Sex, violence and intricate plotting has made Game Of Thrones a ratings triumph. Jimi Famurewa visited the set of Season 2 of this year’s most anticipated drama
Inside a chilly warehouse on a wind-battered October afternoon, ShortList is facing down what appears to be a man with his scalp messily ripped off. On the floor next to him lie the dismembered remains of a horse and dangling from a nearby shelf are blood-crusted entrails, a necklace made of hacked-off ears and an unidentifiable muddied limb.
The rest of the vast hangar-style space is given over to an endless treasure trove of dusty bowls, folded fabrics, stacked ornate furniture, skulls speckled with candle wax and an entire section of ornaments ominously labelled ‘brothel’.
It might seem like we’ve stumbled into a particularly strange Ikea, but the items are just eerily realistic props. And in the network of vacated Belfast buildings where the Titanic was completed, another gargantuan project — with far better prospects — is underway.
Welcome to a place where ‘prop cupboards’ are the size of football pitches. Welcome to the world of Game Of Thrones. Ever since the series (based on George RR Martin’s doorstopping fiction saga about life and death in a vaguely recognisable ancient kingdom) roared on to screens last spring it’s been a bona fide, blood-sopped phenomenon. It scored Sky Atlantic’s highest ratings, won the gigantically talented 4ft 5in actor Peter Dinklage a Golden Globe, is HBO’s fastest-selling DVD and even inspired a recent ‘couch gag’ on The Simpsons.
Now, less than a year later, it’s back for a second outing. And as the cavernous cluster of warehouses, costume workshops, armouries, dog kennels and enormous sets proves, it’s even bigger than ever.
“What they’re trying to achieve is monumental,” says Irish actor and new cast member Liam Cunningham. “It’s like The Godfather meets Middle Earth. There’s intrigue and jealousy and it rewards an audience that pays attention. Plus it’s set against a backdrop with f*cking dragons.”
It’s a summary of the show that’s hard to argue with and it hits on another pertinent point. This isn’t the story of an angst-ridden Jersey Mob boss or a twist-filled yarn set on a desert island.
So, how did a tale of sorcery, medieval swordplay and mystical beasts shed the geeky baggage of the fantasy genre to become one of the most talked-about US TV imports in recent memory?
LET BATTLE COMMENCE
The day before our macabre prop tour, we visited one of the rural, mist-shrouded spots that has seen Belfast and its surrounding area become a favoured location for Medieval projects such as boisterous fantasy spoof Your Highness. The lush vistas of Peter Jackson’s New Zealand without the long-haul flight, if you will. The scene being filmed today concerns the raging war that drives the action in Season 2. Tents have been put up and intricate banners are flapping in the wind on the end of spears to form the camp of Robb Stark (Scottish actor Richard Madden) as he takes on the powerful Lannister family. It’s an impressive transformation — with crewmembers on walkie-talkies providing the only evidence that it’s the 21st century — but it’s only the tip of an exhaustively researched iceberg.
“We built a castle wall that was 35ft high and 650ft long,” explains construction manager Tom Martin. “We’ve overhauled ships and built fibreglass skiffs that were lifted over [stunt performers’] heads as flying arrows and pots of boiling oil were thrown at them.”
Four months later, drawing enthusiastically on a cigarette in a London hotel room, Cunningham remembers these war scenes with equal fondness. But he also reveals that there’s some trickery at play. “We’ve got a big, incredibly impressive boat and there’s lots of leaning about and getting sprayed with hoses,” he reveals. “Lots of it is mirrors, though. And thank God for computers, that’s all I can say.”
Alfie Allen, who is back in an expanded role as cunning warrior Theon Greyjoy, is another actor relishing the extra buckets of gore added to an already violent show. “It’s fun, dude,” he says, with a grin. “The more the better, we should push it as far as we can. In the first series, [a character’s] throat was ripped out and it was so amazing.”
NANDO’S AND NUDITY
This bloodthirsty battle for power plays a huge role in this second batch of episodes. Cunningham, no stranger to a sword, having appeared in Centurion and short-lived Arthurian TV drama Camelot, plays former smuggler Davos Seaworth, advisor to one of the kings with a legitimate claim to the throne. So did he plough through the six novels? Erm, not quite.
“I deliberately didn’t,” he admits. “I’m playing what’s in the script, and with the density of them, apart from anything, it’d be a real pain in the arse. Plus I’m a slow reader, it takes me a f*cking hour to read a page. I read The Lord Of The Rings and it f*cking nearly killed me.”
Some cast members may have balked at diving headfirst into the fantasy world, but Allen typed his character’s name into Google (“The fans hate my character. I’ve got some fanmail though. No dirty pants or anything, either”), devoured the books and even changed his physique. Was this down to the show’s abundant, headline-grabbing nudity? “Yeah, I couldn’t wait for [those scenes] to be over. I transformed my body for this,” he says shyly. “There was a shirtless scene we were waiting to shoot for two days, so I was on a diet of just Nando’s, seriously working out, doing sit-ups in my trailer, everything. They came in at the end of the day and said we weren’t going to do the scene for another two weeks. I couldn’t believe it.”
Back in Belfast, we’re being shown an element of Game Of Thrones that earns nearly as much coverage as the sex scenes. Not only is there a bulging section of clothes marked ‘dead characters’ costumes’ but an entire shelf has been given over to troublingly accurate, latex severed heads. The first season featured rug-pulling, fan-angering deaths. Are Cunningham and Allen, despite what happens in the books, worried about being bumped off?
“That’s what Wikipedia is for,” laughs Cunningham with a wink. But Allen reveals show creators David Benioff and DB Weiss played a morbid prank on him.
“They sent me a script for the last episode that said ‘Theon dies’,” he remembers. “I was really shy and polite about it, and three weeks later, after people had obviously been saying they should tell me it was a joke, they rang me. I was on a beach in Ibiza nearly sobbing and they were like, ‘Did you seriously think we were going to let you go?’ Oh God, I was so happy.”
Allen’s blind acceptance of his fate is a decent reminder of how giddily unpredictable Game Of Thrones is. A gratifyingly brutal show that’s taken themes more readily associated with the atmosphere found in Games Workshop and turned them into a formula for compelling drama. As our time comes to
an end, Cunningham gives us his theory about the show’s success. “The violence is extreme, the sex is extreme, but so is the drama,” he says. “We’re saying, take the phone of the hook, put the baby to bed and we’ll give you an hour of challenging, entertaining stuff.” If that doesn’t get you storming the battlements of your sofa when the new series hits, we don’t know what will.
Game Of Thrones Season 2 starts on Sky Atlantic HD, 2 April at 9pm; Season 1 is out on DVD and Blu-ray now