“Look busy!” jokes a crewmember to his cohorts as showrunner, producer and - uniquely in this kind of television - sole writer Michael Hirst strolls through a busy Vikings set. 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 in County Wicklow, not far from Dublin. Ashford Studios opened only last year as host to Vikings’ first season, and is still being extended to accommodate its second, currently in production. The watchword seems to be “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: the central village of 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. “It’s not so much a thrill to see it all built 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, Vikings tells the story – straight from the Norse sagas – of Ragnar Lothbrok (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.
“We’re all just trying to make the audience understand the Vikings,” says Fimmel (who enjoys the beard but finds the hair extensions embarrassing). “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.”
Thoughts like that are key to the show’s ethos. Many first-season reviewers drew comparisons to Game Of Thrones, but in the minds of Hirst and his cast and crew, this is very much a historical drama, of a piece with Hirst’s previous work on the likes of The Tudors and the Elizabeth films. “I don’t like fantasy,” he tells us. “This is based on real things, real people. 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.”
“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.”
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…”
And assuming continued success, there should be much more to come. “I chose to concentrate on Ragnar Lothbrok 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!”
Feature by Owen Williams.
Vikings Season 1 can be streamed now on LOVEFiLM and will be available on DVD and Blu-ray from February 3. Season 2 will air from February 28.