In Review

The Last Kingdom: can it rival Game of Thrones with less sex and no dragons?

Bernard Cornwell's historical drama has plenty of gore and battles, but without the 'sexplanations'

The BBC's new medieval drama, The Last Kingdom, has drawn plenty of comparisons with Game of Thrones, but is it really as good or even better?

The Last Kingdom is a new eight-part medieval drama, adapted from Bernard Cornwell's The Saxon Stories novels. Set in pre-Norman England, when Saxons were in constant conflict with Viking settlers, it follows the story of Uhtred, a Saxon boy, kidnapped and enslaved by Danes, who becomes a young warrior.

In a recent interview in the Radio Times, author Bernard Cornwell said his fact-based stories were superior to HBO's fantasy Game of Thrones, notorious for its graphic violence and sex. Cornwell said large sections of the complicated GoT plot had to be explained by characters.

"This is very, very dull. So they put a lot of naked women behind it all," said Cornwell, adding "They're called 'sexplanations' in the trade. My programmes won't need sexplanations."

Critics were also quick to compare The Last Kingdom with Game of Thrones, most of them favourably.

"The echoes of Game of Thrones were plentiful," says Charlotte Runcie in the Daily Telegraph. There's battles, gore, abuse of women, people claiming to be kings, and famous actors meeting grisly ends, "but the similarities mostly end there".

The Last Kingdom is "the thinking person's Game of Thrones", more serious in tone, with a fraction of the swearing or nudity, and not a dragon in sight, says Runcie, adding that it has "satisfyingly high production values, a bloodthirsty appetite for violence and a proper cliffhanger – sign me up".

In The Guardian, Filipa Jodelka says she is going to be "bold" and claim The Last Kingdom gives Game of Thrones "a rune for its money". The cast is excellent, for a start, says Jodelka, much of it made up of Scandi actors.

And whereas GoT is pure fantasy, this is historical drama, says Sam Wollaston, also in The Guardian. Dungeons there may be, but no dragons. "Most importantly of all," says Wollaston, "it's a ton of fun."

Indeed, it "focuses on a turbulent yet neglected period in our history", says Ed Potton in The Times, the years after the departure of the Romans and before the arrival of the Normans, when England was a collection of smaller kingdoms, beset by Norse invaders.

And although The Last Kingdom doesn't quite have the wow factor of the big-budget Game of Thrones, says Potton, "the world it depicts is almost as unpleasant".

Yet with shows like the Vikings and the Bastard Executioner lustily pillaging their way through history, The Last Kingdom, which covers very similar terrain, "initially seems a trifle superfluous", says Brian Lowry in Variety. But with strong characters and a compelling plot, this tale of two cultures colliding soon takes on a life of its own and offers a reminder that "there's always room, at least on a niche basis, for another good one".

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