Playing with swords

As a little boy Kieran Bew was at his happiest with a sword in his hand and a grimace on his face. Aged 35 and he’s still at it - these days being paid handsomely and performing for a huge primetime TV audience as Beowulf. Kathryn Armstrong talked to the warrior whose heart is in Hartlepool

keiran-beowoulfEven in his own family ‘Uncle’ Kieran has disappeared, replaced by Beowulf. Perhaps understandable. What child could possibly resist making the most of having the coolest relative in the playground?

Kieran Bew is settling on to our screens as a beast-slayer and warrior. The Sunday night star of the Beowulf, an epic re-imagining of one of literature’s greatest heroes.

It draws obvious comparisons to Game of Thrones and, with his flowing mane and rugged beard, Kieran inevitably is likened to Jon Snow – but his story is a less racy, family-friendly one – a series that those young nieces and nephews will be able to watch with glee and a smidgen of manageable terror.

It will have the early-evening territory and scariness of Dr Who – something that can send the children gasping behind cushion or curtain thanks to the robust, sometimes brutal, adventures of the tribal warriors.

Kieran is delighted that at last his young relatives will be able to watch him on screen.

“Inevitably there will be Game of Thrones comparisons because of the aesthetic but for me it is really exciting because most of the work I have done has been really dark theatre or TV and very explicit so none of the kids have been able to see it.

“This is like all good shows to appeal to a family audience – macabre, a challenging element, and some quite grim territory. There are some great characterisations details and enjoyable CGI – from the guy who did Walking with Dinosaurs.”

For Kieran the role sees a childhood dream become reality. He’s made his childhood playtime passion the day job – with some hard work along the way – and has his sports-mad family to thank for it.

Kieran is from the village of Elwick near Hartlepool, just off the A19. One of a family of five children who were all encouraged by their teacher parents to participate in sports and activities from a young age during schooldays at English Martyrs School.

“I was one of those kids who did swimming practise every night and sometimes early mornings”, he says.

“I did basketball and then took up fencing at nine – because I loved running around with a sword! I look back and think about what my parents did for me, sending me abroad to compete and putting me through drama school and see how devoted to us they were.”

He might well be poised to become a poster boy for British fencing – his skill has certainly led to big things from Kieran’s first fascination with the scene in The Three Musketeers where Oliver Reed gets his cloak stuck in the water wheel.

“It was dark, witty, brutal and magical and I wanted to emulate that”, he says.

“I wanted to be a Jedi, a Highlander – to copy the heroes of mine – wear capes! Now here I am coming back to the North East sword-fighting!

“I think fencing is an amazing sport of skill and etiquette and I have been back doing it with the British squad – only now I am a veteran.”

As a teenager, he represented the country in fencing.

“Quite strange for a lad from Hartlepool. It’s normally a sport people do in private education. But I was lucky. Between then and leaving to go to drama school I went around Europe every year: Switzerland, France, Germany, Hungary and Sicily. I was placed 21st at the World Championships, which I wasn’t happy with. I’d come third in the last international I’d been in and I was like, ‘21st is not good enough.’ I look back now and think that’s great. But at the time you’re fiercely competitive.”

He went to drama school at LAMDA after being inspired by a teacher Bob Lewis at school and a production of Oliver.

At Lamda they were ‘really hot on stage combat’, so Kieran’s skills were noted.

“They were also connected with William Hobbs, who arranged the fights for The Three Musketeers’ movies I had watched growing up. So there was this crazy connection. Just by chance I got a job choreographing and teaching the fights for Mark Rylance doing Hamlet at The Globe in London. Aged 19. Mark let me sit in during rehearsals and then they made me fight captain. I watched Hamlet about 25 times, which was amazing because Mark would do it differently every night.

“I’m one of five kids, so we didn’t have a huge amount of money by the time I got into drama school. Dad said, ‘Just go for the first term and we’ll have to work the fees out as you go.’ The income from the fight work kept me in LAMDA. They employed me to do the fights for Romeo and Juliet, involving students across two different courses, including mine. A total of eight casts. And they paid me money to do that. The head of drama once said to me, ‘Kieran, are you going to do any acting?’

“Now I go to work every day and I’ve got a sword and a cape. It’s hard work but a lot of fun.”

Kieran spent much of last year close to home filming Beowulf. A specially constructed village was created in Stanhope near Weardale to become the mythical Herot.

