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Back in town

Sky1 is revisiting the American frontier for a second season of historical drama Jamestown. DQ travels to Budapest to meet some of the cast and creator Bill Gallagher on set.

Inside a Native American tepee that has been painstakingly constructed from dried reeds, we are chatting to a group of Pamunkey warriors in striking red warpaint and feathers in their hair. Behind us, a magnificent ceremonial cape made out of the gorgeous black and white plumage of an eagle is hanging from the roof. Nearby, the giant carcasses of a deer and a fish are draped over a sturdy wooden tripod. This feels – and smells – just like early 17th century America.

But it is, in fact, just one part of the spectacular set that has been built in a field outside Budapest for Jamestown, the Sky1 period drama about the beleaguered frontier town, which returns for its second season this Friday. So now there is a corner of modern-day Hungary that is forever 1619 Virginia.

The second season picks up the story of this battling settler community through the prism of Alice (Sophie Rundle), Jocelyn (Naomi Battrick) and Verity (Niamh Walsh). At the start of the series, these three intrepid women became the first females to set foot in Jamestown for 12 years.

But the second run of Bill Gallagher’s drama, which is produced by Carnival Films, does not just focus on the women. It broadens out to take in such dramatically rich areas as the effect of the settlement on the Pamunkey and the beginnings of the slave trade.

Rundle, who has also shone in Peaky Blinders, Dickensian, Happy Valley and The Bletchley Circle, takes a break between scenes and comes over to talk. We find a shady spot out of the broiling Budapest sun, which feels just about hot enough to cook a goulash.

Dressed in Alice’s splendid flowing dress, the 29-year-old actress begins by emphasising that the drama simply cannot overlook the subject of the treatment of the Pamunkey. “It would be a real failing if the Native Americans weren’t central to the story,” she asserts.

“It’s really important, otherwise we’d just be whitewashing history. In this season, there are many amazing scenes about the two communities interacting that you might not have expected. It’s vital that we get this storyline absolutely right.”

In Jamestown, authenticity is king. Kalani Queypo, who plays Pamunkey man Chacrow, is pleased the producers have gone to great lengths to ensure the accuracy of their portrayal of the Native American characters. “That’s one of the aspects of this production that’s really good,” declares the 31-year-old, who has also appeared in Fear the Walking Dead, Slow West, The Royal Tenenbaums, Aspen the Series and Saints & Strangers.

“When you tell Native American communities you’re shooting a drama featuring Native American characters in Budapest, the first thing they say is, ‘Oh no, it’s going to be a bunch of Eastern European actors with spray tans and bad wigs!’ But that’s not what we’re doing on Jamestown. The producers have brought over 60 Native American actors from the US and Canada. That’s amazing.”

Jamestown star Sophie Rundle (centre) also has a major role in Peaky Blinders

Perhaps even more astonishing is the fact the production has revived the Pamunkey language, which had not been spoken in many decades. Queypo adds: “For the descendants of the Pamunkey to hear their language for the first time is incredible.

“It’s a great responsibility for us because when we speak that language, we’re calling upon those ancestors. We’re channelling a way of life. It’s very challenging to learn, but it’s been an absolute privilege.”

In addition, Jamestown may also help to correct the way some elements of Native American history have been spun. Raoul Trujillo, 62, who portrays the Pamunkey tribal chieftan Opechancanogh in the drama, observes: “History has always been told to us by the victors. They call a victory for the Native Americans a ‘massacre’ and a massacre of the Native Americans a ‘victory.’”

Trujillo, who has also starred in Apocalypto, The New World, Riddick and Sicario, continues: “For instance, the Native American victory at Little Big Horn has been described as ‘a savage massacre.’ Come on!

“Balance in the recounting of history has long gone. There have been 500 years of colonialist history, so this re-balancing has been a long time coming. Of course, we need to do far more, but dramas like Jamestown are really helping.”

The new season of Jamestown tackles the beginnings of the slave trade

Queypo picks up: “Historically in Hollywood films, Native Americans have just been a device to push the story forward. As a result, Native American characters have been very one-dimensional in the past. They have either been peaceful or warriors who want to kill white people for no reason. But Jamestown is very different. Here, the Native Americans are not just a device; they are multi-dimensional characters in their own right.”

The other major subject that is tackled in this season of Jamestown is slavery. Again, it is imperative for the cast and crew that the production does not try to gloss over the horror of the slave trade. Rundle affirms: “It’s vital to address slavery. And it’s not OK to get it wrong. You’ve got to tell these stories, or you’re rewriting history. We don’t want to be saying, ‘White people, how was it for you?’ We want to be saying to the people forced into slavery, ‘What was it like for you?'”

Jamestown, which is sold worldwide by NBCUniversal International Television Distribution, does not flinch in its depiction of the sheer brutality of life in the settlement. It underlines that the people who survived there had to be exceptionally tough. Nigel Marchant, exec producer on the show, calls it “a mixture of Jacobean drama and a western.” It certainly contains both those traits. It possesses a welcome sense of humour and is unfailingly entertaining, too.

