It was with a certain degree of trepidation that we entered the set of ITV’s latest multi million pound production. It wasn’t just the thrill of getting a glimpse behind the scenes of this fantasy drama but also because of the subject matter: Beowulf.
Last week, after posting the release story and sharing it with Tolkien fansites around the world, it was interesting to read some of the chat that followed – some positive, some cautious, some very skeptical.
We arrived on set as a crowd of technicians were tucking into bacon sandwiches and steaming cups of tea from the mobile catering unit. After making our way between various caravans and trailers, we were taken into a vast deserted warehouse and a meeting room.
After a brief introduction to the PR team, we met producer Stephen Smallwood, who went on to outline the story and plot, introducing it as a Western set in the Dark Ages of Britain’s mythic past; a re-imagining of the Beowulf story promising “epic fights, thrilling chases, raids, celebrations and battles”.
Steven, who was educated at Durham University, spoke of his love of the area and how it perfectly fulfilled the requirement for natural unspoiled landscapes, beaches and woodlands that was still within arrow shot of civilisation.
Cue the short taster film, filled with dramatic landscapes, doom laden skies, moody bearded heroes and ferocious CGI monsters that wouldn’t have been out of place in a Peter Jackson movie. “An epic story of a hero,” ran the strapline….
Beowulf, played by 34-year-old actor and one-time fencing champion Kieran Bew, was filming as we were led through a maze of darkened structures, punctuated with the ghostly white faces of the extras and technicians, barely visible in the half-light. Soft footsteps and hushed voices were the order of the day – whether this was due to the filming, or fear of waking Grendel and having your head ripped off, I wasn’t too sure!
First was a visit to the flame-lit Herot Mead Hall, with its high vaulted ceiling supported by impressive pillars with Celtic scrollwork carved into them, gold wolf heads and gold-lined walls. Artworks and armour , animal skins and stone Norse carvings decorated the great hall, with the focus being a stone amphitheater featuring a five meter long gold dais set into the floor. Embossed in the gold was a map of the kingdom with tribal motifs.
There followed an exploration of further inspiring interiors and grand structures of which Grendel’s cave was the most memorable. Oppressive, claustrophobic, dark, dank and somewhat pungent was his bone strewn lair. As we left, I wasn’t the only one peeping nervously back over my shoulder.
The costume department, resplendant with over 500 outfits racked and indexed, would have had most cosplayers in a swoon, With two articulated lorries parked outside for further costume storage, you start to get a sense of the scale of the project.
Then it was a walk-through of two further crammed warehouses filled with giant heads, dead bodies and an Aladdin’s cave of film props – all swarmed over and tended lovingly by busy set designers. Specially commissioned Viking glassware, jewelry and weaponry also give an insight into the attention to detail and investment in this series
In an interview with The Chronicle recently, Stephen said, “People like to hang their peg on something familiar and, while many people won’t know Beowulf well, they will have heard of it. Audience recognition is very important. […] I don’t think any Beowulf academic is going to relate to this. No doubt they’ll say they hate it.”
I don’t think academics will hate it; I think they’ll just dislike it and, even then, only if they pay any attention to it at all. This isn’t an academic piece after all; it’s a pre-watershed fantasy show with high production values, that is beautifully shot and well acted, based on Western themes. Beowulf is essentially just the name on which the story hangs. The fact that I can sit and watch it with my family, including my 10-year-old daughter (who will probably keep hiding behind the pillow), is cool with me. It introduces a very old story to a new audience, who one day may just pick up the book.
So I’m giving it a silver star………with “Sheriff” written on it.