It was inevitable that the success of Game of Thrones would create a hunger for political sagas cut from the same bloody cloth. And so it has finally come to pass with The Last kingdom (BBC1, Thursday, 9pm), a tense, intriguing, if ultimately inferior, tale of medieval strife that charts the Viking invasion of Anglo-Saxon Britain.
Based on a best-selling series of novels that blend historical fact with fictional characters (in this case, Bernard Cornwall’s The Saxon Stories) and showcasing a lurid mix of visceral violence, nudity, skulduggery and Byzantine intrigue, comparisons with George R. R. Martin’s swords and sorcery epic are as inevitable as they are obvious.
Yet in spite of their ostensible similarities, The Last kingdom is a far more insular and grounded affair, sticking closer to the letter of history and refusing to indulge in any fantastical accoutrements (there be no dragons here), which unfortunately makes for a story that’s not nearly as rich as the world of Martin’s vivid imagination.
The tale unfurls through the gaze of Uhtred of Bebbanburg, the son of a nobleman who is first seen as a 10-year-old boy (played by Doctor Foster’s Tom Taylor) being captured by pagan Danes who choose to raise him as one of their own after his father is killed in battle.
The story eventually skips ahead to find Uhtred grown into a young man (now played by Alexander Dreymon, introduced striding shirtless out of a lake like some medieval James Bond) who is still struggling to feel accepted by his Nordic family.
When a band of marauding Saxons storm his village and murder his adoptive father, Uhtred is pushed into a quest to reclaim the lands of his birth and to discover who he really is – a Saxon or a Viking.
While the Beeb have clearly thrown a hefty bag of coin at the show to help it rival the sprawling scope of HBO’s fantasy juggernaut, somehow the sets remain wholly unconvincing. There’s no doubt the Saxon fortress and Viking long boats are exquisitely detailed, but there’s also no escaping the fact that this attention to the minutiae fails to hide the illusion that this is all taking place on a chilly soundstage somewhere far more urban than the location depicted on screen.
The visuals are much more impressive when taking place on terra firma as director Nick Murphy creates a grim, palpably earthy tone that forewarns of the impending bloodletting. The Battle of York is the standout sequence as Murphy wrings every last drop of tension from the action by drawing uncomfortably close to the grisly battle as warriors fight amid a hellish, fire-ravaged landscape.
Equally triumphant are the performances. As an embattled Saxon king, Matthew Macfadden makes the most of his brief, though commanding, cameo, barking orders to counter to Danish menace and giving his young son a harsh lesson in tough love.
Taylor also excels as the young Uhtred; naïve, headstrong and possessing an endearing heart, it’s incredible such a young actor can imbue such depth of emotion within a character. Meanwhile, his adult incarnation, Dreymon, also looks set to shine as the grown-up Uhtred is further challenged by his dual loyalties and increasing thirst for revenge as part of his quest.
Those expecting the kind of duplicitous politicking of which Littlefinger is so fond will likely feel frustrated as this opening episode only hints at the wider game in play whilst devoting most of its focus to setting up Uhtred’s journey of self-discovery. Expect that to change, though, in the coming weeks as the show broadens its scope to introduce Britain’s last remaining kings, including the formidable King Arthur, played by Macfadden’s Ripper Street co-conspirator David Dawson.
Ultimately, The Last Kingdom is unlikely to pose a significant threat to Game of Throne’s dominance over the realm of sword-wielding entertainment, lacking the guile and intrigue to do so. But whilst Westeros regroups for another round of blood, lust and dragons, fans will find much to enjoy in the BBC’s gritty and grounded leap into the fantasy drama arena.
Click here to watch The Last Kingdom on BBC iPlayer