By David Hennessy
Michael Hirst is one of the leading historical story-tellers in the industry, has been a screenwriter for almost 30 years. Film credits include The Ballad of the Sad Café, Fools of Fortune, and Elizabeth, which was nominated for six Academy Awards including Best Picture. He created, executive produced, and wrote every episode of the award-winning TV series The Tudors. He is also said to be developing a feature film about Mary Queen of Scots, to star Saoirse Ronan.
“It’s very important for me to stress, because I know it’s only just going out now on Irish TV which is a shame because it was made in Ireland. Essentially it was made around the (Ashford) studio in Wickow with an Irish crew, Irish directors, thousands of Irish extras, and Irish hospitality.
“I really want Irish people want to know how important they are, Ireland is to this show. I don’t think, speaking as an Englishman, that’s being shouted enough. I don’t think this show could have been made anywhere but Ireland, I don’t think there’s another crew in the world that could have pulled off this show. The production values are extraordinary because this is a crew that has worked together since Braveheart.
“Ireland’s always had an appeal to me and I live in Dalkey when we’re shooting and I feel very accepted now and I’m glad that my contribution to the society that I admire and love so much is to bring a lot of employment to the studio and to Dublin and to Wicklow.”
Michael executive produces Vikings with collaborator Morgan O’Sullivan. The pair collaborated on The Tudors and Camelot. Morgan’s other work includes well known Irish films such as Angela’s Ashes and PS I Love You: “We compliment each other, in fact we’ve recently formed a company together because we’re trying to bring more and more big scale production to Ireland. That’s one of our intentions.
“Morgan is someone who gets things done. His contacts in Ireland are second to none and of course wherever he goes in the world, it’s fantastic. He got Braveheart because he phoned up the Minister of Defence in Ireland and he said: ‘When do you want the army, Morgan?’
“And we’ve enjoyed enormous success while we’ve been together but more than that formed a very deep friendship, a very trusting friendship, and believe me in this world, this is slightly unusual and I’m hanging on, I’m hanging on like grim death.”
Series two begins with brothers Ragnar and Rollo going to war with each other. Michael describes kicking off with such an almighty bang as “a statement of intent if nothing else. The intention was always to get bigger and better.”
The creator and writer continues: “The relationship with the brothers is core to the show because I always had in mind that this was a family saga, this was about a man who had a wife and two children, who loved his family and that universalises the story, it humanises everything. Certainly the relationship between Ragnor and Rollo is interesting and we know that Ragnar always promised that he and his brother would always be equal but that promise already has now that Ragnar is an Earl, how they can be equal?”
The Vikings were violent invaders and have always been portrayed in this way. All accounts of their activities are written by hostile witnesses: “They never thought that the Vikings could be the lead guys in a show, they were represented in most cultures as the fierce strangers who break into your house and rape and pillage and so how was it possible that you could run a show where they were the heroes?
“And there are two things to say about that: One is that I became really fascinated by Viking culture, the Viking gods, Viking society and I found it more interesting and complex than most people had given it credit for. The relationship to women was much more egalitarian than in other societies of the time, it was a much more democratic society.
“Ragnar himself was not just driven by the need to plunder or pillage, he was driven by curiosity and I’m sure the Vikings were because if you look at what they actually achieved from such a limited base: To go sailing the Mediterranean, to go discover North America hundreds of years before Columbus colonised Iceland and Greenland and so on, they must have been a very curious race.
“If you look at the lead characters of nearly all the best contemporary and recent TV shows, none of the lead characters are good or not simply good, they are complex. Sometimes they are gangsters, sometimes they are murderers, they have very, very serious and deep flaws and this makes them really interesting. So I have characters who do kill innocent monks, they are very tough guys, they are very violent, they live in a violent culture, in a violent world, they are extraordinary warriors but they are also complex and interesting and their dark side is something that interests the public.”
For the full interview, see the February 22 Irish World.