John Lunn’s The Last Kingdom: A Musical Sense of the Other

Dr Adam Whittaker, Birmingham City University

Historical film is a well-established genre in modern society and, partially thanks to the popularity of HBO’s Game of Thrones series, continues to attract large audiences, making this a medium through which much of the general public engages with the historical past. As we have discussed at many of our roundtable sessions, it is clear that directors and composers navigate the representation of the sonic past in a number of different ways, adopting different techniques to the use of ‘period’ costume and sets.

One of BBC America’s most recent TV-series The Last Kingdom, which is based on novels from Bernard Cornwell’s The Saxon Stories series, tells the story of conflicts between the Vikings and the Saxons that characterised much of the ninth century. It tells the story of Uhtred of Bebbanburg, who was born a Saxon and raised a Dane, giving him dual heritage. Throughout the series, references are made to the contrast between the Christian and Pagan faiths and the ways in which these beliefs were often at odds with one another, a tension that is continually revealed in Uhtred’s character.

In the case of The Last Kingdom, the approach towards the sonic past is noteworthy, given that it seems to move away from established historical-film clichés in some aspects of its soundscape. The composer John Lunn, who is perhaps best known for his recent work on Downton Abbey, made an intriguing musical decision in the soundtrack to The Last Kingdom that is worthy of further exploration, creating an unusual sonic vision of ninth-century England.

Lunn constructs the entire soundtrack for The Last Kingdom without using a traditional orchestra, instead opting for percussion, analogue synthesisers, and vocals provided by the popular Faroese folk artist, Eivør Pálsdóttir. Given that the series is set mostly in the Kingdom of Wessex in 872AD, the decision to use analogue synthesisers might seem a little odd at first glance, given the usual home of such synthesisers in sci-fi movies from the 1970s. However, the use of a modern symphony orchestra would have been equally inappropriate and, in some ways, would have created a sonic environment that was all too familiar for the historical period in question.

Thus, it seems that the ‘otherness’ evoked by the sense of the rather unusual sounds of analogue synthesisers was probably what John Lunn wanted to create through his soundtrack. This is neatly demonstrated in the opening title sequence, which sets the tone for the rest of the soundtrack:

In addition to the analogue synthesisers, a fairly steady drum beat can be heard that would not be out of place in most historical dramas. This is seemingly a stereotypical motif for any kind of historical drama that involves military engagement, of which there is plenty in The Last Kingdom.

Moving away from the instrumental forces, the vocal line that sits atop the analogue synthesisers and drums is rather peculiar, given that it does not seem to fit within a traditional scale and has hints of musical ‘orientalism’ about it. The words that are sung are completely indistinct and its otherworldliness quite comfortably distances the viewer from the soundscape of modern life. Indeed, the tone is very ‘nazal’ and grating, quite distinct from the ‘pure’ vocal sounds of plainchant that are often used to evoke the Christian musical past. Instead, it sounds more like the vocal sounds used to evoke a sense of areas outside of Europe.

There is clearly something outside of the normal convention at work here that situates the viewer within an early Europe, particularly England. Might this be representative of the musical language of the Vikings that would, undoubtedly, have been different from that of the Christian church in England? Perhaps then, this unfamiliarity of the soundworld goes some way to accounting for Uhtred’s eclectic upbringing? In any case, Lunn’s soundtrack relies heavily upon the sense of ‘otherness’ to create something that sounds historically distant, even if it is thoroughly modern in its underpinnings.