“Some people say that heroes are born and some that they’re made”
As Da Vinci’s Demons draws to a close and Game of Thrones fans have to wait until the end of April for Season 6 to start, ITV step into the big-budget historical fantasy genre with their 12-part serialisation of Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands. Created by James Dormer, Tim Haines and Katie Newman, Beowulf is based on the epic Old English poem set in the Dark Ages in Northumbria but spins its own fantasy world out of the source material, something that looks promising on the evidence of this first episode.
With any new series, there’s a certain amount of setting up to be done in the first episode and Dormer’s writing does well to weave plenty of exposition into the story without weighing it down too much. After seeing his father killed by a fearsome beast which he then slaughters, the young Beowulf is adopted by the local thane Hrothgar. This is shown in a brief prologue as as the show starts proper, we’ve skipped a couple of decades ahead where Beowulf, long estranged from his family, returns to the frontier town of Herot to mourn Hrothgar’s passing.
There he finds the new thane, Hrothgar’s wife Rheda stamping her authority on an unruly populace, not least her disgruntled son and presumed heir Slean, and a motley crew of friends, old and new, who are slowly won over as he helps the suspicious township to deal with a murder and kidnapping by an unknown enemy. Friend of the blog Kieran Bew is ideally cast as Beowulf, not least as he’s a local lad from Hartlepool and a keen fencer, his grizzled tough exterior handy indeed in these hostile environments but a real tenderness evident too as he mourns his father-figure. I’ve long been a fan of his stage work and I’ve no doubt he’s got the chops to carry the weight of this leading role with stylish élan.
There’s a corking supporting cast around him too. William Hurt plays Hrothgar, importantly seen in flashbacks as his complex family relations will have repercussions for episodes to come; Joanne Whalley’s Rheda adds a fascinating gender dimension which will be interesting to see play out; Ed Speleers glowers marvellously as Slean, a natural foe for Beowulf as his pseudo-brother; Ellora Torchia as village blacksmith Vishka and Lolita Chakrabarti as her mother Lila both promise much as characters; and I loved Gísli Örn Garðarsson as Beowulf’s wry sidekick Breca, offering a sardonic vein of comic relief. And I’ve not even mentioned Elliot Cowan’s cameo as a neighbouring thane.
Reflecting the outlay, the show looks a million dollars (well, a reputed £17 million), the location work in the North-East of England looks stunning (County Durham and Northumberland feature heavily), giving a nice balance of both Dark Ages spirit and a genuinely otherworldly feel to the mythical Shieldlands. The CGI work for the mudborn monsters is seamlessly done, the production design is gorgeous, my only real bugbear comes with the cinematic bombast of the score which screams ‘EPIC’ a little too insistently for my liking. Still, I’m looking forward to where Beowulf takes us over the next 11 weeks and whether the ambitions behind it (the cast are reportedly on five year contracts) turn out to be fulfilled.