Michael Hirst has written an array of acclaimed and successful historical films and television series, from Elizabeth: The Golden Age to The Tudors and most recently Vikings – the highest rated series on History UK of all time. We spoke to the creator to gain some insight of what exactly goes into translating historical fact into entertaining television dramas, as well as what we can expect from Season 2 of the hit show when it makes its UK debut…
A lot of your writing is set in the past. What do you enjoy about writing historical films and shows?
I have a very academic background, I attended three universities and I thought I was going to be an academic. But a series of accidents led to me writing for movies and then TV. As a former academic, one of the great pleasures for me is the research. It’s diving in to the books and reading as much as I can about the subject. I find that more satisfying and real than inventing things. I just don’t think that my mind works in that totally inventive, original way, and a lot of the characters that emerge from research you couldn’t make up. They are so astonishing. It’s a pleasure to be part of their world and find out more about them. The two things I could do best at school were history and English and I’ve cleverly combined them into a career.
What are some of the problems posed by writing historical scripts?
I never find any problems, and, this is true of writing generally, if you start having problems when you’re writing and imagining then you’re doing it wrong. This is a lesson learned from experience – if you do get bogged down, lose momentum and don’t know where to take your characters, you are probably doing the wrong subject or approaching it in the wrong way.
I’ve had two careers – doing movies for a long time, and then unexpectedly being asked if I wanted to do TV drama. I didn’t know if I could but I found I really relished and enjoyed it because it gave me the opportunity to develop and explore characters, cultures, societies, religions and all sorts of things you can’t in movies. In movies the characters are just revealed, but in long-form TV and drama you have time to examine characters that can be contradictory, that can have many sides to them, and I just love it. It’s been refreshing and wonderful.
Are there any periods of history or historical figures you’d be interesting in writing about in the future?
What I’ve discovered for a start is not to propose anything myself. In the past if I ever did anything that worked out well then the producers would say: “Now we want to do what you want to do. You must have some secret passion, you must have something you’re dying to do and we want to give you the opportunity to do that.” So I would tell them my secret passion, and there would always be a long pause and they’d say: “Well… apart from that.” So I wait for people to suggest things to me.
I’m always surprised that I am interested in things that I’ve never thought of. For example, I’ve recently worked on another historically based TV drama set in 19th-century China and I didn’t know I was interested in that, but it was fascinating. What I appreciate most about it is the opportunity to enter, sympathetically, other worlds and write about other societies and their rituals and beliefs.
People said it wasn’t really possible to write a series about Vikings because they were so nasty, that they were brutish and just pillaged and raped everyone. But the more I read and understood the more I realised that this was a rich and wonderful culture that had been stigmatised by their enemies, the Christian monks who had an axe to grind against them. I just fell in love with their paganism and how democratic they were compared to other societies.
I don’t like fantasy very much, I like the fact that these places are real, that this is about real people and real events and everything I do is at least grounded in reality. It gives me enormous pleasure when academics or teachers write to me and say I’ve stimulated the study. We learn about ourselves by learning about history.
How did writing a show like Vikings, set in the dark ages, compare to writing The Tudors, set during one of the most famous periods in English history?
Of course it was totally different. There is a mass of information about the Tudors in every sense because everything was written down, whereas the Vikings were not a literate society. They didn’t write anything down about themselves, so there is a lot we simply don’t know about Viking society.
I grew up watching BBC costume dramas and, frankly, I didn’t like them. I never thought they connected to anything I was interested in – they were very stilted and stiff. People in the past seemed like alien people who had different belief systems. I want to connect the past to the present, to make contemporary audiences see that they are still connected to the past and that is not just the recent past. A lot of our laws, language and attitudes come from the huge contact we had with the Vikings, not only in England but many places around the world. I think that’s why Vikings is on in 125 countries, because people feel it’s not a museum piece. I’m writing a family saga, I’m writing about people and want contemporary audiences to engage with them and be interested in them because they’re human beings.
There are quite a few well-known Vikings, why did you decide to focus on Ragnar?
Ragnar is really the first Viking chieftain to emerge from the realms of myths and legends. He was in his own right very famous in the Viking world and mentioned in the sagas. He also had a lot of sons and to be the son of Ragnar was the greatest calling card in the Viking world for a long time. His sons, including the wonderfully named Ivar the boneless, became more famous than he was. It gave me the opportunity to write about a dynasty and to continue to explore for however long History or MGM want to continue this saga. We can go on through the sons. Bjorn his oldest son sailed around the Mediterranean, they colonized Iceland and went to Greenland. It’s an extraordinary story and I wanted to tell it more or less from the beginning. This was the beginning of the age of the Vikings and that seemed like a very good place to start.
Quite a lot of the tales surrounding Ragnar are rooted in mythology, how did you go about translating these to a real-world, historically accurate setting?
I don’t think that as a writer you’re looking for accuracy because you can’t be accurate unless you were there and saw things with your eyes. What you’re looking for is authenticity, plausibility and, if you can get it, close to the truth. When I’m looking to develop a character or storyline I send them to my historical adviser and ask: “Is this plausible? Is it authentic? Are these stories about Ragnar fantasies? Where do they come from? How true do you think they are?” It developed into my saga about Ragnar Lothbrok, which tells the story while building in some myths and legends about him.
One thing I don’t do is to go into the realms of fantasy. People have said: “In the very first scene you see Odin, on the battlefield, and that’s fantasy.” But no, it isn’t. For the first time I’m trying to tell a story from the Vikings’ point of view, and the Vikings thought and absolutely believed that Odin walked on the battlefield after a battle choosing the warriors who would go to Valhalla. So of course if you’re looking at the world from their point of view you can show that, it’s subjective vision – not a fantasy. I’m trying to be as true to Viking experience as I can be and rescue them from all the clichés that we’ve heard about them in the past. They love it in Scandinavia and that really pleases me. I had a discussion with a Scandinavian professor at Harvard who said: “This is the first time my culture has ever been taken seriously and intelligently,” and I can live with that.
Season 1 of Vikings was mainly focused on the rise of the main character, Ragnar Lothbrok, from rebel to chief. What kind of things can we expect from Vikings Season 2?
Ragnar continues to rise, but it’s not necessarily because of ambition. He’s not driven by ambition, he never really wanted to be earl, it’s just that his own interests conflicted with those of the powers that be. Ragnar is driven by curiosity, like Odin, and a desire for fame that all Vikings had. Series two concerns how Ragnar will deal with his new power as an earl, where that takes him, what conflicts that brings about. It’s still a family saga as well. At the end of series one we saw Aslaug turn up pregnant, and that will have huge ramifications for his personal life and obviously for the show. On top of that two new powerful figures will become very significant in series two. There is one extraordinary episode in particular called Blood Eagle, which was voted one of the ten best episodes in series TV by variety, so people should look out for that.