Dragons, daggers and campfires. I can’t believe I’ve fallen for all this rubbish, but there you go, writes Jan Moir.
London - Buckets of guts and gore, milky-eyed ice zombies, dragons, daggers and campfires? Ugh! Game Of Thrones is everything I hate about adventure fantasy, multi-episodic TV series.
Just one glimpse of broadsword- wielding, hairy warriors with fur capelets and dirty fingernails turns me and my TV right off.
I don’t do medieval - especially not bloodthirsty medieval, complete with incest, dwarves, regular decapitations and Diana Rigg storming around in a wimple, throwing her jewels into the lake because they doth not please m’lady’s eye this fine morn. Yawn!
Give me a girl in a pencil skirt smoking a cigarette and obsessing about her married lover any day of the week. Give me Poldark, Kevin Spacey in House Of Cards, any number of chilly Scandinavian detective series or Keeley Hawes being brilliant in Line Of Duty.
But not, please, some multi-layered, historical epic with more than 200 seething characters plotting, loving andstabbing their way across a land that never even existed. Bah! What a waste of time.
That’s why, until last week, I had never watched a single minute of Game Of Thrones, the hit TV fantasy adventure series based on George R. R. Martin’s popular A Song Of Ice And Fire novels.
Why would I? The whole thing sounded completely ghastly: Twilight vampire films without the puncture marks meetsHarry Potter — with added sex and violence.
Hours and hours of all that Hobbity, Middle Earth, hairy-footed nonsense, with Prince Codpiece striding off to Castle Bleak to drink a cup of blood. No thanks, your grace.
It’s the sort of thing teenage boys watch for the fighting, the gore and the hope of glimpsing some naked peasant woman, in which case, they would not be disappointed: the nipple count in Game Of Thrones is, famously, as high as an elephant’s eye.
So, the drama may have become a huge global hit, watched by millions and impossible to avoid.
It might well be ‘a phenomenon like no other’, according to an American TV big shot at HBO, which launched the series back in 2011. But it wasn’t for me.
Then, last week, the madness came. Facing up to the fact this has become the most talked about show of the year, curiosity got the better of me and I binge-watched the box set of the first three series.
I even managed to squeeze in the first episode of the fourth instalment, which has just been broadcast.
The response to the latest round of sex and savagery was so wildly enthusiastic here and in America that HBO immediately commissioned another two hugely expensive series.
So yes, despite myself, I have feasted on the intrigues of the rival clans House Lannister and House Stark, then drunk deep of the adventures of Daenerys - played by Emilia Clarke - the Queen Across The Sea and mother of three young dragons (don’t ask).
I have come to know characters such as Hot Pie, Rattleshirt and Dagmer Cleftjaw, not to mention Littlefinger, Master of Whisperers and the King’s Hand (the monarch’s right-hand man), whose identity changes according to power shifts in the kingdom ofWesteros.
It has been an experience like no other, akin perhaps to being locked in an abattoir with a lot of shouty men and very, very determined women plotting to put their sons on the throne. Frankly, it makes the violent intrigues of the Tudors look like a teddy bear’s picnic.
Every five minutes or so, you can count on blood spurting afresh from newly hacked human limbs. The pillage and carnage is astounding. Men and women are briskly kebabed, skewered like cocktail olives, dispatched like after dinner mints.
“Some day I am going to put a sword through your eye and out the back of your skull,” snarls one character. Look again. She is Arya Stark, a dimpled moppet no more than 14 years old. There has been much controversy about the way women are portrayed in Game Of Thrones. Yet the bad stuff, the sexual violence, the brothel scenes - surely the brutal reality to be expected of a brutal age? - is compensated by a raft of female characters who are depicted as strong, capable and powerful.
They are central to events, not merely hanger-on hags who stir smoking pots at the campfire and make themselves uncomplainingly available for m’lord’s nightly urges. Although they do that, too.
As I watched life unfolding across this bloodthirsty tapestry, what shocked me most of all was this: Game of Thrones is absolutely brilliant.
