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Laid-back fantasy

This is how heavily Game of Thrones (Sky Atlantic, Monday) is being promoted: the preview discs came with a big, wider than A4, stiff-backed glossy book containing pictures of the actors and the settings, plus a glossary and a guide to the programme’s fantasy land — more than any lonely schoolboy in his bedroom could wish for.

23 April 2011

12:00 AM

23 April 2011

12:00 AM

This is how heavily Game of Thrones (Sky Atlantic, Monday) is being promoted: the preview discs came with a big, wider than A4, stiff-backed glossy book containing pictures of the actors and the settings, plus a glossary and a guide to the programme’s fantasy land — more than any lonely schoolboy in his bedroom could wish for.

This is how heavily Game of Thrones (Sky Atlantic, Monday) is being promoted: the preview discs came with a big, wider than A4, stiff-backed glossy book containing pictures of the actors and the settings, plus a glossary and a guide to the programme’s fantasy land — more than any lonely schoolboy in his bedroom could wish for.

But this is not just aimed at lonely schoolboys, though I’m sure plenty will watch it. The notion is that GoT reinvents the genre for everyone. There are no hobbits, no men in boarskin tabards saying, ‘My Lord, the Tharg-men of the Ultimate Kingdom are even now assailing our lands beyond the Great Mire.’ Nothing — well, almost nothing — is supernatural. It could even, conceivably, be an approximate account of how people lived in Britain in medieval times, though people speak in modern, demotic English, if perhaps a little too laid back at times. In an early scene, someone stumbles across a mini-massacre in a wood. ‘One lot steals a goat from another lot, and before you know it…’

The series, ten one-hour episodes, is made by HBO in America, the company best known for The Wire and The Sopranos, and for adding the sex that regular network television cannot provide. Whereas CBS was fined nearly a quarter of a million pounds (later overturned) for accidentally showing part of Janet Jackson’s breast, HBO can get away with explicit stuff which, if not hard-core porn, would cost you a fiver or so to watch in your hotel bedroom.


Yet it does seem awfully silly at times. You cannot do this fantasy malarky without evoking memories of Gormenghast and Tolkien, and the more seriously you take it, the less like a French and Saunders spoof it seems, the dafter it all is. There are men with helmets shaped like dragons’ heads. No communication comes by sweat-streaked messenger but is delivered by a raven. The women, lacking Pantene Pro-V, may have hair that’s on the straggly side, but they still wear lustrous lipstick in a range of luscious medieval colours. People come out with lines such as ‘a Dothraki wedding without at least three deaths is considered a dull affair’.

Even the setting is business as usual. A kingdom is ruled by many houses, including House Stark — in itself a reminder of the Starkadders at Cold Comfort Farm. At the Starks’s pad the motto is ‘Winter is Coming’, which is what my old auntie used to say much of the year, and is frankly inferior to the mottos used by the other houses, such as ‘Ours is the Fury’ and ‘Hear Me Roar’.

Sean Bean (how do foreigners know it’s not pronounced ‘Sheen Bawn’, eh?) plays Eddard Stark, the misspelt boss of the House of Stark. He is a complex, three-dimensional figure, which we glean from the fact that early on he beheads a teenage boy with one blow of his mighty sword (called ‘Ice’; in fantasy land, swords always have names), and soon afterwards is dishing out cuddly wolf cubs — sorry, ‘direwolf’ cubs — to his children. His best friend is the king of the whole caboodle, played by Mark Addy, who is meant to look stern and terrifying, with just a glint of humour, though reminds us of Ricky Tomlinson in The Royle Family, if without the catchphrase ‘my arse’. Bean comes from Sheffield and Addy from York, so when they chat the conversation resembles Monty Python’s northern businessmen: ‘Looxury! We ’ad ’ot gravel for breakfast and were grateful…’

The programme notes say proudly that GoT was shot ‘in Belfast and Malta’, which seems even sillier because, while the coast of the Six Counties may be great for shots of cliff-top shagging, I could not help thinking that since the Troubles wound down the most lethal object in Northern Ireland these days is the dreaded Ulster Fry with added potato bread.

Oh, the CGI special effects are tremendous, and the acting hovers just on the right side of laugh-out-loud ludicrous, and the women are beautiful and the beards as shaggy as Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s hair, yet the bubble of laughter can’t be kept down for long. But, in the words of Miss Jean Brodie, ‘For those who like this kind of thing, this is the kind of thing they like.’

I liked more Secrets of the Arabian Nights (BBC4, Thursday), in which Richard E. Grant — who once played that other great fantasy figure Withnail — described the source and influence of the One Thousand and One Nights, which has probably resonated more with us in the West than any amount of medieval head-slashing fantasy. Viz., Ali Baba, Sinbad, Aladdin. Mind you, the Victorians cut out all the lavish sex from the original. Maybe HBO could do it next, unexpurgated. With extra ravens.


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