When BBC America’s latest drama premieres on Saturday, October 10th (at 10PM), you’re sure to be transported. The Last Kingdom—based on Bernard Cornwell’s book of the same name—may be historical fiction, but it feels like something completely different. To take the audience to a time centered on the creation of England as a country back in 876 AD removes so many touchstones to human life that you typically see in later-framed representations on-screen. Interpersonal dynamics, religion, societal structures, and clothing were all so different, it makes the story feel more like fantasy than anything else.
But the situations were, at one point, very real—and the story of Uhtred, the main character, is far from simplistic. His is an allegiance most complicated, so we sat down with his off-screen counterpart (actor Alexander Dreymon) and series creator Gareth Neame to talk about the Viking-raised-Northumbrian’s complicated alliances, what The Tudors got right, and why historical fiction’s such a fun world for televised stories.
Nerdist: I love the complexity of Uhtred’s story. He has such a unique viewpoint, given that he was raised by Vikings but born the son of a Northumbrian lord. What was it like to get into that?
Alexander Dreymon: For me, it was easy to get that part of it because I grew up in so many different places. I was always the outsider and always the guy who was from a different place and who sounded different. In a way, it’s kind of a blessing because you’re always exotic. In a way, you never feel like you actually belong to somewhere. When you’re growing up as a kid, that’s kind of a weird thing whereas, later on, it’s something that I’m proud of. A lot of people don’t get it. I think Uhtred has a lot of these problems. Because of his upbringing, because of where he originates from, people mistrust him. It’s incredibly frustrating for him.
Nerdist: I imagine adapting and expressing all those different influences, and bringing that to TV…
Gareth Neame: I thought what was just brilliant about the books when I first read them was that Bernard wasn’t just thinking, “I’m going to tell the story about the Anglo-Saxons and the way the Vikings kept invading.” That he found his character and he decided to make him part of both of the tribes—both camps—because that way we have this drama then that isn’t … So many times where you get two sides fighting, you’re on one side, right?
GN: All the old war films, it would always be about the Americans and the British saving the world. Then you would go the German … There would be these few scenes with these German actors. They’ve only had a few scenes and they were always sinister.
AD: And monstrous.
GN: You never saw anything balanced. With this … I’m not saying that we feel nice about what the Danes are doing. They’re invading and they’re pretty brutal, but they’re completely drawn characters. The character, we haven’t talked very much about the character Guthrum. Like Alfred, he’s another completely factual-
AD: (To Gareth) Sorry. If I can just say you get to see the behind the scenes of the Danes just as much as you do from the Saxons. It’s not just henchman number one, henchman number two, you know?
GN: That’s the journey that Guthrum went through—you can Wiki him. He’s not a character of mystery. As we show in this show, when he comes in and starts smashing the place up and taking over it, wanting to rule the place … He’s a pagan but he starts to get intrigued about Christianity. He gets drawn into it. That’s a fascinating story.
Nerdist: I imagine that it must be really fulfilling, too, to be able to tell a story about history that’s not just good guy versus bad guy.
GN: This character [Uthtred] is on the opposing army [of his family] much of the time. He’s genuinely torn about it. I think, as you said, as an outsider, you never really know who most to identify with. Uhtred is in that place. The one overriding thing that when he doesn’t know whether to be Danish, the one thing that he would always go back to is his father, Bebbanburg, the place that is his birthright.
AD: And his moral code. I think that’s one of the things that is missing a little bit in today’s world, to have a strong moral code. I think that’s what makes these historical dramas so interesting is that people adhere to this moral code that it takes overall importance.
Nerdist: You see that with all of the characters, really. It’s this very inherent human need to believe in something and believe that what they’re believing is right and the way to go. What did you find most engaging about telling this story in particular?
GN: For me, it’s the way that [Cornwell] intertwines: I think he’s so clever to be able to cook a fictional story in amongst all these real things that happened. You can read the book and you can watch the show and you cannot give a damn about history. If you want to watch it on that other level and have a sense of [everything else]. That’s why I was talking about The Tudors early on—because they did so brilliantly. It was history, [but] you didn’t have to watch and worry about this: it was a soap opera. If you wanted to watch a soap opera, it was a soap. If you wanted to understand the building blocks of history, it was there for you if you wanted it
AD: Right. I think if you just take it one little step further when you watch the show, and you think about all the ramifications that one little decision engendered, it becomes so much more awe-inspiring because you know how much it depends on it. It’s just a little thing, but it is history. You know that your life and everybody else’s life would be completely different if that had gone just the other way.
Are you tuning into The Last Kingdom? Let us know in the comments below!
Image Credits: BBC America