is rare that entertainment news makes me happy.  Thankfully, last week, the BBC did just that, announcing that they were adapting The Last Kingdom.  The Beeb is in an interesting place at the moment, they have huge global hits with the likes of Sherlock and Doctor Who, win Emmy’s for fun with Neil Cross and Idris Elba’s Luther and mange to keep us thrilled by the exploits of three ageing men who make poor jokes and ass about in cars on Top Gear.  But in a TV world that is being rewritten using the rules the BBC used to commission by (1985’s Edge of Darkness, 1984’s incredible Threads, 1979’s Tinker, Taylor, Soldier, Spy and comedy like Partridge and The Royal Family to name but a few), Auntie is being left to her knitting.  Channels like HBO and streaming services like Netflix are creating the programming that the BBC used to pump out weekly.  Granted Netflix’s first foray into original programming was a BBC remake (House of Cards, I still prefer Francis Urquhart to Francis Underwood) but still, the BBC hasn’t made a fantastical show outside of the Tardis for many a good year.  TV is dominated by Game of Thrones and, surprisingly, History Channel’s VikingsSherlock is great but given that its stars, and writers for that matter, are all too busy to make it, Auntie is need of something ready-made and from a name that brings a built in audience.  Enter Bernard Cornwell.

Bernard Cornwell is a writer in the oft derided Historical Fiction genre.  But, for me, he is also the man who got me to pick up book after book after book.  Cornwell’s first creation was a gutter rat with fine line in killing Frenchmen; he named him Richard Sharpe.  Before a Wednesday evening in May 1993, I had never heard of Cornwell or his greatest creation.  That was until Dad and I sat down to watch the second episode of a period drama called Sharpe’s Eagle.  I was hooked.  Sean Bean’s portrayal of Sharpe whetted my appetite and I wanted to know what happened next.  But the series was over, I’d missed the first part, I was gutted.  So, the next week, on a family holiday in Cornwall, I walked into the local shop and saw on the shelf a copy of the next book in the series, Sharpe’s Gold.  Pocket money spent, my family had to put up with me in the corner for the next two days as I devoured the book, and found out the series was being shot out of order.

The book that started it all.

These were pre-internet days, so we had no idea that Sharpe’s Gold was supposed to be the first episode filmed, as it introduced Sharpe’s wife Teresa.  Withnail and Is I, Paul McGann had originally been cast as Sharpe, but a knee injury two days into filming resulted in Sean Bean getting the gig, kick starting his career and getting McGann a £2m payoff.  The result is TV gold and one of the few things Sean Bean has ever made that he doesn’t die in, despite the efforts of the French, various “allies”, a few women and numerous Indians.  Whichever way it worked out, Bernard Cornwell had got me reading.  Luckily for me, he had finished the Sharpe series and started on the Starbuck books set in the American Civil War.  So I had all of Sharpe’s adventures ahead of me.  My parent’s, as I finished each exam, presented me with another book in the series.  I still have them all.  When I first met Bernard Cornwell at a book signing in Canterbury, where he was talking about and signing copies of the second in his incredible Warlord Chronicles, Enemy of God, I asked him what he felt about the TV show.  He simply replied that he was offered two hours of prime time advertising, how could he complain about that!  Then he smiled and said “When you have Sean Bean becoming the man you thought up before your eyes, you know your man is in safe hands.”  And he was right.  The incredible popularity of Sharpe meant that we got another Sharpe book written especially for Sean Bean, Sharpe’s Battle, and that also meant that the public wanted more Sharpe adventures.  But as he had finished Sharpe up, reunited with the Spaniard Don Blas Vivar from the first prequel, Sharpe’s Rifles, in Sharpe’s Devil, set during Chile’s battle for independence, he out Lucas’d Lucas and went prequel prequel and set Private Sharpe in the dust of Company India and told the story of the man rising from the ranks in an act of stupid bravery.  They are very good books; Sharpe’s Trafalgar is a stretch to get Sharpe into the greatest naval battle of the time, but still, more Sharpe!  The Sharpe prequel books were interspaced with other series.  The incredible Warlord Chronicles, an Arthur story told from the viewpoint of one Arthur’s warlords, Derfel.  It is the best series Bernard Cornwell has written and stands up against most books of any genre.  There were missteps, like the Stonehenge book, but we also got the standalone classic Gallows Thief.  It’s a Sharpe type hero, Waterloo veteran and cricket legend, as a regency policeman, a theme now expanded on by James McGee’s fun Hawkwood series.  It’s a great, rollicking adventure and one that Cornwell, along with Starbuck, is constantly pestered by fans to continue.  But, instead, Cornwell gave us an Archer in search of the Grail in the Thomas of Hookton books. He recently concluded the series at the Battle of Poitiers in 1356 and, then, more relevantly to this conversation, told us the story of his ancestor, Uthred of Bebenburg.  The Saxon Stories tell the tale of Uthred, son of a noble Saxon Lord in Northumbria who, upon the death of his father, has his lands stolen by his uncle, is captured and adopted by the local Viking lord, Ragnar.  The saga is the tale of the Saxon warrior, who grows up Viking and beholden to the old gods, but finds himself thrust into the forefront of Alfred’s battle to cast the invader back into the sea and form a new nation, England.  It’s a simple story telling device, torn loyalties and a hero’s desire to return home, yet held to an oath to fight for a man and a god he despises.  He’s no Sharpe, and while Sharpe was happy to use a basic form of chemical warfare in Sharpe’s Siege (lye if you don’t fancy reading up on it), Uthred does whatever he has to to win.  You won’t like him with every turn of the page, but to survive the Dark Ages, you had to be blacker than the night.  The books, of which there are now seven, are told in the first person, with Uthred looking back on his life and with all the bitterness of old age.  It’s a viewpoint Cornwell doesn’t pull off as well as he did in the Warlord Chronicles, but he has created a charismatic hero in Uthred and surrounded him with his usual cast of strong Irish sidekick, plenty of strong, independent women who have more say in the story than the hero and villains for the most part.  The first three books are great, and then there is a dip in quality (about the time Cornwell battled cancer) before the latest couple return to form with Uthred going Viking and some old, scarred faces return to the fray to liven things up.

