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ITV's 'mega-huge' Beowulf adaptation takes shape in County Durham

What is ITV’s answer to Game of Thrones? Rumour has it, writes David Whetstone, that it is starting to take shape in a chilly old quarry in County Durham

ncjMedia The old cement works which used to provide employment in the Eastgate area
The old cement works which used to provide employment in the Eastgate area

They’re keeping a good fire burning at The Cross Keys pub at Eastgate in County Durham for when the workers come down from the hill.

“The weather isn’t helping them,” said manageress Gaynor Irwin yesterday.

From where I was sitting, in an air conditioned office in Newcastle, it looked nice and sunny outside. But in the wilds of Weardale, evidently, it was very different.

“It’s been snowing up there on the hillside,” said Gaynor on the phone. “They’re absolutely frozen when they come in but we’re keeping them supplied with good cooked food.”

It’s quite a long time since workers descended on The Cross Keys like this – not since the old Blue Circle cement works closed in 2002, putting 147 men out of work.

Gaynor remembers the date: “It was January 25. It split the dale. A lot of families went up to Scotland or elsewhere after the cement works closed. It was a very sad day.”

But now comes respite from an unlikely source – an ambitious ITV production of Beowulf, the epic poem set in Scandinavia and written by an anonymous Anglo-Saxon writer some time between the 8th and early 11th centuries.

It might seem unlikely fare for the TV station that has given us The X Factor, Downton Abbey and Coronation Street.

Beowulf, which has 3,182 lines, wasn’t published in its entirety until 1815, and then in Latin. The poem itself – the manuscript is kept in the British Library – is written in Old English and begins like this:

Hwaet! We Gar-Dena in gear-dagum

peod-cyninga, prym gefrunon,

hu da oepelingas ellen fremedon!

In modern parlance, that opening line has been taken to mean “Listen! We have heard of the might of kings...”

JRR Tolkein, not only the author of The Lord of the Rings but a noted linguist at Oxford University, used to love lecturing about Beowulf, startling his listeners by barking out “Hwaet!” as a raucous command.

The late, great poet Seamus Heaney produced a new translation in 1999 that was acclaimed. It didn’t cause a ripple among the schedulers of commercial prime time TV, although there was a film in 2007 with Ray Winstone in the title role and Angelina Jolie as the mother of a demon, Grendel.

A 2007 film of Beowulf starring Angelina Jolie and Ray Winstone
A 2007 film of Beowulf starring Angelina Jolie and Ray Winstone

For most of the years since 1815 only scholars have troubled themselves with Beowulf. In recent years they have argued long and hard over that opening word, with an academic at Manchester University, Dr George Walkden, suggesting it has been misunderstood and the exclamation mark is unnecessary.

They are not arguing about the exclamation mark at Eastgate where an impressive set is being constructed on the site of the old cement works and quarry.

Planning permission was granted by Durham County Council in January for the creation of a set on 12 hectares of the old quarry.

It is to include a mead hall, some 20 houses, a forge and mining walkways, jetties and other associated features either side of an expanse of water. The idea is to recreate the Dark Ages.

The men shivering in The Cross Keys might smile grimly at that.

“They’re contractors and they’re here to build the set,” said Gaynor Irwin.

“It’s nice to have them here and they’re from all over – some from Blyth, some from Manchester, some from Liverpool. One of them had to go off to Coronation Street. Yes, it’s been nice... interesting.”

An artist’s impression of the finished set flashed up on a big screen at the North East Royal Television Society Awards at the weekend, where it was hailed as a big thing for the region – bigger possibly than Vera (Brenda Blethyn, star of that drama series, was in the room) or Inspector George Gently (its star, Martin Shaw, was also present and collected the award for best drama).

Will Nicholson, who lives in Corbridge and was at the awards event, has worked as line producer on Vera and Wire in the Blood and is similarly employed on Beowulf.

