Tag Archives: Michael Hirst

Sailing with Vikings

With 70 episodes now under his belt, series creator and writer Michael Hirst tells DQ how the world of Vikings continues to grow each season.

While the popularity of writers rooms outside the US grows apace, Michael Hirst is bucking the trend. As the creator of historical drama Vikings, the British writer has penned all 70 episodes of the series across five seasons since it first launched in 2013.

Filmed in Ireland, the show centres on Ragnar (played by Travis Fimmel, above), a restless young warrior and family man who longs to find and conquer new lands across the sea and claim the spoils as his own.

“It’s been a joy,” he says of the series, which is making its UK free TV debut this Sunday, February 26, on A+E Networks-owned Blaze. The second half of season four debuts on History UK in April. “It’s a great privilege to work in Ireland with the crew we have and our heads of department who I think are just geniuses.

Michael Hirst (left) at Comic Con last year alongside stars Travis Fimmel and Katheryn Winnick

“When we started season one, we had one boat. We had one studio stage with the great hall and probably one other building; and outside on the backlot we had a bit of [the village of] Kattegat and about five or six buildings. Now, Kattegat goes on forever, for acres and acres, we have God-knows-how-many boats and we’ve used thousand of extras. It’s just grown – it’s been a hell of a journey.”

Vikings aside, Hirst is best known for other historical series such as The Tudors and Camelot, and big-screen outings including Elizabeth (1998). Following that film, he paired up with producer Working Title Films to develop a film about Alfred the Great, the English monarch who successfully defeated an attempted Viking conquest.

It was the first time the writer had encountered the Nordic warriors and he quickly became fascinated by them. The movie never materialised but, years later, MGM asked if he was interested in turning Kurt Douglas’s 1958 film Vikings into a TV series. “Of course I was,” he says.

Later on, during the pitch to US cable channel History, which subsequently commissioned the series, Hirst was asked how he would market the show to viewers. “I said I would take a huge billboard and put it on Sunset Boulevard and have the word ‘Vikings’ on it,” he recalls. “It’s one of those subjects and words that is universally recognised. Immediately it brings to mind what turned out to be clichés, but it conjures up these warriors. That’s been a blessing because it works across the world. It’s one of the few things that is almost universal.”

Fimmel (left) has played lead character Ragnar Lothbrok for four seasons

Vikings is an Ireland-Canada coproduction from Take 5 Productions and Octagon Films, with the show now airing around the world via distributor MGM.

The broadness and universality of the title could have been both a blessing and a curse for Hirst – global audiences could immediately identify with the subject matter, but how would the writer create a compelling drama from such a vast landscape of potential characters and conflict?

“I was given a blank canvas,” he admits. “We just had a title so it was up to me to give it shape. There were various Viking leaders that I discussed with Justin Pollard, my historical advisor, and what came out of those discussions was that Ragnar was really the first great Viking leader to emerge from the mists of myth and legend, so he seemed like a good place to start. I wanted to start at the beginning of the Viking age; to try and find what that actually meant.”

The focus on Ragnar was also determined by the fact he had several sons, including Ivar the Boneless and Björn Ironside, who also became famous. “It’s well known that the only thing [the real] Ragnar was afraid of was that his sons would become more famous than he was,” Hirst continues. “So I knew from the start I wasn’t just limited to my lead character. This was a family saga, this is the story of Ragnar and his sons and, of course – spoiler alert – we kill Ragnar in season four but we’ve gone from strength to strength afterwards, dramatising the consequences of his death and the exploits of his sons. So that was a good way to think about a long-running show.”

Katheryn Winnick plays Ragnar’s wife, Lagertha

Hirst was also able to add greater depth to Ragnar’s character when research uncovered the fact that this particular Viking believed he was a descendent of the Norse God Odin, who is associated with battles and war but also poetry and knowledge.

“So Ragnar, my hero, would take after his ancestor and he wouldn’t be travelling abroad or raiding for plunder,” Hirst declares. “He would be motivated by curiosity. We then had a central character who could be extremely sympathetic while still being a Viking.”

Research plays a key role in the show, though Hirst admits that much is unknown about the real Vikings, owing to the fact they didn’t document their own history. Therefore, most of what is known is taken from accounts from their enemies – but the writer says his series is partly an attempt to reconfigure attitudes towards Vikings and shift views away from the clichés and stereotypes.

As a result, everything in the show, from storylines to characters, comes from research. “Then, of course, I have to make drama,” Hirst says. “But I never take the characters or the story far away from the facts I know. Everything can relate back to the storylines that I know are historically real, if one believes the historical accounts.

