Thursday, 6 February 2014

Night at the Museum: Vikings!

Film critics always like to have a night away from the movies, so I jumped on the chance to attend the launch event for the launch of the DVD for the first season of the History Channel's TV series Vikings. The event was especially intriguing as it was held at the British Museum after hours - I had never seen it empty before (there was actually someone buffing the floor when I walked in!) - as the museum is hosting a major exhibition of viking stuff starting next month.

We started with a drinks reception, at which I inadvertently found myself chatting to the night's star guest, series creator and writer Michael Hurst, who casually talked about how he has been striving for historical accuracy in the show, including using real 11th century people as characters. He also talked about a recent trip to Iceland to do some research. And we were joined by George Blagden, a young actor who plays a monk in the series.

Soon we filed into the screening room to watch the series' first two episodes, which set the scene by introducing a vast array of characters led by the charismatic Travis Fimmel. Frankly, it was a little dry, although it was starting to get interesting at the end of the second episode, as the marauding vikings kidnapped Blagden's monk from the English shore and took him back to Norway.

This was followed by a Q&A with Blagden and Hurst (pictured with moderator Dave Calhoun, right). Blagden talked about how having a tonsure shaved into his head and filming in such an isolated location with a monk's costume made it pretty much impossible not to get into character. "It was also interesting to play the clash between two cultures," he said, "the collision between two peoples.We know the history but it's interesting to see more detail and complexity in it."

Meanwhile, Hurst spoke of how he worked to root the drama in real historical events. "For example, unlike what is usually portrayed, vikings were unusually clean for the period," he said. "They washed their faces regularly, combed their hair and even carried a change of clothes with them - Irish women liked that about them!" They were also unusually egalitarian in their treatment of women, far ahead of England and France.

"Whole sequences in the show are based on first person accounts," he added. "Arab traders kept records in incredible detail about the cultures they encountered." But in the end, while it's history, it's also got to be good drama. So they worked to balance the rape-and-pillage legend with a much more sympathetic portrayal of who vikings really were.

Vikings season 1 is on DVD now, while season 2 starts on the History Channel at the end of February.

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