“The first time I went high into the quarry where they built the sets for the town of Herot, the thing that struck me more than anything was how ominous the place seemed. It was very wet and there was a deep, thick cloud hanging over the entire set”, he recalls.

“Mead Hall was sticking out of the top of this cloud and looked like something that had been there for hundreds of years. It’s just an hour outside Newcastle in County Durham and Weardale, but it’s like another world. It’s the biggest set I’ve ever been on. Quite incredible.

“Because of the particular position of the quarry, the wind rushes in. The climate essentially changes every half an hour. You really feel as if you could be back in the Dark Ages up there. You quickly realise that if you don’t have access to electricity or hot running water then you have to stay wrapped up all the time. In the first couple of months the cast and crew had nowhere to hide from the elements.

“Everybody was discovering just how good their thermals and jackets were. It definitely helped us really think about the brutality of living in a period of time where there were none of our modern creature comforts. Because we simply didn’t have any. We all had to huddle together. All of which was helpful in terms of transporting us back to a different time.”

His parents were able to watch some filming.

“They have been up to the quarry and my brother and some of my nieces came up and tried on some of the armour and costumes. It was pretty special for my family to see it and understand why they can never get me on the phone! It’s like a Beowulf black hole because there’s no phone reception in the quarry, the forests or the beaches we’ve been filming on.”

Beowulf is set to bring Kieran into spotlight. He is well-known in the theatre and had done some work on Da Vinci’s Demons. But he is not particularly well known – yet – to the television audience.

The Beowulf cast features some well-known names and characters over the series such as Joanne Whalley, William Hurt, David Bradley and Gregory Fitoussi.

The story centre on Beowulf, a man banished from the town of Herot as a young boy who has since been roaming around, living various different lives.

It is based on Beowulf, the longest epic poem in Old English, the language spoken in Anglo-Saxon England before the Norman Conquest.

More than 3,000 lines long, Beowulf relates the exploits of its eponymous hero, and his successive battles with a monster named Grendel, with Grendel’s revengeful mother, and with a dragon which was guarding a hoard of treasure. There are well-known translations by Seamus Heaney translation and Tolkien.

Says Kieran: “This is a fantasy show but it’s based in some historical fact. During the period of time in the poem of the Dark Ages certain pockets of Britain had lost the knowledge the Romans had brought. People found swords in the ground which were of a better metal and better forged than anything they could produce and so these were magic weapons. The poem is full of magical fantasy which is actually based on historical fact. But this is a human world and I think everyone will identify with various elements of it.”

“I think if you are at any level you take a moment to look around and feel grateful, take a moment and think. For me it’s like being eight again, holding a sword and wearing leathers.

Swordsmanship on screen doesn’t come without its pain however.

“I think it was Daniel Craig talking about doing James Bond who said, ‘If you don’t get bruised playing Bond, you’re not doing it right.’”, laughs Kieran.

“We’re making an action show. Twelve episodes of horse riding, battling against monsters and various different tribes of humans.

“I broke three ribs filming a fist fight in a big sequence with one of our very large stuntmen called Phil, who is a lovely bloke. It was a shoulder barge from Phil. I simply hesitated. I should have offered him my shoulder but I turned just a fraction on the wrong way and offered my chest. In the split second of doing it I realised what I’d done but it was too late and he whacked me in the chest. He felt very bad about it, bless him. But he’s just doing his job and it was my error. No-one else was to blame.

“I’ve broken a few ribs in my time me so I instantly thought, ‘Oh no, that’s not just being winded. I’m pretty sure something has gone.’ But I carried on and had to do the fight two more times. The thing about an injury like that is you really feel it the second or third day after it happens.

“The trouble is, if I don’t come to work then there’s a lot of other people who also don’t get to come to work. So I felt I had to soldier on. It happened in the third week of filming when I was looking at six or seven months’ more of shooting. So I was a bit nervous about that. But I carried on.

“We just had to slightly tailor some of the further action scenes. It’s funny because riding a horse was fine. It was the getting on and off the horse that was painful. Just like sleeping at night or laughing or sneezing. Those are the most difficult things when you’ve got broken ribs.

“It’s part and parcel of doing a role like this. In the day-to-day filming there are risk assessments and stuntmen.

