If anyone’s familiar with the power, beauty and difficulties of creating period drama for television, it’s producer Gareth Neame, who was one of the two people working directly with “Downton Abbey” creator Julian Fellowes to develop the award-winning drama over the course of its six seasons. But now he’s looking back far further into the past with the new BBC America series “The Last Kingdom,” which depicts England in the 9th Century — before it was England.
Based on the series of historical novels by Bernard Cornwell, “The Last Kingdom” chronicles the battles between the Anglo-Saxons and the Vikings, seen through the eyes of young hero Uhtred (Alexander Dreymon). Speaking with Indiewire during the 2015 TCA Summer Press Tour, Neame revealed why he keeps looking to the past for material and what Americans might not understand about the significance of this particular time period. (Also, he took a minute for some quick genealogy analysis, using my last name.) An edited transcript follows below.
I got the chance to sit down with Julian Fellowes back in May, and one of the things we talked about was his writing process, how he would work with you and the other producer. From your side of that process, what was it like?
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It’s an unusual process compared to other shows, it’s very intimate. I like that, because he and I developed that idea from the first meeting. It’s essentially just him and me writing, every episode we ever make of that show will be made in the same way, very little outside interference, not really any notes from any other networks or studios. It allows the original vision to be protected and it’s a very satisfying way to work. Sometimes I find that when there’s lots of people involved, it just becomes more complicated.
It’s not working in quite the same way on “The Last Kingdom.” Although Stephen Butchard has written every last episode, there are more producers in that process. “Last Kingdom” wasn’t my idea, it was from Bernard Cornwell’s wonderful books.
Was the process that you found these books and thought, “This would be a great show, let’s get it started?”
I think someone on my team introduced me to the books and I said, “What’s the premise?” She said, “It’s King Alfred the Great and the formation of England,” and I went, “I got it. This is interesting, let’s have a look.” So we read the books and they’re just great stories. I admire Bernard so much in this way he can tell these wonderful historic, epic stories. The way he can take real history and use that seamlessly with a fictional story is very clever and very compelling. These kinds of book franchises can make good television. You’ve got so much narrative in them and characters who you follow on their life’s quest, and that can make a good setting for television.
Once upon a time there was no such country as England. There were these tiny fiefdoms and tiny kingdoms and the idea of, “What was it that made these people come together and form one nation?” I thought that was an interesting backdrop for a show.
What is it that you find compelling about period drama in general?
I’m open to any story. I just love history. I’m a fan. I’m quite interested in it. My friends call Wikipedia “Neamipedia” because I’m always wanting to find things out. We just have thousands of years of history of mankind, and there are stories in all these things. British television has always been quite interested in the past. The British, generally, are quite obsessed with the past, while America has always been a country about now and tomorrow and history has been very very secondary in the makeup of this nation. Hollywood has been kind of late to the history story, but it’s great to be working in television now when people will go to history. Ten to 20 years ago, there weren’t historical shows. If you look at the shows that are nominated for the Emmys and whatnot, 10 or 20 years ago there wouldn’t be a single show set in the past. Now, perhaps, the majority of them are.
And we’re not whitewashing history anymore either. We’re really digging into the details, which can be fascinating. There’s all this stuff you don’t have to make up because it really happened. Were there any particular details of this time period that you were surprised by?
Not really, because I knew a little bit about it and the show isn’t really a history lesson. It’s very likely that you have a sense of the political makeup, you know, the Anglo-Saxons fighting the Danes, and you have Christianity. Those are the sort of basic building blocks. When you see the show though, you see that it’s mainly a true story, it’s about this impetuous young man who’s got a sense of right and wrong but he’s a little too hasty in making his decisions and makes wrong calls, and he’s very conflicted about his identity. Is he English or is he Danish? It’s like being on two sides in any kind of war.
