Tolkien touchstone Beowulf becomes ITV family fantasy drama
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.”
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…”