Why? For a start, the quality scripts, the dazzling storytelling and epic sweep of the narrative. The very first episode opens with two beheadings, a massacre in the snow and, for good measure, a freshly gralloched stag — before speedily moving on to a witty dwarf having sex with five women in a bordello.
What’s not to love?
Also, the quality of the acting is tremendous; starting with the lowliest cast member tothe biggest star, everyone shines.
From Sean Bean as a gnarled northern chieftain to Charles Dance as the fabulously wealthy Lord Tywin Lannister and Peter Dinklage as his dwarf son (“You rancid stump,” Dad sneers), they are uniformly excellent.
The women are gloriously tough and the child actors are equally impressive. Even the dogs, who play clairvoyant direwolves, are good. In addition, the world they live in - the fictional continents of Westeros and Essos - are fully and beautifully realised in lavish sets, cityscapes and stunning scenery.
Though principal filming takes place in Northern Ireland, the series is also shot on location in Malta, Scotland, Croatia, Morocco and Iceland.
HBO spends more than £40 million on each ten-episode series, and every penny shows.
And while the characters live vicious lives of moral ambiguity - not for nothing has it been dubbed “the Sopranos of Middle Earth” - it is the age old themes of crime and punishment and love and hate that resonate with millions of viewers. Amid the carnage, social hierarchy, loyalty and corruption are examined against a backdrop of civil war and unrest.
They are the issues that have enraptured audiences for centuries, from the plottings of the Borgias, to the strategic marriages of the Plantagenets to the machinations of modern-day power couples such as Tony and Cherie Blair.
As events unfold, we can see our own history and geography stitched into the framework, from the War Of The Roses to Hadrian’s Wall to bouts of Pictish unrest.
Yes, the peasants in the north must be crushed - some things never change.
Many viewers -on this side of the Atlantic at least - also find it amusing that the characters from the north are generally depicted as trustworthy and noble, while the Cockney-accented southerners are always unmitigated scoundrels, and the posh aristocrats who rule them from their power base in King’s Landing (London, more or less) are venal and cruel.
I particularly like Queen Cersei - mother of the reigning boy king - who is played by Lena Headey as a kind of demonic Trinny Woodall. She is a woman who has taken her twin brother as her secret lover: well, no wonder.
The Danish actor who plays him is the best looking bloke in the whole thing. The pair of them are forever sinking into long embraces and plotting to kill their enemies.
Who, pray tell, might their foes be? ‘Everyone who isn’t us is an enemy,’ hisses Cersei, and she is right.
For British fans, especially new ones like me, Game Of Thrones casting is a big part of its appeal. Absolutely everyone you have ever heard of seems to be in it — or has been in it.
The producers kill off main and minor characters with unsentimental zeal.
You’ve got to keep your eyes peeled. Hey, isn’t that the cute kid who was Liam Neeson’s son in Love, Actually? Yes, Thomas Brodie-Sangster appears as a little boy who has visions featuring three-eyed ravens.
Gareth from The Office? Yes, Mackenzie Crook turns up as a savage wildling warrior from the far north. Mannion, the Tory MP from political satire The Thick Of It, is wafting about in a cowl.
Then in gallops Iain Glen, last seen as Sir Richard Carlisle in Downton Abbey, now starring as a lovesick knight tending to Daenerys, the Queen Across The Sea (remember her?), who will surely deploy those three dragons to claim final victory in the battle for supremacy at King’s Landing.
Last week, Glen warned her about her dragons. “They can never be tamed, not even by their mother,” he told her, almost cross-eyed with suppressed lust.
Oh God, I can’t believe I’ve fallen for all this rubbish, but there you go.
From being a Game Of Thrones virgin, I now understand many things. That the night is dark and full of terrors. That there is a beast in every man and it stirs when you put a sword in his hand.
That the snows are coming, the seed is strong and poison is a woman’s weapon.
Above all else, I know this. There will be blood.