Prof John Robertson takes issue with a recent BBC drama
Episode Three of ‘The Last Kingdom’, broadcast on BBC2 last week was the continuing tale of King Alfred’s brave, Christian Wessex struggling to survive the onslaught of the terrible, pagan Danes.
Episodes 1 and 2 can only have offended any Danish viewers with their portrayal of the Danes as a mix of crazed bloodthirsty savages with the dress sense of heavy metal fans. Leaving aside the obvious inaccuracy in having these Vikings dressed so differently from their close ethno-linguistic cousins the Saxons, the extreme psychopathic bloodlust in their every act turns this otherwise attractive series into a B horror movie.
One Danish warlord in Episode 3 delights in tearing out the throats of his enemies with his own teeth before grinning devilishly, bloody-toothed at everyone. By contrast Alfred’s Wessex is deeply Christian and civilised with the rule of law enforced rigorously. Poor Alfred even seems to have irritable bowel syndrome – too much dairy produce and not enough human blood? The historically recorded mass murders of Danish farmers and their families in this period has not so far appeared.
However, with no Danish ancestry I’m aware of, it was the treatment of the neighbouring Britons or Celts in Cornwall that bothered me and will offend, again, those of us in anyway connected with the Celtic fringe in the North and West of Britain. It’s by no means the first time. In recent years I’ve seen Boudicca and Arthur described as English despite the former pre-dating their arrival in Britain by three centuries and the latter’s key, uncertain I admit, role in fighting against those Germanic settlers, the Angles and the Saxons in early post-Roman Britain.
Now, remember, the Celtic people of Southern Britain were civilised and Christianised, by their Roman masters, centuries before the arrival of the pagan Angles and Saxons. Alfred’s kingdom of Wessex is Christian by his time but, importantly, the neighbouring and unwarlike Celts in Cornwall have been so for much longer.
This brings us to how the writers of Last Kingdom present these Celts. Their king has wild devilish hair and a forked beard. He has two wives, one old and comically ugly and the other a seductive, Salome-like, witch who has the King’s ear despite the presence of a Christian priest. The Celtic fort and yard have an African tribal feel which the Saxons sneer at and compare with the civilised Saxon towns they know.
The Celtic king makes cheap jokes about the older queen and asserts the value of his beautiful second wife. This is frankly sexist and racist along the lines of a wider tendency in English media to deride Celtic culture as inferior to Anglo-Saxon. It’s there today in panel show guests still laughing at the Welsh and the Scots though now afraid to do the same with the Irish, Asians, Jews or Blacks, as they did happily only 20 years ago.
The primitive, sort of African village feel is enhanced by the presence of a single priest struggling to compete with the King’s favourite ‘black magic woman’. Remember the Celts have been Christianised for around 800 years by this time, twice as long as the Saxons. Yet the Celtic priest has no church and little evidence of a congregation.
Now I’m sure this was not a conscious attempt by the writers to make the ancestors of the English seem superior to the ancestors of the people of Cornwall and by extension, those of Wales, Scotland and Ireland. I think it’s pretty much unconscious, lazy, unreflective racism toward the descendants of the Celts in Britain and a similarly untested sense of superiority in some of those who identify as English. I’ve written to the BBC many times on this issue only to be rewarded by evasion or barely concealed arrogance.
Why were the Saxons in Cornwall when the two kingdoms were at peace? Well, the romantic lead, Uthred needed silver to raise an army to retake his rightful lands in Northumbria. The neighbouring Celts are an easy source of wealth. After betraying the Celtic king, Uthred joins forces with the blood-sucking Danish warlord and they massacre a Celtic army of farmhands carrying only scythes and clubs.
Again, the Celts are portrayed as feckless and primitive despite centuries of Roman civilisation and presumably the adoption of their military technology. Their defeat by those apparently more advanced Germanic, proto-English peoples (Saxons) has a kind of Darwinian sense of inevitability. The Celt’s slavouring, stupid king, straight from Heart of Darkness, suggests they kind of deserve it.
John Robertson, Ayr