This feature on the second season of The History Channel’s Vikings came out of a visit to the set in County Wicklow, near Dublin last year. It was commissioned for the print version of Empire, but due to initial problems sourcing images from MGM, it ended up online instead, later than planned. It includes snippets of my interviews with stars Travis Fimmel, Clive Standen and Linus Roache, and showrunner Michael Hirst. I later wrote a much expanded version for Empire‘s Australian edition, which is the one that follows.
You won’t find this mentioned in any of the Nordic or Icelandic sagas or official histories, but the Viking village of Kattegat is actually located in County Wicklow, not far from Dublin. Looking as good as it must have done in the eighth century, the huts and mead halls stand at the lip of a fetching man-made lake, and although they’re well-hidden, the wires for the electrics can occasionally be seen poking out of the straw-covered ground. Strangely though, only two of the buildings have interiors.
Empire is, of course, on a set: namely that of the History Channel’s hit series Vikings, currently filming its second season at Ballyhenry Studios in Ashford. The facility opened only last year as host to Vikings’ first season, and is still being extended to accommodate Year Two.
“Look busy!” jokes a crewmember to his cohorts as showrunner, producer and – uniquely in this kind of television – sole writer Michael Hirst strolls past. The boss smirks quietly to himself but pretends not to have heard as he walks on. “I think we got away with it,” the crewman winks at Empire.
It’s evidence of a relaxed working atmosphere, but there’s nevertheless a lot of hard graft underway. The watchword for Season Two is categorically “bigger”. There are more boats – two authentically wooden, four made of fibreglass, one on a gimble that “doesn’t sail but doesn’t sink either” – more characters, and improved sets: Kattegat can now be filmed from 360 degrees instead of a single angle. Two sentences of script make for a great deal of industry, which in the case of one structure on the backlot is only then going to be burned to the ground. Sequences that require more water and more surrounding landscape are filmed amid the spectacular scenery of the Guinness family’s Lugalla estate, on the vaguely fjord-y shore of Lough Tay and in the shadow of the Wicklow Mountains. The location is not without its logistical problems: the crew found themselves snowed in there for several days in 2012.
“It’s not so much a thrill to see it all happening as a realisation of the size of the undertaking,” Hirst muses.
That undertaking began in 2012, with nine episodes. A huge hit for the History Channel, and subsequently streaming gangbusters on LoveFilm in the UK, Vikings tells the story of Ragnar Lodbrok (Travis Fimmel) and his brother Rollo (Clive Standen), who strike out from Scandinavia to discover England in a new generation of longship, while negotiating political and familial dramas at home. Ragnar comes straight from the Norse sagas, immediately following the Volsunga Saga, which includes the dragon-slaying Sigurd (famously depicted in Wagner’s Ring Cycle). There are no dragons here, however: Vikings, as its home channel implies, is doggedly grounded in reality: or at least, a version of it.
Many first-season reviewers drew comparisons to Game of Thrones, but in the minds of Hirst and his cast and crew, Vikings is of a piece with Hirst’s previous work on the likes of The Tudors and the Elizabeth films. “I don’t like fantasy,” Hirst tells us. “This is based on real things, real people. It’s about important subjects: belief, how you organise societies, what you’d fight and die for, the differences in attitudes to love between this Scandinavian culture and ours at the time or ours now… What lessons can we learn from them? The Vikings were very green. They might have killed a lot of people with axes but their relationship to nature was close and dynamic, and their gods lived in nature and weren’t, as it were, ‘intellectual’ gods like Christ. I’m biased, of course, but I do feel that Vikings is a different kind of show. I want to reveal to the audience the depth and richness of this culture.”
The show’s History Channel branding perhaps perversely makes Vikings more susceptible to accusations of historical inaccuracy and dramatic licence, but Hirst says the academic response has largely been positive. “It was always fun in Tudors when I got attacked for things, and usually the critics – like [ubiquitous British TV historian] David Starkey – didn’t know what they were talking about. I’d actually done all this research. On Vikings an audience has every right to expect that there’s at least something authentic about it and that some effort is being made. I did a radio interview in Boston with the head of Scandinavian studies at Harvard, who’s a Swede. We gave him the first two episodes and I thought he’d chew me up and spit me out, but he said, ‘Listen, this is the first time my culture has ever been portrayed intelligently and taken seriously, so thank you’. I’m sure there are inaccuracies, but hey, it’s the Dark Ages!”
“We’re all just trying to make the audience understand the Vikings,” says the weathered-looking Fimmel (who enjoys the luxuriant beard but finds the hair extensions embarrassing: “I have to wear a shower cap! It’s not right!”). “They had a very bad reputation for ruthlessness and violence, but they didn’t write, so the only portrayals of them come from the people they attacked. But they weren’t just savages. There were reasons why they attacked people. They just wanted to better their society. A big part of it is a family saga: what you’d do to provide for your family. Their circumstances were obviously different from ours, but they were still fathers and brothers and sisters and mothers. That doesn’t change, no matter how far back you go.”
