From the moment I saw Matthew Macfadyen looking stern and magisterial with a falcon on his arm in the opening episode of The Last Kingdom, I knew that he was toast. I would normally flag-up such a revelation with a spoiler alert, but the sudden demise of a seemingly major character has become the most predictable thing on TV. You can blame Game of Thrones, where taking the slightest interest in a character is a virtual guarantee that their head will be on a pike in a week or two.
Macfadyen was playing Uhtred, a Saxon nobleman, and playing him very well right up until the moment he got a sword in the back of his neck. The sword then emerged out the front of his neck, like a magazine wedged in your letterbox. This is another cultural advance of mildly worrying significance that we can attribute to Game of Thrones – the bravura kill, tomorrow’s gruesome Gif today. The Last Kingdom’s great contribution to the genre actually came just before Macfadyen’s demise, in the form of ‘sword cam’, cunningly engineered to make you feel like you were having your own face thrust in and out of some anonymous soldier’s small intestine. I imagine live keyhole surgery is similarly entrancing.
From all of this you might think that The Last Kingdom was a Game of Thrones knock off, a lame-ass limey attempt to cash-in on the pre-eminent epic fantasy of our times with an adaptation of Bernard Cornwell’s historical novels. It wasn’t. Although a BBC production could never boast such a gargantuan budget, nor as much sex, The Last Kingdom came armed with a weapon of its own: a little levity.
It wasn’t until I met this brood of hairy Danes with unpronounceable names, all pillaging and partying like it was 999, that I realised how po-faced Game of Thrones can be at times. In one scene in The Last Kingdom, we had Rutger Hauer as an eminent Viking nobleman giving Uhtred’s recently captured son a lecture about honour and valour. That was in the foreground. In the background, every ten seconds someone was getting strung up or cut down as guffawing mead-fuelled Vikings celebrated their recent victory in the only way they knew how. The scene was hilarious and I’m fairly sure it was intentional.
You have to have seen some of the Ken Follett adaptations that snuck out on Channel 4 a few years ago to know just how wrong this kind of stinky pelt, wattle and daub drama can go. Stephen Butchard, who wrote Five Daughters, Stolen and the under-rated Good Cop is a brilliant writer, but for the life of me I couldn’t understand why he’d be the man for a Bernard Cornwell adaptation. Now I do – in the Last Kingdom he picked his way cleverly through the historical explication, and never got bogged down in the kind of stodgy dialogue that can beleaguer historical drama, (where everyone speaks solely in proverbs while staring at the floor and chewing dolefully on a hunk of meat.) If they can just do something about the wailing vocal soundtrack – the only genre cliché The Last Kingdom failed to avoid – then this should brighten up the long, Throne-less winter.
Few know what goes on in the Special Forces, which surely is part of the point of their being Special – if, for example, you’re about to storm the Iranian Embassy, I imagine it’s quite important that everything is kept on the QT.
So a programme like SAS: Who Dares Wins, which claims it is putting 30 normal punters through the genuine Special Forces selection process, merits a distinctly raised eyebrow. “Selection,” the voiceover began, “is one of the British military’s most closely guarded secrets.” But not closely guarded enough, apparently to stop a crack Channel 4 production troop wanting to make a reality show.
The BBC have done an SAS show recently, and so C4’s claim that this is the genuine article might be an attempt at one-upmanship. Whether or not this was the real Special Forces deal, Who Dares Wins was still superior reality fodder. There was a bit of The Apprentice in there – take some daft egotists and force-feed them a little humility – as well as a surprisingly intrepid attempt to look at modern manhood and its discontents, through recruits ranging from a guilty Dad to a recovering alcoholic.
It is the privilege of the television critic to watch new stars emerge like fungi from the forest floor, and in the form of Who Dares Wins’ head coach Ant, a former Special Forces operative so broad he looks as if he has grafted his head on to a car, we have a man in need of his own series. Naturally, we didn’t learn his surname, no doubt because if he told us he’d have to kill us. Come to think of it, they should just get ‘Ant’ on The Apprentice right now. I would pay just to watch him listen to the team names.
Both these programmes were contrivances. My Son the Jihadi was not, but it was by some distance the most powerful documentary I have seen this year. Brian Woods’ film followed Sally Evans, whose teenage son Thomas had found radical Islam and left his mother and brother in High Wycombe to go to Somalia to join al-Shabaab, the Islamist terrorist group. His mother was shellshocked, as anyone would be. Watching her wrestle with conflicting emotions of love, shame and disgust was heart-breaking. The film alighted on one or two potential causes – an absent father; a break-up – but its conclusion was that no one could really comprehend why this had happened.
When Sally Evans discovered that Thomas had in fact been killed in the act of killing others I saw a combination of devastation and relief in her face that I am not sure I have ever seen before. I would very much hope never to see it again.