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'Game of Thrones': what you need to know

Don't let the beards and broadswords put you off – now is the perfect time to embrace your inner nerd with this beginner's guide to the Sky Atlantic series

By Adam Lee Davies

Isn’t it just a bad, cut-rate ‘Lord of the Rings’?

Well, it’s set in a shit-flecked, olde timey fantasy land and Sean Bean’s in it, but otherwise it couldn’t be further from the hairy-footed amiability of Tolkien’s cosy, occasionally plodding ring cycle. Complex, unpredictable and brutal, and featuring a perfectly judged mix of salty speechifying, Machiavellian intrigue and thunderous action, it’s less ‘Lord of the Rings’, more stylised, sexed up, limb-lopping spin on the War of the Roses (the 15th century dynastic conflict, not the 1989 Michael Douglas film). But with more dragons…

Dragons, eh? Still sounds like ‘Lord of the Rings’ to me…

Stop going on about ‘Lord of the Rings’! George RR Martin’s source novels placed rootsy realism over mumbo-jumbo and monsters wherever possible, and HBO – in order to keep the budget down as anything else, one imagines – has embraced this approach wholesale. The remaining supernatural elements never threaten to overwhelm the drama.

What is it actually about then?

With the kingdom of Westeros up for grabs, five successors press their claim to the throne. Cue an epic, labyrinthine roundelay of battles, diplomacy, schemes, double-crossings, heroics and scads of inappropriate sex as noble steward Eddard Stark (Sean Bean) attempts to keep the kingdom from tearing itself to shreds. Everyone is out for whatever they can get, death is never more than a heartbeat away and trust is just a word. Imagine ‘The Sopranos’ with broadswords. Or ‘Mad Men’ with mead and mayhem instead of martinis and ‘ironic’ misogyny.

It’s all starting to sound quite involved. Will I not get confused?

There’s no denying that you’ll need to pay attention, but the storytelling is exceptionally sure-footed, and should easily guide you through the more intricate plot developments. Also, happily for Time Out users, many of the major locations within Westeros can be neatly transposed over a map of London, with Soho standing in for gaudy, venal, seductive capital King’s Landing; Hampstead’s open spaces and wariness of outsiders offering a handy surrogate for the distant, snooty, declining Stark stronghold of Winterfell; and the North Circular representing The Wall, a 700ft tall, 300-mile long barrier of ice and stone built to keep Westeros safe from the marauding parties of savage, uncouth Wildlings (read: northerners) and the pale, thin, wasted White Walkers (read: Scotsmen) that lay beyond.

Yes, yes, very good. Now, who’s in it?

Apart from the mighty Bean, there’s Charles Dance as chill, reptilian kingmaker Tywin Lannister and Peter Dinklage (‘The Station Agent’, ‘Elf’) in a career-defining turn as his wily son Tyrion. The rest of the cast is split between an incredibly talented and engaging array of young upstarts as the pretenders to the throne and an agreeably odd clutch of British character actors and rock’n’rollers – from the excellent Jerome ‘Robson & Jerome’ Flynn and Finchy from ‘The Office’ to Sex Pistols wingman Eddie Tenpole Tudor and Dr Feelgood guitarist Wilko Johnson – filling in as grotesques.

To be honest, I’ve always fancied getting into it, but my other half hates these sorts of things…

Amen, sister (or brother) – you’re singing to the choir! But didn’t they also balk at the violence of ‘The Sopranos’, the initial complexity of ‘The Wire’ and the sheer bloody-mindedness of ‘Lost’? ‘Game of Thrones’ is more immediately compelling than any of those, with the first episode offering up a cliffhanger so gobsmackingly daring, your other half will be begging you to immediately fire up episode two. And if they don’t – dump them! Some things are more important than regular sex.

But I've left it too late…

That’s loser talk! The third series hits UK screens on April 1, so by Time Out’s back-of-an-envelope calculations, there's still time to get up to speed for the new season. That, plus this coming series is based on the best-regarded and most pivotal of Martin’s novels thus far. Expect action. Expect scope. But most of all, expect surprises.

And you’re totally sure this isn’t just for nerds?

Well, pretty much everyone’s on the nerd spectrum these days, aren’t they? It’s not as if you need to turn into the sort of person who steals down to Shaftesbury Avenue and spends their lunch hours mooning over replica ‘Game of Thrones’ hero swords through the window of Forbidden Planet, or sleep beneath a faux-cowhide duvet cover emblazoned with the Stark crest. That would be taking it too far.

‘Game of Thrones: the Complete season two’ is out now on Blu-ray and DVD. Season three starts on Monday April 1 at 9pm on Sky Atlantic.

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