Tolkien touch­stone Beowulf be­comes ITV fam­ily fan­tasy drama

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Ready for some An­glo Saxon TV?

“this is a se­cret that i can only tell SFX.” James Dormer – the lead writer of ITV’s lav­ish new epic fan­tasy, Beowulf: Re­turn To The Shieldlands – has a con­fes­sion to make. A bold new version of the Old English poem, the 13-episode se­ries is in­flu­enced as much by the Strike­back scripter’s youth­ful love of role­play­ing as it is by the clas­sic lit­er­ary work.

“When I was at school in the ’80s, I used to do a lot of Dun­geons & Dragons, and I then went on to study history,” Dormer says when Red Alert meets him at a Lon­don ho­tel. “So when ITV came to me and asked if I wanted to reimag­ine Beowulf it was like my per­fect job, be­cause I wanted to take it away from its Scan­di­na­vian roots and make it more myth­i­cal. The other ex­ec­u­tive pro­duc­ers, Tim Haines and Katie New­man, and my­self spent whole weeks in a room, cre­at­ing an in­ter­linked

world from scratch. There’s a work­ing ecol­ogy to the an­i­mals and a sense of history that will come out as the se­ries pro­gresses.”

Be­lieved to have been writ­ten some time be­tween the 8th and 11th cen­turies by an un­known au­thor of Geatish (North Ger­manic) ori­gin, Beowulf is ar­guably best known nowa­days as one of the in­spi­ra­tions for Tolkien’s The Lord Of The Rings nov­els. Fit­tingly, Peter Jackson’s films were one of Dormer’s cru­cial touch­stones when it came to bring­ing Beowulf to life.

“This is some­thing that I never be­lieved would hap­pen,” he ad­mits. “I was writ­ing epic stuff and they were telling me, ‘It will be epic!’ and I was like, ‘Oh, okay.’ Then I saw a lit­tle model that our pro­duc­tion de­signer Grant Mont­gomery had built of the set, which looked nice, but you couldn’t really imag­ine it un­til you see the set it­self, which is hu­mon­gous. As each el­e­ment came on board, from the sets to the cast, we ended up adapt­ing the scripts as it made us feel like we had to raise the bar.”

Fam­ily val­ues

Just as The Walk­ing Dead show uses the comic as a spring­board for its plot­lines, there will still be much to ap­pre­ci­ate for any­one fa­mil­iar with the orig­i­nal text. “The story that we’ve got planned stays true to the ba­sic struc­ture of the poem, but it plays out over a larger can­vas,” says Dormer. “We play around with your expectations of the story, as we wanted to find a way of telling it so that peo­ple who al­ready know the story will still be able to find some­thing in it for them. But we also live in a dif­fer­ent age, so our wor­ries and con­cerns are slightly dif­fer­ent, and in some ways more com­plex. We’re out to en­ter­tain peo­ple but it’s like Star Trek, where there’s some un­der­ly­ing stuff that just gives it a real tex­ture in the sense of the re­al­ity of the place.”

Be­gin­ning with Beowulf re­turn­ing from ex­ile to his home­land of Herot af­ter the death of his fa­ther Hroth­gar (Wil­liam Hurt), the story em­pha­sises his stormy re­la­tion­ship with his half-brother Sleen (Ed Speleers) who is fu­ri­ous that his mother Rheda (Joanne Whal­ley) has been ap­pointed the new Thane and not him­self. “Most sto­ries that have longevity are about those univer­sal things that we all re­late to, such as the tension be­tween par­ents and their chil­dren,” says Kieran Bew, who plays the bearded war­rior. “With Beowulf and Sleen, there’s a huge ri­valry and an­i­mos­ity be­tween them, and we talked about that as per­form­ers, as Ed’s char­ac­ter is mo­ti­vated by loss and jeal­ousy and a need to be ac­cepted by his fa­ther. Even though Beowulf is Hroth­gar’s il­le­git­i­mate son, his fa­ther ac­cepted him, but in turn, Beowulf also wants to be ac­cepted by Sleen. All that hos­til­ity then be­comes quite dif­fi­cult, which is where our show starts.”

In­sist­ing that he “doesn’t want to get all Shake­spearean,” Dormer com­pares the role that Hroth­gar plays in the fre­quent flash­backs to the ghost of the Prince of Den­mark’s own fa­ther in Ham­let. “He’s dead when we ar­rive but his pres­ence lingers over the whole of this sea­son, and is played out in the fi­nal episode,” he teases, re­veal­ing that Beowulf him­self also has some­thing to hide. “In the first episode, we con­cen­trate on the fact that Beowulf has come back and he has this se­cret, and we will see how that plays out. But the idea is that ev­ery­one has a se­cret, or can be seen from a dif­fer­ent an­gle. As the story pro­gresses, we’ll see all of that, as ev­ery­one has their own sur­prises.”

Beowulf airs on ITV in early 2016.

The idea is that ev­ery­one has a se­cret, or can be seen from a dif­fer­ent an­gle

Nope, not see­ing the Tolkien thing at all. “Hang on… just let me get this out… I’ll only be a mo­ment, hon­est…”

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