But it also has many striking parallels with the world today. Gallagher, previously responsible for Lark Rise to Candleford and The Paradise, says: “Of course, I appreciate the times we live in. In the UK today, we’re free. But I also think the way people behaved in Jamestown can be a mirror to the way we behave now. We have still some fantastical beliefs and our ideas of justice are not always sensible.

More than 60 Native American actors feature in the production

“We don’t live in a time free from horrors. The idea of colonising countries in order to make money could be a reflection of the global economy today. There are all kinds of regimes these days which are not a million miles from the Jacobean way of inflicting order on people.”

But can drama ever really teach us anything? The Jamestown team believe so. Abiola Ogunbiyi, who plays Maria, one of the slaves brought into the settlement, muses: “I think viewers will learn something from Jamestown because they’ll identify with the characters. But what would be really awesome would be if audiences also got a sense from the drama of why things are this way now.”

The 27-year-old actor concludes: “The need for power and influence has very contemporary echoes. People have always used their religions and traditions to dehumanise other people and justify their actions.

“I’m afraid the desire to dominate other people has never, ever gone away.”

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Keys to the Kingdom

As historical drama The Last Kingdom charges towards the end of its second season, read DQ’s report from the Budapest set, where stars Alexander Dreymon and David Dawson were preparing to do battle once again.

It’s a cold, wet, November day – the perfect conditions in which to experience a slice of ninth century English life, albeit on the outskirts of Budapest.

It’s here that production designer Martyn John is dodging muddy puddles and piles of dung on the remarkable set he has overseen for the second season of BBC2’s
The Last Kingdom, adapted by Stephen Butchard (Good Cop) from Bernard Cornwell’s bestselling Saxon Stories novels.

The first season followed young warrior Uhtred (Alexander Dreymon), born a Saxon but raised a Dane and wrestling both with his dual heritage and the bitter warfare splitting England apart. Now, allied with King Alfred (David Dawson), he hopes to reclaim the lands in the north that are his ancestral birthright. It’s not a journey without its difficulties.

“Uhtred has to make quite a few sacrifices,” says Dreymon, looking impressively energised near the end of a seven-month shoot. “He pays a high price to achieve his objectives. It’s a rocky road. It’s important to keep the moments where he’s playful and still a little boy, but there’s a lot less messing about this year. It’s more political and serious and dramatic.”

Actor Alexander Dreymon during a break in filming

Most notably, Uhtred is enslaved and chained to the oar of a Viking longship – a terrifying experience for a man who believes he will only reach Valhalla by dying with sword in hand. “Going through that emotional arc, you have to dig quite deep,” says Dreymon. “I was very disappointed I wasn’t able to go through the journey physically because we didn’t have time. To get to that point of emaciation wasn’t possible, but with prosthetics and baggy clothes and sleep deprivation, I think we got away with it.”

If Uhtred is the hero, then Alfred is the anti-hero, and one who fades into the background of the books adapted in this second season, which debuted in March. Butchard was keen to rectify this: “I tried to keep Alfred and Uhtred tied together as much as possible by having Alfred use Uhtred for his own ends, to spread his influence in the north. England is a game of chess for him, and Uhtred is his key piece on the board. In a period of violence and conflict, Alfred is trying to build something substantial, because it’s only in periods of peace where cultures grow.”

“You’ll really find out why he goes down in history as Alfred the Great,” says wiry, self-confessed “history geek” Dawson. “It’s not just about him taking land, but about him trying to create an identity for his kingdom. He was militarily smart, building forts around Wessex to secure it from any more Viking invasions. He’s clever with his court, which is full of people wanting to take his place. But he also translated books into English to promote learning and signed a peace treaty with the Danes when they would have expected a ruthless response. He’s a frail intellectual who achieves so much, and as a skinny lad I appreciate that!”

Dawson is speaking just outside Alfred’s Wessex stronghold of Winchester, as recreated by John. Not quite as regal or majestic as you might expect, it’s a network of dwellings and stables, official rooms and religious buildings. There are loose straw roofs for the poor and thatched for the more wealthy. With authenticity the watchword, timber was used where possible.

What becomes rapidly clear is John’s ingenuity. A TV veteran with the likes The White Queen and Foyle’s War under his belt, he may ostensibly be showing us around Winchester but, from a different angle and with a bit of redressing, the same space has represented York, Northampton, Leeds and assorted other settlements in East Anglia and Wessex.

The Last Kingdom airs on BBC2 and is available on Netflix in the US

Here is a network of staircases inspired by the famous Escher lithograph; there, a pagan meeting hall that had doubled as a cathedral in an earlier scene. The architectural design incorporates Saxon and Viking influences, but with elements of ancient Roman mural and filigree for the eagle-eyed. Truly, anything goes if it enhances the show.

