Television: Pelts’n’ponytails – a historical epic that bucks the sex and nudity trend

It’s got the film-star looks, but ‘Vikings’, featuring Gabriel Byrne, Travis Fimmel and Katheryn Winnick, mainly hides them behind grime and gore

History boys: Travis Fimmel and Gabriel Byrne in Vikings

History boys: Travis Fimmel and Gabriel Byrne in Vikings

 

Goodness, doesn’t Wicklow look like eighth-century Scandinavia? Or maybe it doesn’t – but, happily for Vikings (RTÉ Two, Sunday), it’s a safe bet that nobody knows exactly what it was like back then, or precisely what Vikings sounded like. And that’s a plus when you’re watching a history-inspired series, because it’s easier to get lost in the story without picking apart the details.

The series looks chilly, spare and brutal, which is what you might imagine it was like back in the day. Jonathan Rhys Meyers as King Henry VIII was so different from the fat bloke in the portraits that The Tudors quickly bypassed historical accuracy and went for full-on romp and courtly intrigue, delivering a good-looking soap.

Vikings, which was filmed in Canada and Wicklow, was made for the History channel in the US, not some naughty-friendly cable channel, so it’s not as raunchy as some of the other historical series that have become hugely popular.

So far there’s none of the explicit sex or casual nudity (for the women only, of course) that punctuates The Tudors, The Borgias, Spartacus, Rome or Game of Thrones, and Vikings appears to be sticking to the Norse legend on which it’s based.

Indeed, one episode in and the main female character is Lagertha (Katheryn Winnick), a fearsome “shield maiden” who is well able to look after herself when two would-be rapists arrive at her door.

It’s shaping up to be gory, though. The opening scene here is a bloody battle, and Vikings isn’t out to rehabilitate the rape-and-pillage image of the longboat- loving warriors.

It has none of the narrative ambition of Game of Thrones, which might not be such a bad thing. Instead Vikings has laid out its stall as a simple story of a man’s ambition at odds with the existing regime, youth against old age.

Ragnar Lothbrok (Travis Fimmel) is the young father convinced his countrymen should stop raiding “to the east” and instead look west, to Britain, for richer pickings, even if it means risking taking a boat out to the open sea.

His ideas put him dangerously at odds with his scheming overlord, Earl Haraldson (Gabriel Byrne), who holds court during the annual pillage-planning meeting. “You shall be executed tomorrow,” he tells a villain, “after which we shall feast and talk about the summer raids.” The dialogue isn’t exactly challenging.

Meanwhile, Ragnar’s brother Rollo (Clive Standen) fancies Ragnar’s wife – so that won’t end well somewhere along the 10 episodes of this first series. (A second is due in the US at the end of the month.)

The locations look stunning, it’s beautifully filmed and there’s an authentic feel about it, from the dun-coloured clothes worn by the people, who look a bit grimy, rough and beardy, to the haircuts, which are so stringy it’s a testament to Fimmel and Standen’s film-star looks that they manage to look attractive.

The latter is a not-incidental reason why Vikings is enjoyable enough, even if, like me, you’re not usually a fan of pelts’n’ponytails epics.

It used to be that fat was food enemy number one. Now sugar is the big bad foodstuff, at least in the US, where it has been blamed for everything from obesity to obnoxiousness. (It’s mood altering, apparently.) The documentary strand Horizon (BBC Two, Wednesday) doesn’t usually go in for gimmicks, but how could it resist testing which is the problem when presented with the photogenic twin doctors Chris and Xand van Tulleken?

For Sugar v Fat the pair are willing to go on month-long high-fat and high-sugar diets, to compare the effects on their genetically identical bodies. It turns out – and this is no surprise to anyone who has read a magazine at the hairdresser’s – that neither diet is ideal and that extreme diets are bad for you.

Both doctors lose weight, but they also lose muscle, and the high-fat diet tips Chris (or Xand: it’s hard to tell the difference) into the prediabetic spectrum.

The brothers discover that what humans find irresistible isn’t fat or sugar on its own – who craves a spoonful of siúcra or a lump of butter? – but a combination of the two, and that means doughnuts, ice cream and the rest.

Rats fed on either sugar or fats will stop when they’ve had enough. But put a cheesecake in front of them and they don’t know when to stop. And it’s the same for us.

So the doctors conclude that it’s best to eat a little of what you fancy and avoid processed food – the perfect moment to shout “Tell us something we don’t know” at the screen, which is not a typical reaction to a Horizon documentary.

Class Swap (RTÉ One, Monday) seems to be going on forever. The Irish teenagers in the six-part series are followed on a two-week visit to schools in Finland, Poland and Spain, and each week they say pretty much the same thing: they like the more relaxed vibe in the schools that have no uniforms, and where teachers are called by their first names; on the whole, it all seems much more fun.

But then two weeks away from your own school is almost always going to seem like a holiday, so it’s difficult to judge, apart from superficial impressions, what the differences are.

The value here is that the insights are coming from teenagers, the people who are in the education system but are rarely asked to comment on it.

The show is also meant as a learning experience for the teachers who are travelling with the Irish students. The Irish teacher likes the idea that her Spanish counterparts are timetabled for 35 hours a week – they earn €31,000 a year – and she’d like that to happen here. The reaction to her suggesting that at a teachers’ conference would, I imagine, make a Viking battle scene look like a tea party.

One marked difference is that the Limerick lads in the Spanish school are taken aback by the number of romances between the students. “You can’t walk down a hallway without seeing two or three people shifting,” says one slightly awestruck lad.


tvreview@irishtimes.com

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