The Bernard Cornwells

The books are not long tomes, but they paint interesting characters quickly and well, and then drench the field in blood, with the odd bit of bodice ripping thrown in for good measure.  They are made for TV, even if eight sixty minute episodes for the first book seems a tad long.  So, you might say, it’s a slam dunk for the BBC.  The issue is Sharpe.  It stands as one of the best action adventure series ever made on British television.  ITV tried to capture the lightening with Hornblower (in which Paul McGann managed to stay in one piece) but it lacked the special quality of Sharpe.  You have to remember, Sharpe had a tiny budget, the battle scenes made good use of very small numbers of extras, but the trick was the casting.  With Bean and Daragh O’Malley nailing Sharpe and Patrick Harper, ITV then surrounded them with talent, some of which also used Sharpe as a spring board.  The series cast, in no particular order: Brian Cox, Daniel Craig, James Purefoy, Mark Strong, Liz Hurley, Alice Krige, Emily Mortimer, Julian Fellows, Alexis Denisof, Paul Bettany, Toby Stevens and for the one of the greatest villains every created, the murderous, rapist Sargent Obadiah Hakeswill (my PSN handle as an aside), the late, truly great, Pete Postlethwaite

When the scripts didn’t match up to the quality of the stories, the cast rose above.  Given the restrictions of budget and story lines, recurring characters where chopped and changed, the women characters suffering the most.  The Josefina story line disappears and La Marquesa become multiple characters; the strong women become many interchangeable people.  Providing the BBC can put up a decent budget, get a show runner to lead the stories from the front and do not fall in to the trap Game of Thrones and House of Cards has, which is one of escalation of the violence, both physical and sexual.  Game of Thrones uses rape in a terribly simplistic, disposable, way.  Cornwell has used it in his stories, but there are always consequences, granted that retribution is saved for named characters, but it’s there.  Benioff and Weise have built an incredible world, but they are leaning more towards a misogynistic level than belittles the incredible women in George R. R. Martin’s world.  That sort of thing needs to be addressed because the Saxon Stories have some great women, both good and bad, that great actresses can really sink their teeth into.  I’d love for Ron D. Moore, of Battlestar Galactica fame, to have the reigns for this, but he is busy making my mum’s favourite book series, Outlander, for Starz and it doesn’t look half bad.  If not him, I hope the BBC can rescue Neil Cross from the sinking ship that is Crossbones, Luther it certainly isn’t.  The BBC press release say that Carnival Films, of Downton Abbey and The Hollow Crown fame, will be producing, so that bodes well.

Sean Bean in younger days.

This brings me to casting.  General consensus is that Sean Bean has to show up.  I agree totally with this, I’d love to see him as one of the villains, Ubba or even a quick cameo as AElfic, Uthred’s uncle.  As for the rest, it’s time to find that generation of young talent again.  I have no idea who should play Uthred, but I’d love to see Jenna Coleman as Brida and by the time of the third book, The Lords of the North, Andrew Scott as Finan the Agile (takes three books but Cornwell works in the Irish sidekick).  Scott is a terrible Moriarty, but would pull of a nice Finan.

The books, one for each exam.  Luckily they weren’t for my results.

I’d read the odd novel before Sharpe, but Bernard Cornwell’s creation opened my eyes to the worlds contained in words on paper, and I’ve never looked back.  The collection I have numbers over 400 books, the first editions signed where possible, nearly all of my Cornwell and Iggulden books are personalised to my Dad and I.  It’s an expensive hobby, but the adventure starts by opening that volume, hearing the rustle of the paper, the spine creak and the feel of the words in your hands.  Whether it be Sharpe storming the breach at Ciudad Rodrigo, Edmond Dantes realising that the only two things we can really do is wait and hope, Robert Neville standing at the window and discovering that he is Legend, Alec Leamas hesitating at the moment of safety or Daniel Sempere, as his mother’s face fades from his memory, discovers a book that changes his life in a Library of Forgotten Books.  I was Daniel (discovering the book, the mother is still about) and I’ve been everywhere in the pages of stories and histories and biographies.  I owe that to a television adaptation.  I hope the BBC get this right and prompts other kids rush out to find out what happens next in the pages of a book.

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