“I’ve got to use all my sets four or five different times,” says John, who looks exhausted but justifiably proud of his achievements. If this does indeed prove to be his last run on The Last Kingdom (“Two seasons is enough for me!”), then he has left quite the legacy for his successors.

Continuity has been key to the smooth running of the shoot. Most of the cast and, perhaps unusually, most of the crew returned for the second season, including producer Chrissy Skins and director of photography Chas Bain. The directors, though, continued to rotate – a policy with pros and cons.

“It’s a great learning curve,” Dreymon says. “The whole crew and most of the cast have a shorthand now, but the one person with the ultimate decision is the one who changes every two episodes. Everyone’s nerves get tested sometimes, but the best directors are the ones who are open to suggestions, whether it’s from me or a runner on their first day.”

Jon East, who directs the second block of episodes in this second season, has both originated series (The Last Weekend, Critical) and stepped onto moving vehicles (New Tricks, Whitechapel). For him, too, it was a challenge: “You’re trying to create a reasonably seamless next chapter – you don’t want you to create this odd, ungainly shape in front of an elegant wall of bricks, but you have to bring some distinctiveness to it. You can either ask the audience to observe the characters and scenario, or ask them to step inside it and immerse themselves. I’m in the latter camp – I like to take an audience right alongside the character for a more visceral experience.”

Those visceral experiences are most arresting in the epic battles that were a hallmark of season one, climaxing in the bloodbath of Ethandun that saw Alfred defeat the Viking hordes. While season two doesn’t have anything on quite that scale, there are still some impressive set pieces. For East, though, the priority was always narrative over spectacle.

“Those long action sequences can make it feel as if time is standing still,” he argues. “You think, at some point, they’ll stop clashing swords and someone will win, when what the audience is really watching is what happens to individual characters. You need story milestones worked into those set pieces, and characters need to go on an emotional journey as well as a physical one.”

The period drama is filmed in Budapest, Hungary

East talks with audible excitement about filming the slave sequences and a fortress siege featuring “stuntmen who had to dress in layers of fire-resistant clothing, set themselves on fire and hurl themselves off battlements in 34 degree heat.” His most enjoyable moments, however, tend to be lower key.

“My favourite scene is a very quiet one between Uhtred and Hild, a warrior who becomes one of his coterie. They just sit in a field and talk, shot in a ‘magic hour’ light. There was a delicacy, honesty and truthfulness about their performances that was very touching.”

On the whole, however, The Last Kingdom’s team had to work hard to avoid scenes looking too idyllic and thus clashing with the dour, angst-ridden nature of much of the narrative. Unlike season one, the bulk of filming was done over the sweltering Hungarian summer rather than the bitterly cold winter. Plenty of post-production work was carried out to ensure that ninth century life looked every bit as nasty, brutish and short as it really was.

Oddly, the actors missed the wintry chill. “I think you benefit from seeing people’s breath, being cold, miserable and in the mud,” grins Dreymon. “The make-up artist has kept putting on dirt all the time because you couldn’t see it in the sunlight. It’s been easier this season to not suffer those conditions, but I would gladly do it again in the winter just for the look.”

Yes, winter will come again to Winchester as surely as there will always be a Westeros-shaped shadow over any series involving swearing, sex, men with mullets and frequently wielded swords. The comparison to HBO’s Game of Thrones is one everyone acknowledges but few seem to mind (although perhaps tellingly, no one will admit to having watched The Last Kingdom’s nearest equivalent, History’s Vikings). Dawson even concedes that The Last Kingdom would probably not have been made without the success of Game of Thrones.

“It’s incumbent upon any team working within this genre to try and put clear blue water between themselves and that giant of a show,” says East. “But The Last Kingdom has as its basis those fantastic novels and a drive towards historical and visual authenticity that differentiates it.”

The Last Kingdom, produced by Carnival Films and distributed by NBCUniversal International Television Distribution, has a new US partner for season two, with Netflix taking rights stateside, replacing BBC America. And though the drama has yet to be recommissioned for a third season, given the rich history and with 10 Cornwall books to plunder (each season has so far covered two each), there’s scope for at least another three outings. Dreymon, however, must be hoping the divergence from the source novels is complete by that stage, as by book 10, Uhtred is in his 50s – a leap of the imagination surely beyond even the most gifted make-up artist.

The central theme, however, will never age and, if anything, feels more pertinent now than ever: the clash of cultures personified by the one-man melting pot at its heart. Can such apparently opposed perspectives ever be reconciled? “There’s a bit more gravitas this year,” says Butchard. “Saxons and Danes are living together and becoming more integrated, so it’s harder to say who the enemy is and who’s fighting for who.”

Dreymon believes that, however nightmarish his era may appear, Uhtred has attributes that many significant 21st century figures might do well to heed: “He’ll look beyond what religion people are from or where they’re from, which is a beautiful thing – he’s really ahead of his time.”

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