“There’s no such thing as historical accuracy, at least not in drama, but I try to be as authentic and truthful and plausible as possible.”

Hirst’s duties on Vikings are not just limited to being the creator and writer. He’s also an exec producer and is, in effect, the showrunner, though one who enjoys the collaborative nature of television.

The scale of Vikings’ production has grown with every season

“TV drama is collaborative or it’s nothing,” he admits. “I hate hearing stories of showrunners who try to micromanage shows and who eventually prevent other very creative people from offering suggestions and changing scripts and things. I’m very open to these people’s suggestions and I encourage the creativity of as many people who want to contribute. It’s a richer and more rewarding experience as a result.”

That collaboration also extends to the cast who, after five seasons playing their respective characters, are as invested in Vikings as Hirst. The writer says he wants his cast to feel engaged in the creative process and welcomes their thoughts and comments.

“In season one, everyone’s finding their way and they tend to accept the script more,” he says. “But I would say that scripts in TV and movies are just working documents. It’s not like a play or a novel – it’s not real, it’s just a guide to what’s going to be shot. There’s an amazing thing when you’re in production, you’ve written a scene and the set’s been dressed. The actors come on set and rehearse their lines, then when you look through the camera lens, everything’s different.”

Hirst credits part of the show’s success to its now-departed leading man Fimmel, who he describes as “just magnificent.” He adds: “I envy viewers who are beginning this journey and watching Travis’s evolution as Ragnar. It’s just a stunning performance for many seasons and episodes, it’s a remarkable achievement. Lagertha, his wife (played by Katheryn Winnick), is now as well known as Ragnar. History is a male-skewed channel but it’s got a huge female audience for Vikings and it’s largely because of Lagertha, this shield maiden, this warrior. Someone said to me there’s no one else like her on US TV – she’s a wife, a mother and she kicks ass.”

As you might expect from a show about a band of ninth century warriors, there’s a more than a touch of violence in Vikings, but Hirst stresses that he made a point not to be gratuitous when it comes to the fight sequences.

“Of course it is violent but what we try to be is innovative and interesting in all the fights and battle sequences,” he argues. “I don’t think there’s a show as good as Vikings on TV for showing battles and combat. It’s partly because we focus totally on the individuals, on the characters, so the audience is invested in the life and death of the characters. We don’t have all these visual-effects armies of identical warriors rushing around everywhere. We’ve been really clever about that and been praised for the way we do our battle sequences.”

From its modest origins in season one to the vastness of the 20-episode fifth season, which visits Iceland and the Mediterranean and is due to launch in the US this year, Vikings continues to grow in scale every year. With Hirst confident there will be at least one more 20-episode season to come, there’s no telling where Vikings will land next.

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Reign ends but royalty remains

Reign dramatises the life of Mary, Queen of ScotsOn Wednesday, The CW announced that the fourth season of Reign, which debuts on February 10, will be the last. The news is no real surprise given that the show’s ratings have been pretty modest since launch. Season three averaged 970,000 per episode, which puts it at the lower end of the channel’s typical ratings. An IMDB score of 7.6 also suggests it won’t be massively missed.

For those unfamiliar with the show, Reign is a period drama that chronicles the rise of Mary, Queen of Scots in 16th century Europe. It is not overly concerned with historical accuracy and is generally viewed as a guilty pleasure. It is significant, however, in that it is part of a broad array of TV shows that have placed royalty at the heart of their stories. So this week, to mark the end of Reign, we’re looking at this sub-genre.

thecrownThe Crown Netflix is reckoned to have ploughed US$100m into this exploration of Queen Elizabeth II’s early life. Written by Peter Morgan and directed by Stephen Daldry, the show has received pretty much universal acclaim and is currently sitting pretty with an IMDb score of 9.
A second season has been commissioned and the intention is that the series will run for five or six seasons (though Morgan has not yet committed to such a lengthy run).

victoriaVictoria Vying with The Crown as the best royal series of the year is ITV’s Victoria. Written by Daisy Goodwin, the show has a similar blueprint to The Crown. Starting with the early life of the famous 19th British monarch, the show is intended to follow her through her life, with season two already commissioned.
The show did well in the UK ratings, with an average audience of seven to eight million on Sunday evenings. It has also sold well internationally, although it’s too early to tell how the global market is responding to the show. It will premiere on PBS in the US on January 15. Its IMDb score is 8.3.

