When you’re making a show about Vikings, the horned helmet really is unavoidable.
“I had to make one,” chuckles Joan Bergin, costume designer for History’s new original scripted series “Vikings.”
She fashioned one goat-horned headpiece for one character, but that’s it. Such helmets are not exactly the height of historical accuracy, but as she adds, “You couldn’t totally cheat people of their expectations. I thought, ‘To hell with it.’ “
Audiences will indeed have expectations from “Vikings,” though few stories will be rooted in historical fact. That’s because there’s very little that’s been preserved about the story of the Nordic raiders who conquered England, Ireland, Normandy and visited America long before Christopher Columbus.
They were great seafarers, says creator Michael Hirst, but not far out of the Iron Age — and illiterate. Most of their histories were written long after they were gone, by Christian monks with an agenda.
“There was a big propaganda push to exaggerate how awful their gods and ceremonies were,” Hirst says. “There’s this portrayal of Vikings as the guys who break into your house in the middle of the night and steal everything. I suspected there was another story to tell.”
That story is the tale of future real-life Viking hero Ragnar Lodbrok and his excursions abroad. “Vikings” is ancient history rarely told in a serious way on modern television: Think “Tudors” and “Borgias” (Hirst has been involved with both) mixed with some “Game of Thrones” — a combo of political skullduggery, swordplay, high adventure, epic storylines and dubious hygiene.
But this tale couldn’t just be “Tudors” or “Borgias” transplanted north, says exec producer Morgan O’Sullivan.
“We were determined to make it look and feel very different, because the culture is very different,” he says of the series, which was shot in Ireland with occasional side trips to Norway.
For example, the actors “have to really look like men, really intimidating guys,” he says.
Bergin also had little to work on when designing clothing. In the end she was inspired by both Japanese warrior culture and American Indians, using flax and dyed wool to create around 300 costumes and alter 500 rentals.
“There’s so much we don’t know about the 7th century,” she says. “If you don’t have much to feed into, it makes you work harder.”
Most Viking history on the big and small screen has been told in sweeping generalizations and cliches, including the 1958 MGM film “The Vikings,” which ended up being the turnkey for getting this new version made. O’Sullivan says MGM and producers Sherry Marsh and Alan Gasmer suggested that he and Hirst look into telling the Vikings history once “Tudors” wrapped.
History was primed for the topic. Its 2004 “Barbarians” special, featuring the Vikings, was its No. 1 original telecast of the year.
“Vikings” has since emerged as a big-budget (undisclosed, though O’Sullivan says the Ireland incentives on the Irish-Canadian production are $1.7 million per episode) epic filmed largely outdoors, under a gray sky and among green rolling fjord-like hills.
Shooting has wrapped on the first season, and Hirst and O’Sullivan are prepping for a season two. It’s hard to know what sort of aud the show will draw, but whatever they tune in to see, Hirst wants viewers to understand that while this is history, it’s also entertainment.
“I don’t think I ever want people to believe it’s a documentary. I want them to engage with the drama emotionally. I got hundreds of emails from people saying, ‘Your show has electrified my interest in Tudor history.’ Hopefully that’ll be the same for ‘Vikings.’ You can never reproduce the past exactly, but if this entertains and engages you, then it’s doing its job.”