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HISTORY’s breakthrough drama Vikings has made the likes of Travis Fimmel (Ragnar Lothrok) and Katheryn Winnick (Lagertha) household names, but in many ways the true hero of the series is creator Michael Hirst (Elizabeth, The Tudors), who has single-handedly written every episode, bar one, delicately balancing the competing demands of entertaining TV and historical accuracy.
Renewing the hit drama for a sixth season, Eli Lehrer, HISTORY’s executive vice president of programming, hailed Michael as “one of the greatest writers in this era of Peak TV.”
The vikings didn’t write anything down themselves, so we don’t have personal accounts of their culture. We just think of them as grubby dirty hippies only interested in pillage. – Michael Hirst, creator and writer of Vikings
The second half of Season 5 is now streaming first and only on Showmax, with new episodes coming weekly every Thursday, express from the US, so we caught up with the legendary writer to find out more about his process.
What attracted you to writing historical dramas like Vikings and The Tudors?
History and English are the only two subjects I was really good at in school, so I cleverly combined them. I like reading footnotes to books; I find those interesting bits of information, the personality and details about people. I’m always looking for things that contradict assumptions and prejudices.
How has this series challenged our prejudices about vikings?
The whole idea we had about vikings was a cliché. We didn’t know much about them because the attitude towards them was established by and large by their enemies in the Western world. To make matters worse, the vikings didn’t write anything down themselves, so we don’t have personal accounts of their culture. We just think of them as grubby dirty hippies only interested in pillage.
In making Vikings, I wanted to show, through Ragnar, that the vikings were driven by curiosity and they had the necessary technology with boats and sunstone to facilitate that curiosity, to go places. And it goes beyond adventure and curiosity, their attitude toward women was much more enlightened than societies around them – England, France, Spain – they were more democratic than most other societies. I don’t want to teach people, but can put out there, in drama, the things that challenge our assumptions and prejudices.
What is the common theme in Season 5?
How political allegiances are constantly shifting, treaties and allegiances are being made and broken, and everyone is following their own agendas.
How did you bridge Seasons 4 and 5?
Season 5 starts with the beginning of the disintegration of Ragnar’s family and The Great Army. The characters become much more ambitious and venture out to the Mediterranean and Iceland. Brothers split up and form different allegiances and begin absorbing more of the world around them.
I always said from the beginning that Vikings was not just about Ragnar, but about Ragnar and his sons. In fact, in many ways his sons became more famous than Ragnar.
Bjorn did actually go to the Mediterranean and Tunisia and Ivar The Boneless was a very famous viking. I seem to have waited a lifetime to get Ivar The Boneless into the script – who knew the most important viking leader was a cripple, considering what the assumptions are about vikings? Ivar was one of the cruelest and most successful vikings. We are very lucky to have Alex Høgh Andersen playing Ivar; he is a brilliant actor.
Tell us about Bishop Heahmund, a new character this season played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers.
Vikings were the last pagans, so part of the brief I gave myself was to try to not explain, but to dramatise and show what paganism was and how real the clash between paganism and Christianity was.
We’ve seen levels of belief in Vikings. Floki is a complete fundamentalist and I wanted to show the same for Christianity, that it was driven by people like Bishop Heahmund – passionate Christians coming up against equally passionate pagans.
So I spoke to my historical advisor and said we need to find someone who can represent the Saxons and he suggested a warrior bishop. These were men who were the precursors to the Knights Templar, genuinely religious men who often were bishops, but also fighters. When we found Bishop Heahmund, a historical figure who was a warrior bishop, I had found a Saxon warrior that could theoretically stand up to Ivar and Bjorn and other vikings.
Someone suggested Jonathan Rhys Meyers, which was brilliant because, like Bishop Heahmund, he is passionate and intense and I wanted someone in this role that had that intensity.
What attracted you most to the idea of expanding the show into other countries?
If there’s anything real, then I want to use it. Considering how small these countries are, the impact they had on the world is staggering. That’s why the show is so meaningful to people around the world, because viking influence reached so many places. The Christians borrowed so much from pagans; most of our ceremonies are based on pagan ceremonies.
Did you find any scene particularly difficult to write?
Quite a few. Vikings is about life and death and all the area in between, so we have had a lot of significant deaths and extraordinarily emotional moments. I’m the only writer on the show and I live with these characters for years and get very attached to them. If and when I have to kill them off, it is a huge moment for me.
For instance, Travis [Fimmel] and I spent a long time together talking through the death of Ragnar Lothbrok. We talked about what he would say and how that would happen. We talked and fought about it – it was a passionate engagement. The most emotional moment for me however was in Season 1 when Ragnar is on a beach lamenting the death of his daughter Gyda. I have daughters and I imagined giving that speech myself. Travis has no children but nevertheless was wonderful, lyrical and full of feeling and emotion when delivering that speech.
What was it like filming that last scene with Travis?
My memory is of Travis suspended in a cage in the mountains in Ireland, in pouring rain, howling wind, in winter, with everyone freezing cold and Travis hitting the sides of cage shouting “I HATE MICHAEL HIRST!” It was an emotional moment.
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