In the first part of our interview with former The Last Kingdom showrunner Stephen Butchard, we discussed the choices he made when adapting Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Stories novels for TV. This time, we chat about what’s to come, Butchard’s favorite characters, and why we’re so damn invested in Uhtred’s journey.
Part of the reason The Last Kingdom is so compelling is because it commits to honestly depicting a time period very different from our own, one where religion and government were almost the same thing:
It’s about different people’s approaches to religion and interpretations of their religion. With Alfred, he was very pious, almost saw it as a mission. I think because historically he went to Rome at the age of four, he very much felt he was God’s king. Whereas Father Beocca is coming from the north of England, coming from a totally different area and very much at the front line, if you like. And he interpreted it different, he approaches all men the same regardless of what they think; he sees a good man as a good man, that’s the way he approaches it. In a way, denomination doesn’t come to it, it’s about good men do good deeds. Therefore Beocca would say that God put all the men on the Earth. So it’s just different approaches.
But although Alfred is driven by his faith, Butchard also sees him as pragmatic. “Alfred saw that it wasn’t a case of always fighting the demons, he knew at some point there had to be agreements. They had to integrate, they had to settle. Otherwise, the country would never progress. So what he was concerned about was having much influence as possible. Yes, he dreamed of England. That’s why in series 1 it was such a big deal for one of the Danes to be baptized. He sees that as progress, as the way forward. You can’t do that unless there is peace initially. It’s not a sign of weakness negotiating. It’s kind of a sign of strength.”
Returning to Cornwell’s novels, Butchard said there we no sequences from the novels he’d wished he’d been able to adapt but couldn’t. “I never felt restricted, when I was on the page…The important things were there. In series 1 I could not wait to start writing but I knew that sequence with the death of King Edmund, when Uhtred was a boy was coming. It was such an interesting and quirky thing that was happening that it had to be in there, you know? So finding a way to transpose when Uhtred is a boy to when Uhtred is a man. Certain things just leapt off the page and all that’s got to go in…But in terms of the scale, I was always happy with the scale because for me, writing is always about the characters. So you can have as much scale as you want, but if you don’t, if there’s not a story being told in the midst of a battle or there’s not people that you care about within that battle, it goes for nothing. It’s just noise, isn’t it?”
When prompted, however, Butchard admitted there was one thing from the novels he’d have liked to have seen more of: boats.
In series 1, Uhtred goes off to be with Leofric, to kind of be pirates. I kind of knew from the off that wasn’t going to happen. So that’s why he went off on horseback to Cornwallum. It was them being pirates, that would have been really nice, them being Danes in a way as well. Being Vikings, that would have been really cool.
Uhtred the pirate? Sign me up.
Getting down to the brass tax, Butchard discussed the challenges of writing characters off the show. What I learned was that every death is an opportunity. “Ragnar’s death for example was such a catalyst for the series,” Butchard said. “It came in episode 4, and I think it came as a surprise. How he died and who killed him was a huge surprise. It gave us so much. It was just this huge rock in the pond and unsettled everyone. It gave us so much drama later, it was worth it.”
Still, there are characters Butchard missed…in one case enough to revive him. “I really missed Leofric. When we killed Leofric at the end of series 1, I really missed him. And that was part of the reason why I wanted to bring him back. I just abandoned everyone from saying ‘arseling.’ No one could say aresling except Leofric, that was his phrase. So I said no one else is saying that, it’s his phrase. And the only time heard it was when Uhtred said that from time to time when Leofric came back. That was just a lovely opportunity, when Uhtred got the fever, now we could bring Leofric back.”
As for his favorite character to write, Butchard took a while to pick just one. “I loved writing Uhtred and Alfred, the scenes between Uhtred and Beocca as well. But I also loved Athelwold; Harry [McEntire] is such a great actor. You knew what you were getting. I loved his whole journey, you know, from being sort of a buffoon, kind of a lovable idiot, to just grower darker and darker. The throne was rightfully his and that just festered and festered and made him a darker person. And again, it was Ragnar’s death that gave Athelwold the perfect ending as well. I really enjoyed writing for him, because he was very funny at times, but totally selfish”
And while grand moments like character deaths are important to a show, smaller moments are just as vital. Butchard talked passionately about moments that don’t necessarily move the plot forward, but that do show the relationships between characters, like this one:
“It’s really important. You must see them as people, as real people. They got into that game of stones, and that made me smile as well because it’s about execution as well. The actors are just so gifted. At the end of that game where it’s like a race for them to go and find Uhtred first, you see they’re like little boys. They’re big warriors , but they try to get to Uhtred first. I just thought about their bond and their affection for their boss.”
While small moments like this might appear improvised, Butchard assured us that they’re not. “I didn’t allow improvisation, because I think the script was tight. The moment you start to improvise, you go off kilter a little bit. So I wasn’t a fan improvisation, very little.”
I’m not a fan of improvisation, but the actors are brilliant on this show, and if the actors have comments on the script or notes or just need to talk about something, well, that’s great. Quite often, you know, I’d think the actor suggestions, ‘Actually, that’s fantastic. That really works.’ Or they would say, ‘I’m uncomfortable with that, how about this?’ Brilliant. Brilliant. As long as you’re not surprised by it. They are all really good but I think there comes a point where they know the characters as well as you know them; they’ve been living and breathing them.
At the time of our interview, Butchard had yet to see season 4, so we weren’t able to get his thoughts on the most recent season. “I’ve been saving it, I’ve been really busy. So I want to sit down, enjoy it properly.”
However, his most recent project, Baghdad Central, recently landed on Hulu. Butchard thinks the show shares some DNA with The Last Kingdom. “Corey Stoll is in that, and he’s fantastic. It’s just six episodes, and it’s set in Baghdad in 2003. I think it’s a very thoughtful piece and it’s very much about the characters. You see things from all sides. It’s a whole mass of grey really, there’s no rights or wrongs. That’s the stuff of drama really.”
That led to my final question: how is Butchard passing time in quarantine? Is he binging favorite TV shows like us? “I’m working on a couple things. I’m adapting a John le Carré novel, and another Mafia based show in Italy I’m working on as well. But we’re kind of going, when are we going to be able to make these? Similar to series 5 of The Last Kingdom, is that going to be possible, you know, within the next 12 months. It takes so much to do a period drama. When you’re traveling from country to country, how do you do that? So we’re all having a rethink at the moment in terms of what drama is possible.”
Things are still moving forward, the developments, I think it will just be a bit slower…We’ll look at what can we do quickly, more quickly. Is it a set based drama or something like that? It’s affected everybody. The film and television industries is no different.
And while writing might seem uniquely suited for life under quarantine, Butchard doesn’t think it’s that simple. “I used to like move around. During the day, do a couple of hours in a coffee shop, then pick up your bags and move somewhere else to sit down and do a couple hours there, then go back home and sit in the kitchen, do a couple of hours. I just keep on moving where as now, you can’t really do that. So I found myself getting up a little bit later (laughs).”
As do we all.
Thanks to Mr. Butchard for the time, and his insight. Destiny is all!