TV blog: The Last Kingdom

Benjie Goodhart / 09 March 2017

Our TV critic unearths a new drama for fans of sword-wielding epic TV dramas, plus the best of the rest of the week ahead.

The Last Kingdom, Thursday 16th March, 9pm, BBC Two

Being a TV executive is a pretty cushy number, to be honest. Generally, it goes like this: You watch telly, and if something really good comes along, that people seem to love, you remake it under a different title. It’s the same in the cinema world, which is why almost every film that’s out these days involves a flippin’ superhero. It also explains why we’ve had a surfeit of sword-wielding epic TV dramas recently, from Outlander to Vikings to Marco Polo to Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands.

I like expensive dramas with bearded men chopping each other up with gay abandon as much as the next man, but it’s difficult to keep track of them all, which is why I managed to miss the first series of The Last Kingdom. Fortunately, the second series starts with a 90-second recap, so I am pretty much up to speed. It’s 9th-Century Britain, and, um, everyone’s killing each other. Plus it’s very muddy, and there isn’t yet a Pret a Manger on every single square inch of turf.

Our hero is a chap called Uhtred (Alexander Dreyman). He seems pretty angry about life, as you would be, with such a daft name. Also, I think he’s been mis-sold PPI. Oh, and also he’s mourning his (deep breath): father, stepfather, brother, son, girlfriend, and most of the people he’s ever met, all of whom died in series one. If you get a job on this show, don’t block off too much of your calendar.

Anyway, Uhtred is on the road with a loyal servant and a nun. But you know, one of those nuns who is very beautiful and disrobes a lot. Yeah, two-a-penny. They’re heading for York, which is largely populated by men who look like Iron Maiden roadies. You can tell they’re not nice, because they have to say to each other things like “Don’t kill for the fun of it.” They’re a hard-looking bunch, and they’re taking an army to fight the Scots. They’ll doubtless be back nursing their wounds after encountering their first Glaswegian matriarch on the road.

Meanwhile, there are lots of monks scheming. And a very gullible Viking. And a man with some serious facial tattoos. And a woman who lives with dogs. It’s all rather baffling, and frightfully good fun. It’s no Game of Thrones (the BBC would never countenance anything so violent, boob-tastic, and expensive) but it’s worth a watch, if this is your sort of thing. Just don’t get too attached to any of the characters.

Judge Rinder’s Crime Stories, Friday 17th March, 8pm, ITV

There is an element of feast-or-famine about this job. There was a week recently that was overflowing with new televisual goodies, to the extent that I didn’t even watch the return of Broadchurch, which is one of the TV highlights of the year. There were also six other documentaries, two sitcoms, and four entertainment shows that, in any other week, I could happily have written about. There was also Harry Hill’s Alien Fun Capsule, but I’m afraid… well… just no.

If some weeks are bountiful, others see you writing about Judge Rinder’s Crime Stories. I have nothing against Judge Rinder. I rather enjoyed seeing his cha-cha (NB that is not a euphemism) on Strictly, and he seems like a nice chap. But this is... well, it’s everything you would expect a celebrity-led, 23-minute documentary about a complex legal case, showing on ITV, to be.

The series is looking at criminal court cases that “shocked the nation”. Obviously, for episode one, they’ll be pulling out the big guns. One of those trials that had us all gripped, right? Well, how many of you remember being shocked by the case of Victor Nealen?

I have no intention of belittling the case. In August 1996, a woman from Redditch was sexually assaulted after leaving a club. No doubt it was a moment that changed her life. And the ensuing events changed the life of Victor Nealen as well. Life behind bars would tend to do that. And certainly, there are aspects of the case that are disturbing and disgraceful.

But a 23-minute documentary is never going to give the programme-maker enough time to tell the story in a nuanced and well-constructed fashion, or give the viewer sufficient time to engage with their subject. Although, in saying that, I am reminded of the old, half-hour-long ITV investigative current affairs programme World In Action, which didn’t just tell the story of miscarriages of justice, but uncovered them, to quite stunning effect.

This, on the other hand, is merely a straightforward stitching together of events that are already in public record. The programme doesn’t offer anything new. World in Action this definitively is not.

And then there’s Judge Rinder. For some reason, he’s in his full on legal gear, robe and everything. And he’s striding around a wood-panelled office, complete with huge legal tomes and decanters filled with brandy. Yet in reality, I bet you he works in a modern, glass cube with nothing but a laptop and a phone. “I’ve been a criminal barrister for over a decade,” he announces importantly. Pah. I’ve got milk that’s older.

And what’s he even doing there, with his robe, and his brandy, and his decade of experience? He’s basically doing a few links between interviews. The job could have been done by a tape recorder, a balloon on a broom handle, and the all-important robe.

The best… and the rest

Saturday 11th March  

RBS Six Nations Championship 2017, 12:30pm, ITV: Six hours of chase-the-egg on ITV featuring Italy v France and then the small matter of the always-friendly exchange between England and Scotland for the Calcutta Cup.                

Dogs Behaving Badly, 6:05pm, Channel 4: Graeme Hall, known as “The Dogfather” (sheesh!) sorts out badly behaved dogs, including a 71-kilo Great Dane.

Geri’s 90s – My Drive to Freedom, 9pm, BBC Two: The Spice Girl formerly known as Geri Halliwell takes us on a personal and musical journey through the 1990s.

Sunday 12th March

MOTD Live: Tottenham Hotspur v Millwall 1:30pm, BBC One: An opportunity to enjoy this FA Cup Quarter Final.

The Jump Live Final, 8:30pm, Channel 4: Lots of celebrities succumb to the twin perils of ice and gravity, before Louis Smith is (surely?) declared the winner.

Down the Mighty River with Steve Backshall, 9pm, BBC Two: Adventurer and naturist Steve Backshall explores the mighty Baliem River in New Guinea. Sorry, naturalist, not naturist. Now THAT would be a very different film…

War Child, 10:30pm, Channel 4: Documentary following three refugee children journeying from the Middle East to Europe in search of a better life.

Monday 13th March

MOTD Live: Chelsea v Manchester United, 7:30pm, BBC One: Jose Mourinho returns to Stamford Bridge with a point to prove. But no doubt he’ll be totally magnanimous and easygoing if it doesn’t go his way, right? Right?

Tuesday 14th March

ITV Racing: Cheltenham Festival Live, 1pm, ITV: For fans, this is the blue-riband meeting in the National Hunt calendar. For others, it’s horses running in a giant circle.

The Best of British Takeaways, Tuesday 14th, 7pm, BBC Two: Tom Kerridge and Cherry Healey look at the British love affair with takeaway food, and try and find the best. Tonight, fish and chips.

Wednesday 15th March

The Mystery of the Man on the Moor. 10pm, Channel 4: In December 2015, the body of a man was found on a lonely corner of Saddleworth Moor. This documentary looks at the painstaking and painful task of discovering who he was, and why he was up there.

Friday 17th March

Scruffts: Britain’s Favourite Dog, 8pm, Channel 4: Channel 4 is having its Winalot and eating it by showing not just Crufts this week, but the anti-Crufts, a popularity contest for mongrels and half-breeds.

Wild Ireland: The Edge of the World, 9pm, BBC Two:  Colin Stafford Johnson journeys along one of the most spectacular coastlines in the world, featuring the wildlife and wild places that make it so unique. 

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