A: It is not that easy to answer this, except that if you understand the past you understand more about the present. Where I am sitting in now at an apartment in Dalkey just outside Dublin by the sea, I can look across an island a few hundred yards away from where I am sitting. And, on that island is a ruined church and the church was ruined by the Vikings. And, I know on that island the Vikings kept the women that they had captured in Ireland and who they were going to send as slaves. And, wives too, most of them went to Iceland from here. In England, I grew up near York, which was a Viking town and Dublin is a Viking town: the Viking’s land in North America hundreds of years before Columbus. So their fingerprints are in many, many places around the world. I mean, they sailed the Mediterranean, they went to Spain. So to understand the Viking culture is to really understand about a lot of cultures, certainly here in the west. But there are other things to the Vikings, like their relationship to nature – it’s fascinating. They had a close relationship to nature; their gods lived with them in nature where they are the living forces in their lives. I think there is renewed truth in paganism, nature, the green movement around the world and somehow the Vikings knew it.
Q: Since Vikings is your piece – you conceptualised it, you wrote the episodes – which element of it are you most proud of? Is it the costumes, the story, the settings? And what do you think of the show’s appeal to your audience?
A: It’s important to say that these shows are very much made collectively – I create it, I write it and everything but it’s also the extraordinary cast and wonderful crew here in Ireland, fabulous directors, and it’s collaborative; couldn’t be done without our set-designers, the costumes, the human areas. I’m very proud of the team. I am proud that it has something to do with real things and real people and it is authentic in that sense. I did do an interview with the head of Scandinavian studies at Harvard University; who is a Swedish professor, and he said to me that this is the first time his subject has ever been taken seriously and intelligently. So I was very-very proud that I had addressed the Vikings properly and in that way, I think the appeal of the show is two-fold perhaps. In the first place, this is all very exciting, the battles and so on are choreographed such that the audience actually gets to feel what it’s like to fight behind a shield or a wall of shields. So it’s great that the story can reach a visceral level, at the same time, it is essentially a family saga which is about a man, his wife, his children, his god and his job; things that everyone can identify with. I get people connected to these characters; interested in them and make them feel that they are human beings that you can relate to and you’re fascinated. All that is possible and that is what I am pleased with.
O: How much freedom is HISTORY giving you in terms of material and how is this experience different from writing, for example, writing The Tudors?
A: Well, HISTORY have been wonderful because they basically stood back and said we trust you – you did shoot it and you know how to do it and we know this is going to be grounded in historical research and information because you told us that and we believe that. We’ve talked to academics and we have to, so we trust you and we understand that it is a drama as well but this is not a documentary. But this is HISTORY’s first long-form drama series. They took a leap in the dark and it could have all backfired for them, but in fact it’s gone remarkably well; Vikings is the No.1 new show on American TV; it garnered regularly between 6-8 million people in the United States which is quite extraordinary. Game of Thrones played to 1.4 million, so you can see that we’ve hit the ground running. But it’s a network channel instead of a cable channel so there are many things as a creator you can’t do on network but you can do on cable; you can’t have too much explicit, sexual content; you have to be careful about how you share the violence and so on. But I didn’t think of that as a problem, I thought of that as a challenge. I also think now, that too many shows (cable shows) are sharing too much gratuitous sex and violence that is virtually pornographic. So I think that Vikings didn’t need that approach, so we’re lucky that HISTORY has backed us 100 percent. They are putting more resources into the second season which we’re already shooting now; they’re already happy and we are really happy with our relationship with them.
Q: What’s more important to you when relaying the story of the Vikings, historical accuracy or engaging audiences?
A: Well, I’m not after accuracy because it is not a documentary, it is a drama. It’s based on research but is not an educational programme. It has to be a drama. But if it leaves people to be interested in Vikings and go read about them on their own and research, then that’s fantastic. That’s certainly happened, I know. With Tudors, I’ve got a lot of messages from teachers and students. There was a huge renewed interest in the period. Also, you know, this is the dark ages and it’s called the dark ages because we don’t know a great deal about what happened after the fall of the Roman Empire, and also in Europe. So of course, a lot of what I write is sort of speculation. It begins life as a historical fact but then I push it and develop it and then I explore it, and of course I have to make my characters interesting and entertaining. So I hope that in some way, I could have combined two things; I want the show to be very entertaining. Otherwise, I’m not doing my job. But, I want people to understand that it is also about real things and real people. I’m not interested personally in fantasy which is why I go again and again to real history.
Q: Were there any challenges when shooting Vikings? What was the most challenging thing to shoot?
A: Well, it is always challenging to shoot on water. And these Vikings’ boats; those were a huge part of their culture and they are known for their raids and explorations of the world. So we had to shoot on water; we had an authentic Viking boat built and actually when we filmed it; we had three boats in the series and this season we’ve got even more, eight or nine boats. We put them in the water and filmed them going up the river, and in early morning mist and it was an extraordinary moment where everyone stopped work to watch these Viking boats appearing out of the mist and rowing in the river.
This is how most people in Europe would first have seen the Vikings – this is how they appeared. So it was difficult to achieve that, but it was so wonderful when we did. And I suppose the other challenge was to make the battles and the fights interesting and absorbing. It would be easy to make them all seem the same, but in fact tactics were different; the experience was different. I wanted people, the audience, to understand the Vikings’ mindset about what battles meant to Vikings and what they would do. The challenge was to get inside a Viking’s head and to tell the story from their perspective.
Q: What kind of training did the lead actors have to undergo to get immersed in Viking culture and to understand their characters?
A: Well, the guys had to do a lot of physical training. They had to learn to row; if they didn’t know how to ride; they had to learn to ride. They had to work out; they had to be very, very fit. They had to do a lot of training with weapons because there is quite a lot of fighting to do. Some of them already had an interest in the Vikings and some of them were Vikings. We cast a lot of Scandinavian actors because it is nice to have the real thing. And what they personally wanted to do to immerse themselves in Viking culture was really up to them. I put a lot of my research materials and books in them, and we’re available in my office to come and grab what they wanted or needed. I know some of them went to various sites of mansions in the show. So you know, there was real immersion for some of them; it depended on how much they wanted to immerse themselves.
Q: Can you give a quick elevated pitch on why audiences should watch the show?
A: They should watch it because it is one of the best things on television; I think so anyway. It’s been made by a group of wonderful, talented people and with a huge amount of passion; we all believe in the show so much. We feel that we’ve hit the ground running and it’s got better and better and richer and more powerful as we’ve gone along. As I say, one of my calling cards is that this is about real things, real people; things that actually happened. We can learn a lot about ourselves by looking back into a pagan past. I recommend it to audiences as a great watch, but hopefully it’s a thought-stimulating experience as well.