Dark Age drama is having a moment. From Game of Thrones and Vikings to Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands, hairy, scary warriors are rampaging across the schedules. This week sees the return to BBC2 of The Last Kingdom, the acclaimed blood-feud-and-bearskins saga adapted from the first two of Bernard Cornwell’s bestselling Saxon Stories.
Series two opens, pleasingly, with Uhtred, son of Uhtred (Alexander Dreymon) sprawled on a bed of furs. Sleep, however, is not the warrior’s friend. Uhtred has places to go, people to kill. There’s barely time to tighten his ponytail before galloping north to his ancestral lands.
“It’s gonna be epic,” promises Dreymon. “It’s like the whole drama just got bigger.” Shorn of Uhtred’s shaggy up-do, in jeans and leather jacket, today he seems oddly domesticated, like a wolfhound in a bandana.
Uhtred’s hair, he admits, is just too much bother, and he marvels at the grooming stamina of ninth-century Danes. “We know they took their look very seriously – tweezers and combs were found in Viking graves. The warriors would file their teeth down to make them pointy, use kohl to make their eyes look darker and red pigment on their teeth to make them look bloody.”
David Dawson, who stars alongside Dreymon as the Saxon King Alfred, loves the show’s interplay of fact and fantasy: “I’m a total history geek, and Alfred is just this endlessly interesting character; he was huge, for example, on education and believed passionately that the working classes should be literate.
“I also love the fact that ‘our’ Alfred is not just some monarch whose word is law – he’s created this think-tank called the Witan, which is essentially the first parliament, and he achieves his aim though democracy and diplomacy. I think this is really what scares his enemies – he’s not your big stocky champion on horseback – he’s someone who thinks carefully about how to manipulate his enemy, like it’s a giant game of chess.”
Dreymon as the Viking-raised Uhtred
On and off screen, Dreymon (American Horror Story) and Dawson (Ripper Street, Peaky Blinders) make an odd couple. Dreymon, German-born and French-educated, is the epitome of laid-back Euro-cool; Dawson, natty in tweeds, is slight and sharp as a blade.
“My favourite scenes are the ones between Uhtred and Alfred,” says Dreymon. “It’s totally a bromance between them. The way David plays Alfred, he’s this very frail and delicate character, but at the same time he has a steely inner strength, he’s the rock in a tumultuous sea. Meanwhile, Uhtred is running round doing his thing – he’s the unpredictable element in the story.”
Dawson adds, “Basically, both men hate that they need the other to achieve their goals, and it gets very intense between them. I went to the gym the other day, and somebody came up to me and said, ‘I love The Last Kingdom so much, but stop being such a dick to Uhtred!’ I take his point, but I prefer to think of it as tough love.”
The collision of two moral universes – Arthur is Christian, Uhtred resolutely pagan – gives The Last Kingdom heft beyond exceptional production values and intricacies of plot. It takes a few episodes, for example, to get your head round the fact that, for the Danes, slaughter is practically a sacred act.
“It’s a moral code that coincides less with ours today,” Dreymon acknowledges. “Though certain aspects of Uhtred’s world view are, in a way, saner than ours. Not the business of going out and killing 50 people before breakfast – but in a world where every day could be your last, it kind of makes sense to be less self-punishing about living your life and enjoying it.”
David Dawson as Anglo-Saxon king Alfred
At a time when nationalism and nationhood are high on the global news agenda, both actors admire The Last Kingdom’s vision of a blended tribe: “Alfred’s real dream is to create an identity for his people,” says Dawson.
“This whole series is basically about what it means to be English, and if you look at our history, we’ve always been a multicultural society. It wasn’t just the Saxons and the Danes – you’ve got Angles, Goths, Normans… all these separate influences that have left their mark.
“We were all on set when we heard about Brexit, and it was like a black cloud hanging over everybody’s head,” recalls Dreymon. “The atmosphere was palpably dire. I think it’s really important, right now, to have a drama that shows how different traditions coming together makes a nation stronger.”
It’s possible that fans aren’t just tuning in for the politics. Uhtred often peels off his jerkin to have sex on furs (well, you’d get sweaty) and, with the decapitation of his prophetess lover Iseult at the end of series one, he’s currently in need of comfort.
There’s a game ex-nun in the picture, and a flame still burns for his old companion-in-arms, Brida (Emily Cox). “There’s this immense love between Uhtred and Brida that never gets lost, it just changes character,” says Dreymon. “They start out almost as brother and sister, then they become lovers, enemies, allies, but always she’s his equal.”
Powerful women abound in The Last Kingdom and are entirely credible (it’s thought that up to 50 per cent of Viking warriors were female). And, for all the “humping” (the series writers’ preferred, if etymologically dubious, term), female characters are also celebrated for their minds.
“Alfred’s daughter, Aethelflaed, is going to play a major part in the new series,” reveals Dawson. “She was a fiercely intelligent woman – Arthur trained her up as a kind of mirror image of himself – and she later became ruler of Mercia. We don’t hear much about her now, but she was a real legend, and I’ve really enjoyed seeing the rise of this fantastic woman in our story.”
Good citizenship, it’s fair to say, takes a nose-dive in the battle scenes, but if violence in The Last Kingdom is extreme, Dreymon argues that it is, at least, accurate. “We had people on set who know a freakishly scary amount of information about how someone would behave if they had a sword through the heart, or if they were hamstrung, or stabbed in the stomach… where the blood would appear, how long it would take them to die.
“In the second series we really tried to make it more realistic – not to make it more violent, but just to take the gloss off it. I wouldn’t want to be part of a show that showed violence for the sake of it – and I don’t honestly think we do that – it’s just where the story goes.”
Dawson agrees: “We never wanted to do those kind of gung-ho ‘shields at the ready and slaps on the back’ kind of battle scenes. We wanted to show how grim and grubby this world was, and I think the very dark humour that runs through the series makes you feel that violence is something that happens daily in these people’s lives.”
It’s 15 months since the first series aired, and a third series is a big commitment for young actors. Dreymon is now based in Los Angeles; Dawson prefers “grim old London”, where he can work in theatre.
Would they sign up for another roll in the mud? “Like a shot,” says Dawson, while Dreymon points out that there are many more books to go in Bernard Cornwell’s original series. “And I miss everyone terribly when we’re not shooting.” He just needs a bit of notice so he can start growing his hair.
The Last Kingdom is on Thursday 9.00pm BBC2