It’s easy to want to compare the new BBC America series “The Last Kingdom” with another period piece series, “Downton Abbey.” However, it’s less because of their looking back at historical times in England and more because they have one man in common: Gareth Neame.
Neame, who is executive producer of both series, has a penchant for series that draw viewers in and, in the case of “Downton,” have them in love with everything about it and terrified of the upcoming final season.
But “The Last Kingdom” is its own series in many ways, as Neame explained to me recently about the just-launched series. While it may be light on the LGBT content at least at the start, there is some major eye candy for male and female viewers in Alexander Dreymon. In the series, Dreymon plays Uhtred of Bebbanburg and shows he’s more than a pretty face, which even some major facial hair and long locks don’t disguise.
Besides building “The Last Kingdom” series (based on the books by Bernard Cornwell), Neame also teased what we’ll see in the final “Downton” season including just how big a part closeted Thomas (Rob James-Collier) will have in the last episodes.
Was “The Last Kingdom” in your sights as you were coming up towards this last season of “Downton Abbey?”
Gareth Neame: It was probably a couple of years ago that I was introduced to the books, so it’s taken a little while. It was bought by the BBC back in January of last year, so it’s taken a while to come to fruition.
It's nothing like "Downton" as you can see, but what it does share in common is what is in the show that just seems distinctive. It's a drama, it's entertainment but that backdrop of how did England happen? What were the forces that came to bear that created that nation? And I thought, "Oh, yeah, that's something you could sell," and that's something that would be of interest in the U.K. and also in the U.S., which is always the sweet spot that we're trying to cover the two markets.
How much are the characters based in reality and how much are fictional?
GN: There’s a bunch of characters in there that are real historical figures from history and particularly King Alfred the Great, as he’s called. I developed something about George Washington and we were researching it and everyone said, well, all we know is he chopped down the tree, that’s the only thing.
With King Alfred the Great, all the English know is he burned the cakes. That was the legend about him that this woman was baking some cakes in the oven and had to leave the thing and said he had to watch and make sure they didn't burn. He was thinking so carefully about his next move and his diplomacy and all of that and his strategy that he forgot about the cakes. That's the only story anyone really knows. So he's real, and some of the Viking characters are real, so there's a bunch of real characters from history.
Uhtred of Bebbanburg, who is the hero, we do know historically that there was somebody called Uhtred of Bebbanburg but nothing is known about his life whatsoever. So, essentially Bernard Cornwell has taken the name of a real person that existed and he's grafted a completely invented story and the brilliance is how these two things are interwoven. How his mind can work out all the correct history, and it's the right time, and the Vikings invade the right places and so on and so forth, but he weaves this fictional story through them.
Why was Alexander right for the role?
GN: He looks different to me. I’ve been so used to seeing him with all these dreadlocks for months and months. I was really taken yesterday [during the TCA panel] by how charming he came across. He’s clearly extremely good looking. He’s very charming and polite and courteous and thoughtful, and I think he’s somebody [who] is very winning.
Obviously you're always looking for that sort of thing to have as the hero of your show, someone who's going to draw you in because the whole show, although there's all this sort of political, historical backdrop, it is essentially his journey and it's a very personal one. That's why we cast an actor who is actually German, although he speaks really good English to my ear.
His nationality and his slight accent when he speaks English was another good bonus. He's got great physicality. He's brilliant at the fighting and the horse riding, and he's incredibly diligent. I don't think I've ever known anyone who works so hard. He's word-perfect every single day.
"Downton" has a serial element to it. Would you say "The Last Kingdom" also does, to a degree?
GN: It’s not a soap in a “Downton” way and it’s not really an ensemble genre. It’s definitely not a precinct drama. I always use that analogy of “The West Wing” where you don’t really leave that one building and all the characters, it’s an ensemble drama, but all the characters are there to serve one person, so it’s a similar sort of mechanism dramatically than “Downton.”
But "Last Kingdom" has no precinct. They're all over the place. It's not really an ensemble. It's essentially the story of Uhtred and the story of Alfred. Those are the two parallel stories that are going on. But it is a serial because it's a journey, it's a quest, and the whole thing whether we make just one year of this or…because there are eight books so we easily can go to three or four years.
In terms of “Downton,” are you a believer in happy endings?
GN: For “Downton Abbey,” yes, it’s got to be. It’s a show that is loved. I think that’s one of the things that sets “Downton” apart from the other great shows of this era, and perhaps this is the reason why the Academy members have honored the show consistently. I think there’s a lot of great shows that are hugely admired at the present time, and I think the thing that separates “Downton” is it’s the one that’s loved.
We were doing the music on one of the episodes coming up, just getting to the final stages of that episode, and the first time John Lunn sent me his music queue for the very end of this particular episode. I'm certainly not going to tell you what happens but it brought tears to my eyes, just looking at the first music queue, and this show has had an effect on me all the way down the line and it catches me.
So, it's not that every character will have a happy ending. It's the fact that you have to be left with an overwhelming sense of "I love 'Downton Abbey.' " I love the place and I love the people and "boo hoo," it's ending and I wish it was going on for more years.
I’m always worried about Thomas because he had a rough year last season, and he’s just so tortured for being a gay man.
GN: He definitely has a big role to play this year…I think anything I say about the story would really reveal it, but he has a very good role to play and it’s as strong as previous years.
We've always been saying right from the very first episode, it's been clear that this is something that was the apogee of the English country in 1912, around that kind of Edwardian summer. That's when the British Empire and the aristocracy I think was at the height of its powers and it was then starting its decline.
By the final season there are a lot of signals as we go through it that the way of life is coming to an end, that things aren’t looking so good, that there aren’t necessarily going to be jobs for everyone and that people are going to have to rethink what their futures are.
It's all right for somebody like Carson, he's at the later stages of his career and he's always going to be a butler. But somebody like Molesley, who has had a pretty thwarted career [and] he still has another 20 years of work ahead of him but he knows the way of life is over, so what's he getting to do?
What I really wanted to do as a message in the final season is to draw an even stronger connection between the audience and the characters and the audience and the place than we've ever done before so that we don't look at the show and the characters as a drama existing in its own world. But we realize that Daisy could be representative of our own grandmother or that we have a connection with these houses.
Highclere actually exists. You can go and buy a ticket and walk around it. It's very different. It doesn't function anything like the way it's depicted in the show, but it's still in the fabric of our lives particularly if you're British. These people live around these places, and if you're American you can get on a plane and go and see these places. The history isn't bottled and put over there. And the other thing is that George and Sibby and Marigold could just about still be alive now.
"The Last Kingdom" airs Saturdays at 10pm following "Doctor Who" on BBC America. The final 'Downton Abbey' season will air in the US in January.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.