“Michael’s a great historian,” enthuses Linus Roach, joining Vikings’ second season as King Egbert of Wessex. “He can take you into these historical periods and cultures and make them alive for you, so you feel them. But he does that by being a dramatist, conflating time and adding characters. His strength is bringing this era alive.”
“The process of writing Vikings is the same process I’ve used on other shows,” Hirst explains. “It always begins with research: diving into as much historical material as I can find, and not necessarily just the history of the period but perhaps also the music and whatever else I can find. Somewhere in that huge mound of material I discover storylines, find characters emerging, thoughts about the world, thoughts about how I might start to structure a seasonal work. I make decisions then about which characters I’m going to concentrate on, and try to give their stories some shape, and cut them down into episodes, and find ways of interweaving them. I found when I was doing The Tudors that that was something that I enjoyed doing and that I can do. On Vikings there are at least half a dozen central characters, all of whose stories are important, and all of whose stories I want to give due weight to.”
It’s not all familial and political historical drama though. There’s also a fascinating thread about the gradual encroachment of Christianity on Viking society (personified by George Blagden’s kidnapped and Viking-integrated monk Athelstan). And, of course, there are still the battle scenes, often involving scores of extras (who, an on-set poster insists, must remember to wear underwear at all times). “These scars on my face are make-up,” a battered looking Standen tells Empire, “but I’ve got a big old scar on my shoulder where I got a metal spear shoved into me! We train and train and learn the fights and the choreography, but then our stunt choreographers try to work on getting us to forget the routine, so on the day it’s scruffy and we’re slipping in the mud and falling over and stopping blows just before they cleave us in half. Hopefully that brings something to it…”
Injuries to stunt personnel this season have included broken collarbones and separated shoulders. Even executive producer Morgan O’Sullivan has managed to break his foot (although he did it slipping on some steps, rather than in an attempt to kick someone in the skull). “I’ve just seen [Braveheart veteran stuntie] Phil Lonergan,” chuckles Fimmel, “and he’s on crutches. He had to do a horse fall and he broke his ankle, so he’s out. I wasn’t in that scene, but I saw it. It looked good!”
Today, however, we’re witness to a smaller sequence, out of the elements and inside the studio, where the love triangle between Ragnar, Rollo and Lagertha (Kathryn Winnick) is being played out. The cramped and smoky wooden hut houses Rollo and Lagertha, until Ragnar arrives for a spot of taciturn conversation, almost mutely ejecting Rollo from his bench seat at the rustic table. The low ceiling makes the hulking Fimmel seem even taller. As a set it’s in stark contrast to King Egbert’s English base of operations, which is incongruously housed next to chez-Lagertha and is based on Winchester Cathedral (but includes an under-construction secret chamber for Egbert’s Roman manuscripts). The stonework looks absolutely real until you touch it. Likewise, intricate wooden furniture and ornaments of bone and horn liberally litter the surfaces, and it’s impossible to tell what’s genuine and what’s rubber without giving them a surreptitious poke.
When using the stage sets, many of the backgrounds are obviously green screen (with the occasional old-school matte painting), but, says production designer Mark Geraghty, “I don’t think you can really beat the physical sets in terms of camera movements and the actors being able to move around and touch stuff. We use CGI for some of the big wide shots of the wonderful world, but once we come in, that’s when I like to get the detail. You should be able to smell a set as well as see it.”
“It’s a big canvas to paint on,” enthuses new-boy director Jeff Woolnough, joining Season Two for episodes five and six, and only the fourth guy to man the cameras in the show’s history to date. “One of the unusual challenges with this show is that you have a lot of scenes with a lot of actors in them,” he continues. “I can’t tell you how many scenes there have been where I’ve had ten, twelve actors. You only really see that in other shows if you wind up in a courtroom situation. This show probably has at least one of those scenes every day, and the size of these sets and the locations that we have and the scope of the show really makes it easier to get ten actors and a hundred extras into a scene and make it cinematic and cool.”
The nature of most episodic television, Woolnough tells us, negates any idea of a directorial stamp, since shows want to seem consistent from week to week. While that’s still true of Vikings to some extent, Woolnough says he’s also been given free reign to indulge his own ideas and filming techniques. “They want that voice to come through,” he says, proudly. “Michael Hirst was very collaborative and open to ideas and changes to some of his material. He’s very trusting in terms of the people around him, and he’s not super-precious about his words. He gets it all down on paper but then he wants everyone to make it their own and contribute. Everybody else was open like that too. So it’s enjoyable for me from that point of view because it’s more like directing a movie than it is directing an episode of television.”
And assuming continued success, there should be much more to come. “I chose to concentrate on Ragnar Lodbrok as the main character because he had lots of sons who became even more famous than he was,” Hirst enthuses. With Vikings’ second season already jumping ahead several years from the first, there’s scope for further seasons to span generations. The sons of Ragnar encountered Alfred the Great, explored the Mediterranean, and attacked what they thought was Rome, whilst colonising Iceland and Greenland. “Not long after that they found America, hundreds of years before Columbus,” says Hirst. “So in my mind, I ain’t stopping until we get there!”