“I’m sick of building Saxon barns, I’m sick of mud, I’m sick of killing the grass.” Martyn John, The Last Kingdom’s production designer, is joking, but his laughter has a mildly maniacal edge. Small wonder, after a gruelling seven-month shoot. But at least the efforts of John (whose previous work ranges from Foyle’s War to The White Queen) and his team look like they’re paying off. As we squelch our way through the mud, dung and straw, it’s hard to deny that the set looks, feels and even smells pretty authentic. No one watching would be under any illusions that life in ninth-century England was tough.
The main set of The Last Kingdom spans about eight acres just outside Budapest in Hungary, owned by Korda Studios and used to film period and fantasy dramas including Sky’s costume romp The Borgias, the Ken Follett adaptation World without End and Emerald City, the recent reimagining of The Wizard of Oz.
Recycling, it becomes clear, is essential. Not just of general items (although I see little 21st-century litter during my tour), but of entire sets, with Winchester doubling as York, Leeds, Northampton and assorted other conurbations in Wessex and East Anglia. With a few tweaks, some canny camera angles and the many ginnels and alleyways around the walled city, it’s hard to see the joins. John is even the sort of heathen who will happily re-dress a cathedral as a pagan meeting hall if it services the series.
The story also once again takes to the seas, when Uhtred is enslaved on a Viking longship: a conundrum for a production at the heart of a landlocked country. While authenticity is the watchword for John and his team, green screen was deployed for some seabound sequences that were, in fact, shot in the studio car park.
For the rest, John used the site’s man-made lake. A few hundred metres away, meanwhile, is a seemingly redundant bog that was repurposed as a marshland village in the first series at a cost of £30,000 (John estimates the equivalent in the UK would have cost five times as much).
E4’s The Aliens, Sky’s upcoming Roman invasion epic Britannia and the BBC’s Robin Hood are just a few to have joined The Last Kingdom in filming there. Part of the reason is budgetary, as construction costs are much cheaper, but there are aesthetic benefits, too.
“For The Last Kingdom,” says one of the series directors, Jon East, who also filmed ITV’s Maigret revival in Budapest, “Hungary offers many unspoilt acres of un-farmed and un-bordered grassland and forest. These are hard to find in the UK, where walls and fences fragment the landscape, clearly announcing that it is not a ninth-century world. It’s cheaper to shoot abroad in a ‘virgin’ landscape than it is to digitally remove all the trappings of the 21st-century in post-production. The same goes for Maigret: Budapest is easier to transform into 1950s Paris than either Paris itself or any other major UK city, because there are fewer and smaller unspoilt architectural areas.”
This article was originally published on 4 May 2017