“I was supposed to film a scene where I had to take my shirt off and I had been training all week. But then I broke those three ribs. We’d had a couple of sunny days and then came the day where I had to take my shirt off. I spent an hour in make-up and then when we opened the door the snow was going sideways. Our director of photography said to me, ‘Kieran, we’re not going to shoot that scene because, 1) we like you and 2) it’s illegal.’ So we couldn’t do that.

“But I had to do a scene later that day where I simply had to lie on the ground and then get up quickly when I see something happen. There was a brutal wind. It’s not just how cold it is. The wind is so powerful and when it blows at you all day during filming it becomes very draining. So the combination of the wind and the broken ribs meant getting up off the ground that day was probably the most taxing physical thing I’ve done in the whole shoot because it hurt so much. There’s not a lot of room to give when you’ve got broken ribs and you’re holding and bracing yourself against the cold. It hurt a lot.

“Yet two days later the quarry had dried out and the ground turned to sand. And then the wind came. So it became like Tatooine, the desert world from Star Wars, and everyone had to wear facemasks to cover against the dust. We were all like, ‘Whoa, what’s this? It’s a totally different thing again.’ The weather certainly kept us entertained and on our toes.

“The positive side to all of that is it looks really authentic on screen. When you see the rushes, that violence in the air and the movement in the frames adds a very eerie, otherworldly quality which I think is definitely worth those days. And it feels good. It feels like we’ve all been on an adventure as much as the characters.”

“It’s probably the hardest job I’ve ever done. The toughest shooting schedule I’ve ever worked on. I’ve been in every day. Even when I’m not in filming I still come in and rehearse the fights. So it has been non-stop aside from a two-week break in the middle when I was just desperate to rest and do nothing. So I went to Greece and Italy and lay down on a beach.”

When he’s thundering along a Northumberland beach on horseback in his cape with sword in hand, can he afford a moment to reflect?

“I think if you are at any level you take a moment to look around and feel grateful, take a moment and think. For me it’s like being eight again, holding a sword and wearing leathers.

“There was a moment with my co-star Gisli Orn Gardarsson, who plays Breca. We were going around these caves with flaming torches and swords and we just had a bit of a giggle. Because it’s like being eight-years-old again. It really is such a pleasure to do this kind of stuff.


LOCATION LOCATION

keiran-beowulfA little bit of County Durham became a land all its own for the making of Beowulf.

The poem is thought to have been set in Denmark but was written down by somebody who is deemed to have been a monk from the North East of England.

Northumberland and County Durham provided some fantastic landscapes, says producer Stephen Smallwood.

“We needed remote locations where you can see no evidence of the intervening 1,300 years between the recording of the poem and now. And that’s quite difficult to find with no evidence of fields, stonewalls, buildings or civilisation. They all have to be missing. Then you have to be within striking distance of a metropolitan centre where everyone can stay and drive to and from. So somewhere within about 30 miles of Newcastle upon Tyne was the aim.

“The upper reaches of the rivers of County Durham, namely the Tees and the Wear and the Tyne, provided interesting landscapes which were just about within reach of our metropolitan centre. Weardale has been heavily worked since the 19th century in lead mining and finally limestone mining and it provides great scars in the walls of the valley, of which a huge former quarry high up in Eastgate is one. That provided a site with spectacular cliff walls as well as moorland vistas.

“In the heart of the quarry we built Herot, the frontier town at the heart of the story. It’s in two parts. The village and the not so posh end where the people do all the hard work smelting iron. They are separated by an expanse of water.

“We also filmed on beaches at Bamburgh, Druridge Bay and Seaham. And we’ve been over near Middleton-in-Teesdale in the forest and at Derwent Reservoir, which represents an inlet from the sea.

“Our interiors are filmed at Blyth in Northumberland. We found a large empty warehouse which had sufficient height to replicate the size of the Mead Hall built out in Weardale.”

Weather proved something of a challenge says Stephen.

“It rains sideways. We spent one day next to Hadrian’s Wall where we had sleet coming at us horizontally whilst the actors were trying to act. On those occasions their hair gets blown in front of their faces. Their cloaks blow around their head and they get very cold. They and the crew can be out in this kind of weather for 11 hours a day. So it’s tough.

“Our production office is in Consett and they scrutinised the weather reports so that filming could be switched from the exteriors at Weardale to the interiors at Blyth when the forecast was really bad.

“But the fact of the matter is you cannot shoot a show like Beowulf in benign domestic areas. We’re at the extremities of known civilisation and there the wind it doth blow and the rain it does fall. The positive side to that is the series looks great.”

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