“This is fantastic for the region – 13 hours of filming to be shown on Saturday nights,” he said. “I think it’s really wonderful that ITV Studios are investing so much. Filming will start in mid-March in County Durham and there will be an interior studio location in Blyth. It will go on until October.”

Apart from the details which emerged with planning consent, little else has been revealed about the production.

James Dormer, who is adapting the poem and is also executive producer of the series, tweeted before Christmas: “The Beowulf cat is officially out of the bag. Shooting in March/April. Fantastic team so... fingers crossed.”

Dormer, who also worked on Strike Back, the British/American action series based on the novel by Chris Ryan (the SAS veteran who comes from Rowlands Gill), told the showbiz trade paper Variety: “Hundreds of years ago our ancestors listened to the story of Beowulf because it was a great adventure story – it scared them, thrilled them, made them laugh and cry.

“But they also listened because they recognised themselves and their fears in it. By holding a mirror up to them this story helped define them and, thus, us. So it’s incredibly exciting to have the opportunity to make it relevant again for a wide audience – to let them own it again, to let them see themselves in it.”

Since then, ITV have been keeping pretty tight-lipped. Yesterday someone in the press office emailed to say casting might be announced next week. It was “a little early” to issue the artist’s impression shown at the RTS Awards.

The gossip is that ITV has been dithering over whether to cast a big star as Beowulf, the swashbuckling hero of the piece.

The application to the county council had been to film on the site for five years. Would an established ‘name’ be able to commit for that length of time?

At Northern Film & Media, based in Gateshead, production service manager Gayle Woodruffe underlined the importance of this project: “It’s mega-huge. This is the biggest thing we’ve had in quite a long time.

“It’s 13 parts, which is great. When you start to get to 13 parts, that’s when it’s going to be sold abroad – it’s a bit of a magic number.

“There will be crew from the North East. I know there are crew from Vera working on it. There’s going to be a lot of make-up, special effects. I would think it’s going to create a lot of opportunities.”

Why Beowulf? Best, perhaps, to stop thinking of this as one of English literature’s dusty relics.

Dr Walkden, in The Independent, said of Beowulf: “It is a great story if you like dragons, sea monsters, royalty or people getting their arms ripped off.

“It is an all action adventure. It is also a story of the different stages in the life of a man. There is the young Beowulf, the middle and the old and how he responds differently, especially in his third phase.”

ncjMedia Dr David Bellamy with Mike Tweddle of Durham County Council seen in 2012 on the restored quarry site where filming will take place
Dr David Bellamy with Mike Tweddle of Durham County Council seen in 2012 on the restored quarry site where filming will take place

You can see why Tolkien loved it. We all know what he scribbled away at in his spare time.

Gayle Woodruffe said: “It’s ITV’s answer to Game of Thrones. Outlander (shot in Scotland for Starz, an American cable and satellite channel) was an answer to Game of Thrones. Apparently the BBC has an answer to Game of Thrones.”

Game of Thrones, filmed in Ireland for another American cable/satellite outfit, HBO, and shown here on Sky, is the question to which everyone else is trying to find an answer.

The fifth series of the American fantasy series, full of sex and violence, is coming up in April. It has been a massive money-spinner in a global TV market.

The activity in the quarry in Weardale, then, could be the start of something really significant for the region’s creative industries. It could see an as-yet-unknown leading actor following in the footsteps of Martin Shaw or Brenda Blethyn, to the North East RTS Awards.

Down in Eastgate, regardless of ITV’s official silence, there is talk.

“Everyone in the dale knows it’s going on,” said Gaynor at The Cross Keys.

“Once they start filming it could be like Harry Potter or Emmerdale. People will want to come and see, won’t they? It’ll be good for the community and good for us. We’re the only pub in the village.

“And I do believe they’re starting to talk about extras.”

Excitement is mounting. In the meantime the contracted set builders shiver in the quarry as the Dark Ages take shape.

The Beowulf manuscript has been in The British Library’s possession since 1973 and a digitised version is now available to browse on their website, along with some additional information:http://www.bl.uk/collection-items/beowulf

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