tudorsThe Tudors Michael Hirst’s epic series for Showtime helped kick-start the global trade in lavish, semi-fictionalised TV series about monarchy, power, aristocracy and the like. Aired for four seasons between 2007 and 2010, episodes of the show typically attracted an audience of around 700,000-900,000 for the US cable network.
The series starts during Henry VIII’s reign but doesn’t always stick to the facts. Explaining why, Hirst said: “Showtime commissioned me to write an entertainment, a soap opera, and not history. And we wanted people to watch it.” On balance, he argued: “Any confusion created by the changes is outweighed by the interest the series may inspire in the period and its figures.”
US cable channel Ovation recently acquired all four seasons of The Tudors to accompany its investment in Versailles (below). Note: other series to have explored the Tudor period include the BBC’s excellent Wolf Hall and ITV’s 2003 miniseries Henry VIII. The Tudors achieved an IMDb score of 8.1, Wolf Hall 8.2.

versaillesVersailles Set during the reign of Louis XIV of France, this Canal+ drama rated well at home and has sold widely around the world. A second season is on its way and a third has already been commissioned, with production due to start in April 2017.
The first season rated pretty well on BBC2 in the UK and has been renewed. In the US, it aired on arts channel Ovation – which scored its highest ever ratings when it aired the first two episodes back to back (a combined total audience of 557,000).
Dubbed by one critic as the music video version of French history, the show hasn’t achieved the same critical acclaim as The Crown or Victoria, but it is praised for its high production values.

magnificent-century-kosem-10Magnificent Century Timur Savci’s sumptuous period drama was a big hit at home and also been sold into more than 40 territories. It did, however, receive some criticism from conservative elements within Turkey, who called it “disrespectful and hedonistic.”
The show, which ran for 139 episodes between 2011 and 2014, is based on the life of Ottoman Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent. It was followed by Magnificent Century: Kosem, which jumps forward four decades to tell the story of a female ruler who began her life as a slave girl. This show, also produced by Savci, has sold well internationally. Season one of Kosem aired on Star and season two on Fox.

theroyalsThe Royals E! Entertainment’s The Royals is currently into its third season with an audience in the 600,000 range. This after the show averaged one million-plus for season one and around 750,000 for season two.
The show is a novel take on the notion of royalty, since it is based around a fictional British royal family. Elizabeth Hurley plays Queen Helena, a matriarchal figure attempting to maintain the family’s public image while dealing with a range of domestic problems. One of the key plot lines sees her son, Prince Liam, unexpectedly become first in line to the throne after his older brother dies. IMDb gives the show a 7.4 rating.

mary-princessMary: The Making of a Princess The Brits aren’t the only ones with a royal family, of course. In 2015, Network Ten in Australia ran a TV movie about Mary Donaldson, a young Australian woman who married into the Danish royal family after a chance meeting at the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games. The show, produced by FremantleMedia, got a meagre 6.1 rating on IMDb and mixed reviews, but actually rated well with around a million viewers.
Maximilian and Marie de Bourgogne: Historical royal dramas are popular for a few reasons. One is that they are less politically sensitive than stories about current royals. Another is that it is easier to fictionalise a dead royal’s life than a living one’s. And not to be overlooked is the fact that there are more royal families to work with, since a few of them have ceased to exist.
In this lavish production, for example, the focus is on the love story between the son of Frederick III and the daughter of the Duke Of Burgundy in the 1400s. Budgeted at around €16m (US$17m), it is a coproduction between MR Film, Beta Film, ORF and ZDF.

the-queens-sisterThe Queen’s Sister As Mark Lawson observed in an article in UK newspaper The Guardian last year, TV producers tend to take a slightly deferential look at recent royals, saving the controversy for long-dead monarchs (notably Henry VIII). One slight exception to this rule is the Queen’s late sister Margaret, who is generally portrayed in the media as something of a hedonist.
In 2006, Channel 4 told her story in a biopic entitled The Queen’s Sister, with Lucy Cohu as Margaret. Critics were divided over the show, some calling it satirical, others tawdry. It secured a number of Bafta nomination and aired on BBC America. See Lawson’s article here.

powerandpassionCharles II: The Power and The Passion A good example of how historic royals are fair game, this BBC production looks at the feckless and lazy side of this 17th century British monarch, restored to the throne after the death of his father’s nemesis Oliver Cromwell.
Written by Adrian Hodges and starring Rufus Sewell, the show does make an attempt to be historically accurate, relying to some extent on Antonia Fraser’s book Charles II. The show aired in the US and was nominated for a Primetime Emmy. IMDb gives it a rating of 7.6.

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