So the history, you can take as much of it as you want when you watch the show, or you can really ignore it. All historical shows should be made as contemporary shows. By that, I mean it shouldn’t be about looking back. You should treat the characters as contemporary, modern people because in the world that they inhabit, they are modern. In the world they inhabit, they’re living in the here and now and you have to treat the characters in that way.
I don’t think you should be reverential with history. I’ve never been a lover of putting very traditional music in there and things like that. This show has a contemporary soundtrack, it has this documentary feeling about it. Hopefully, audiences will really feel that they’re in there and that they’re part of the adventure.
It’s interesting you say that about your lead characters. It speaks to a trend I’ve seen a little bit more right now, that we’re moving away from the concept of the antihero and more toward the idea of a genuinely decent person who just happens to have some serious flaws. Is that something that was conscious?
No, and obviously, we were totally inspired by the character in the book, so he comes from Bernard’s invention. But he does some pretty heinous things as well, he does test our patience as an audience. He does some things that are very on the edge. He always maintains loyalty and enthusiasm, but it’s such a dark, dangerous time period. Life is very fragile and there’s not much in the way of law and order.
Do all of your actors know that there’s a chance they’re not making it out alive?
They do, actually. We did have a phone call from an actor’s agent inquiring when we might be picking up the option for the second season, for the client. We said, “Unfortunately, this actor was killed in the last episode and your client does know this, because they were there when it happened.” [laughs]
In terms of a second season, do you have ideas in mind, or are you just trying to get through the first season?
We do, because there are eight books. We know exactly where, we’re already making preparations. It’s always a difficult thing, you have to be ready to move into the second season even if the show isn’t liked or if the networks don’t like it, it won’t come back. Though if they press go, you’ve got to be shooting again very quickly so you actually have to start doing all the planning in the anticipation that you’ll do more. I hope we will, there are eight books and we’ve only done two so far.
Coming to this from an American perspective: You’ve mentioned that England is very interested in its own history. Is there something specific about this time period that has resonance in England that maybe we don’t understand here?
No, I actually don’t think there is. I think it’s very important for American audiences to understand that this is a very little known piece of our history as well. I think, often, American audiences think, “The British know all about this and I don’t understand it, so it’s not for me!” But I think the themes of the story– Anyone can understand the themes. You’re being invaded by somebody, your land is being constantly invaded, and what King Alfred has is this vision where, “As long as we continue to be these tiny little places, we can’t stand up against them. But if we unite, we can stand up to them. If we all get behind Christ and Christianity, we can be a united nation and can repel our foes.” So it’s a theme that audiences will get.
And the idea of this being the origin story of England, there’s a clear American connection there.
The Anglo-Saxons — who originally came from the Germanic people and came to the British Isles and became the dominant people in the British Isles — of course, the Anglo-Saxons then, when England became successful, they became the ones that made up half the population of America. The whole English-speaking world, in large part, came from the Anglo-Saxons. You hear talk about England and America having this Anglo-Saxon underpinning from where they come from. In a sense, it’s just as much the heritage for American viewers as it is for British viewers because it’s where we come from.
Your surname is?
So you could well be Anglo-Saxon.
Yeah, I’m mostly German. It was originally Muller.
So you are an Anglo-Saxon. It’s our shared history. I think with this, the history is there for anyone who is of Anglo-Saxon descent. I wouldn’t want to make too big a deal of the history in it, but because of the documentary style of the show, you feel like you’re amongst it.
We’re in this great, grand golden age of television, but the catch is that you have to do something to stand out. And you can’t point to a lot of other shows being made about this very particular era.
It’s not been done.
Which is an exciting opportunity for you.
I think that goes to the question in the room, “What draws me to these subjects?” I think when something is distinctive, like when I asked my colleague at work, “What’s in these books, pitch it to me,” she said “The story of England,” and I immediately thought, “That is an easy story to understand and quite compelling and something that doesn’t exist in the television space.” We have a unique show for doing that.
“The Last Kingdom” premieres Saturday, October 10 at 10pm on BBC America.