Add David Dawson to the galaxy of young British shooting stars that also includes Benedict Cumberbatch, Eddie Redmayne and Tom Hiddleston.
Fans of the BBC America period crime drama “Ripper Street” will remember the 33-year-old Dawson as tabloid publisher Fred Best, who acquired truly historic stature before meeting an untimely death in a hail of bullets.
He gets an even brighter chance to shine, however, as the eccentric yet charismatic monarch Alfred the Great in “The Last Kingdom,” an eight-part limited series that launches its first season Saturday, Oct. 10, on BBC America.
Adapted from Bernard Cornwell’s best-selling book series “The Saxon Stories,” “Kingdom” interweaves the historical account of Alfred’s visionary efforts to unite a fragmented 9th-century England with the fictional story of Uhtred (newcomer Alexander Dreymon), a Saxon youth who is kidnapped by a Danish invader but returns to England hoping to reclaim family lands stolen by his scheming uncle.
Uhtred finds his loyalties divided between the Danish surrogate family with whom he grew up and his grudging admiration for the newly crowned King Alfred, who stands in stark contrast to the physically imposing Danish invaders.
“Actually, even here in England, we don’t know very much about that time,” Dawson tells Zap2it. “I wanted to play this man who was not the cliché of a ‘warrior king,’ as so many of them were at that time. He was surrounded by all this brute force with his enemies and even his own soldiers, yet this man who was physically frail in many ways could still be the strongest person in the room because he is so intelligent, and he can control, manipulate and outwit people. That makes him dangerous to have around sometimes.”
Historians today believe Alfred suffered from a digestive malady known as Crohn’s disease, which limited his food options to a thin gruel and caused him to spend much of his life in chronic pain, Dawson says. As a result, Alfred cut a fragile figure, causing his adversaries to underestimate him during a time when most kings were strapping warlords.
Alfred, a master chess player, relished using that false impression to his strategic advantage.
“The Last Kingdom” is co-produced by Carnival Films, the same company behind a certain PBS blockbuster called “Downton Abbey,” and it boasts a look that can best be described as “spartan grandeur.”
“The design of it was just so stunning, I couldn’t wait to go to work every morning,” Dawson says. “They really did build huge, 3-D sets. We filmed much of it in Budapest, where the countryside really does look very English. We got temperatures in the wintertime of about -12 (about 10 degrees Fahrenheit). That’s what people dealt with back then. It really did add to the authenticity of what we were making, I think.”
The actor says he would welcome a chance to return to the role of Alfred if Season 2 is greenlit.