‘Who doesn’t want to play a hero with a sword and a cape?’ says Hartlepool’s Kieran Bew, star of ITV’s new adaptation of Beowulf. It’s the classic childhood dream – wind in your hair, weapon in hand, galloping on horseback through a mystical land with victory waiting round every corner. Which is why it’s been a fun few months for Kieran.
He’s at the centre of ITV Studios’ biggest ever production – a 12-part epic chronicling the adventures of the legendary Dark Ages hero. It’s textbook prime time telly: mythical creatures? Tick. Spectacular cinematography? Tick. A ruggedly handsome lead? Tick. Only there’s one thing particularly exciting Living North about this production – it was filmed in the North East.
‘When I auditioned for the job, I was aware that they might be filming in the North East, but it seemed too good to be true,’ Kieran says. ‘The character in our story is going home after 15 years, and for about 15 years I’ve been away from the North East – there’s a strange sort of coincidence there.’
Kieran has done the British TV rounds – Hustle, Spooks, The Bill – and his fair share of Shakespeare. A familiar face on big-budget American television, he’s no stranger to US networks like NBC, Fox and Starz (having made his name as a hunk in Da Vinci’s Demons), but he’s a local lad through and through, and his feet remain firmly on the ground – North East ground, that is.
Having started fencing aged nine at a children’s support centre in Hartlepool, he went on to win the under-16 and under-17 British Épée titles, and landed a job choreographing fights at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. ‘I started fencing because I liked Star Wars and The Three Musketeers,’ Kieran laughs. ‘It’s not the kind of sport that a kid from a working class town in the North East would normally take up – but all I wanted was to jump around with a sword and a cape.’
Now he’s back on home turf with a sword in his hand. Not only is this a big investment for ITV Studios, it’s a big investment in the region – this series will put the North East in the national spotlight. With season two already in the pipeline, things are looking bright: if they pull this off, the North East could see more attention, more money, and more air time.
‘We have so much in the North East that lends itself to an epic fantasy show,’ Kieran states. ‘It feels unexplored. The forests are dense and beautiful, and the beaches are vast. On recces the creators of the show would find hidden stone ruins and think, we can do more here – we can write more because we’ve got this incredible landscape.’
One thing the landscape was missing however, was an Anglo Saxon village. Fortunately, in the world of big budget dramas, this isn’t a problem. The solution? Find a former quarry in a remote corner of Weardale and build a Dark Age empire: a vast shantytown of huts, jetties and walkways – not to mention a 150ft mead hall. ‘It’s the biggest set I’ve ever been on,’ Kieran tells us. ‘I’d just been starring in an American network show filmed on enormous castle sets – to go from that to sets in the North East that are even bigger was astonishing.’
But with the North East landscape comes the North East climate. Winter in Weardale is a far cry from the ease and comfort of slick studio sets. ‘The weather is its own character, it’s relentless,’ says Kieran. ‘As a local, I’m used to the weather here: but out there, higher up, the breeze is something completely different. Sometimes the weather would have changed so dramatically by the time weʼd finished shooting a scene that the takes wouldnʼt match. When the weather is as unpredictable as that, you have to be good at knowing when you’ll have a window – especially when you’ve got long hair and costumes with capes and tassels. It adds an element of drama to it.’
And yet however much the North East can throw at our hero, he’s come out unscathed. Between the long days, the volatile climate and the physical toil, his childhood dream remains intact. Kieran shrugs, ‘I get to charge around on a horse with everyone saying, “Wow, you look great.” I love going to work and have someone bring me my own horse. It’s a massive luxury as an actor that you get to do a job you’re already really excited about, and then on top of that you have the chance to learn these special skills. It’s incredible.’
Surely, being a hero must take its toll? Kieran is nonchalant. ‘You get bashed around. I managed to break three of my ribs early on in the show. You can’t do sword fighting and horse riding and filming and it not be hard – but these things are a part of action drama. To tell you the truth, I think I enjoy going home feeling a bit achey.’
‘One day I was taking out a monster with a rubber axe,’ Kieran laughs. ‘The stunt man playing the monster had a protective back plate on, and as I hit him with the rubber axe, the rubber ricocheted off the protective back plate and hit me in the eye. Two safety measures and a black eye.’
Even heroes have their off days.
Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands will air in January 2016.