Did we like it?
A surprisingly entertaining historical imagining of the pivotal battles of 1066 from the perspective of the humble, reluctant foot soldier. It may have only a tenuous factual accuracy – employing vague Anglo-Saxon poems and partial Norse sagas – but aspired for authenticity by the claustrophobic, confined warfare that was creatively filmed to give the impression that the fate of England was being decided by about 50 men fighting over a ditch in a wet Yorkshire forest.
What was good about it?
• Instead of taking the viewpoint of the heroic emblems of such conflicts, 1066 relegated King Harold and Viking overlord Hardrada to the periphery and instead focused on six men – three Anglo-Saxons, three Norsemen – who each represented the variegated philosophy of each side and also the classic human traits and fears that affect everyone.
• On the Anglo-Saxon side, we met Tofi (Mike Bailey), barely out of his teens and just married to the rather vivacious Judith, who is called up to guard against the anticipated Norman invasion before the vows are even complete.
• Tofi was the everyman, the timid farmer utterly unsuited and untrained for battle who is conscripted to fight in wars he little understands and even less cares about. Slowly he acclimatised to the horrors and brutality of being a soldier, and was given the job of snatching the imposing standard from Hardrada during the Battle of Stamford Bridge.
• His counterpart on the Vikings was Hakon, who was one of the leaders of the invaders by virtue of his birth rather than his fighting skills. He was a pleasing antidote to the impression of Vikings as savage warlords who would much rather slay than love (a stereotype zealously compounded elsewhere), and suffered a debilitating wound after he was distracted by a soaring bird amid a fierce battle. He used this almost as an excuse to retreat from the frontline, and sit and slump into reveries about his newborn son far, far away, but was killed at Stamford Bridge.
• Hakon passed command on to Snorri, a typical warrior who seemed compelled by a nagging morality to offer the English peace at every chance, but who seemed to favour them spurning the passive solution so he could savour the frenzy of battle, but did so with a charisma that made him a far more natural leader of men than Hakon.
• The battles themselves confounded the consciously alluring sub-title of ‘Middle Earth’. The battles couldn’t be further from Peter Jackson’s magnificent realisation of Tolkien’s epics, but aside from a few moments of dramatic licence – Hakon’s last breaths during which asking Snorri to kiss his son – they appeared more realistic, not because they necessarily were but because they were so divorced from the usual sanitised, glossy medieval conflicts we’re more used to seeing.
• Adhering to the drama-documentary feel, the battles are announced eerily like football fixtures – a Harold’s Army v Vikingr, Battle of Stamford Bridge – and are then resolved in grotty locations across Yorkshire.
• The Battle of Fulford was fought across a ditch as the two sides growled at one another before the Northern Earls were slaughtered by the belligerent Vikings, who in each skirmish made liberal use of the vigorous headbutt to incapacitate their foes.
• The biggest clash was Stamford Bridge, and we recognise this as when Vikings were repelled from these shores for the final time so you would expect Stamford Bridge to be an opulent landmark across a profound expanse of water. It wasn’t. It was, and we trust the historians here, in fact the sort of bridge you might find on a kids’ assault course.
• The battle itself was superbly illustrated in an odd fashion, portrayed as a blend of gory warfare and slapstick comedy. After a brief parlay, the Vikings despatched Gyrd (imagine the offspring of a bear and Mick Hucknall) to defend the bridge single-handedly. This he accomplished largely because the Anglo-Saxon army displayed all the ingenuity of a flaccid doorstop, sending in soldier after soldier to be vividly butchered in hand-to-hand combat without ever thinking to snipe him with an arrow or spear.
• We thought there was perhaps some unspoken oath of combat that forbade such cowardly tactics; that was until Gyrd was disembowelled by the sneaky Leofric who thrust his spear into his guts through the cracks from below the wooden bridge.
• Ian Holm’s excellent, eloquent understated narration.
What was bad about it?
• As the whole saga is a sketch formed from the unreliable scraps of poems of the Norse and Anglo-Saxons, we’re dubious about its historical merits. Certainly, there was a battle at Stamford Bridge, but it seemed to be fought between forces about 50 on each side.
• And while we’re sympathetic of budget restrictions – and admire the inventive way in which the battles were shot – this suspect lack of authenticity harms the ‘documentary’ element of the production.
• Perhaps it’s our own fault because we are too accustomed to conventional dramas about historical events, which uniformly expunge fact as though fleas on a cat’s hide, but we became more interested in the lives of Tofi , Snorri and Hakon than the efforts to enlighten through fact.
• The unnecessary allusions to Tolkien in the sub-title, this programme was good enough to stand on its own merits without nervously purloining identity from Hollywood.