MICHAEL Hirst is the man behind TV hit Vikings, the epic historical drama which has hooked viewers in more than 200 countries.

He also wrote TV’s The Tudors, about Henry VIII and his six wives, films including Elizabeth, starring a Bafta-winning Cate Blanchett, and produced The Borgias, starring Jeremy Irons. When it comes to turning chapters of history into compelling, popular drama, Michael has the Midas touch. And he owes much to a young history teacher at Bradford Grammar School.

“He had a huge impact on my life and career,” says Michael. “He joined the school from university when I was in lower sixth. He noticed I was listening to his lessons with ‘sceptical interest’ and asked me what books I read. I confessed I was more interested in getting into the Leeds United first team - at the time I was a Leeds United Junior, in the late 60s that was a timely ambition to have! He thought it possible I might have a somewhat more intellectual capacity and gave me Jean-Paul Sartre’s Roads to Freedom trilogy to read. That was the beginning of my interest in books.

“I do remember, as a younger boy, giving the class an illustrated lecture on Custer’s Last Stand, which I must have dramatised somewhat, proving at the very least I had a lively imagination - surely the first pre-requisite of the budding writer?”

Next month Bradford-born Michael is in the city to talk about his 40-year career. The event, a highlight of Bradford City of Film’s 10th anniversary programme, is part of the Screen Talk series, putting the spotlight on leading figures in TV and film.

Inspired by tales of the Norsemen of early medieval Scandanavia, Vikings focuses on Ragnar Lothbrok, legendary Norse hero and scourge of England and France. The gripping saga, starring Gabriel Byrne, was the History Channel’s first serialised drama. A sixth series is due this autumn.

So how did an academic, who’d spent 10 years at various universities, including Oxford, end up writing TV drama? “My career was an accident,” says Michael. “Somewhere down the line I happened to meet the extraordinary film-maker, Nic Roeg. He read some of my short stories and said he wanted to work with me. I had no idea how to write a film script. He said: ‘That’s perfect. No bad habits.’ So we wrote a script together. The first scenes I wrote he actually threw out of the window, because they bored him, and told me I had to ‘astonish him’. He died last year and I’m still trying to astonish him.”

What are the challenges of adapting historical material for film and TV? “I try to strike a balance between authenticity and appealing to a modern audience,” says Michael. “My intention is always to connect the past to the present; to make issues and passions that preoccupied people in the past resonate with contemporary audiences. History is a continuum, after all; as TS Eliot suggested: ‘Perhaps time past, and time future, is all contained in time present’. I believe that.

“History is packed with great characters. From a dramatist’s point of view, the important thing is that we know where they came from, and ended up. Is Boris Johnson a great historical character? We won’t know for some time. (Probably not, but I’m just saying!) I like ‘understanding’ the flow of cultural and political currents, and having some sort of overview. I don’t have that of contemporary life.”

How involved is he in filming? “I was a show-runner, as well as the only writer, on both The Tudors and Vikings so I did, in theory, have a hands-on role over every aspect of production, including casting, costume and music,” says Michael. “But I like to collaborate - and I was working with truly gifted and brilliant people. I would never dream of telling a director how to shoot a scene, although I gather that many American show-runners do just that! I think it’s better to have all the people around you as deeply invested in the show as possible.”

When he’s busy writing at his desk, or throwing himself into research, does he have a vision of how it will all look on screen? “I usually don’t have a specific vision of any new series although I’m obsessed with making the ‘look’ as authentic as possible,” he says. “For Vikings, heads of department were dispatched to Scandinavia to study how clothes, boats, kitchen utensils etc were made in early medieval times. We hired a Swedish director, Johan Rencke, who could inform us of the right colour palette for the show. And although we shot most of it in Ireland we sent a camera crew to Norway to do some ‘wild shooting’ of fjords and mountains to integrate with ancient Irish landscapes.”

Before he begins to write, Michael undergoes a “very lengthy” research process: “I don’t access primary sources (my Latin is poor, despite BGS), but my historical adviser, Justin Pollard, does. He has worked with me since Elizabeth. I never ask him if something I’ve written is “historically correct”, because no-one can possibly know that, but I do ask if it seems authentic, plausible and truthful.

“When we were looking for our central character, Justin suggested Ragnar Lothbrok - the “first Viking leader to emerge from the mists of myth and legend”. I wanted to start at the beginning of the so-called ‘Viking Age’ so Ragnar was a perfect fit. He has his own saga, and most historians concede he was almost certainly real. His sons certainly were!”

Vikings has done much to overturn the ‘raping and pillaging’ stereotype they’ve been saddled with over the centuries. “Even the most cursory of research reveals that they were a fascinating culture,” says Michael. “Their attitude towards women was far more progressive than societies in Saxon England. Women could divorce, own their own houses, fight beside menfolk, and rule. They were also a democratic meritocracy, judging rulers on how well they supported and enriched their people.

“Above all, I loved their paganism. The sagas tell stories of gods who were so different from the Christian God. Odin, Thor, Frey and Freya were human. Their stories are strange, but fantastic and believable. I couldn’t have written the show without this ‘spiritual’ aspect of Viking life.”

Was he prepared for its global success? “I thought it had a fair chance of success because the very word ‘Vikings’ has universal recognition. There’s nothing niche about the Vikings. They travelled to most places around the globe, and left their mark in many,” he says. “When we were first selling the show to the History Channel in New York I said: ‘Walk for two blocks around this office and you’ll encounter at least 200 people with Viking DNA’. In Yorkshire, many of us carry it still. Our village names are redolent of these great explorers and ship-builders. York was their capital, as it is ours.”

Would he set a show in Bradford? “I’m really proud that my old city is now City of Film. When I was growing up, frankly, Bradford was rather a grim place; great limestone civic buildings grimed by years of pollution and neglect. There wasn’t much of what one could call “culture” anywhere. My grandfather was a textile designer at one of the woollen mills in Bradford, I visited him in the Sixties and was struck by the women working the great looms. You had to scream to make yourself heard, as a boy that frightened me. Of course, we all knew Hockney came from Bradford but I also remember that the Hockney painting in the school corridor was spattered with ink by art-loving sixth-formers.

“I’m inclined to write something about Bradford - possibly about my own family. The Hirsts are part of the very fabric of the city, we owned mills, bridges and a large house called Low Moor up in Clayton, where the family vault is. Now only the stone lions on the gateposts survive. In the 18th Century Colonel Tom Hirst had his own private army of dragoons and I’m sure the Hirsts would have fought for General Fairfax during the siege of Bradford in the Civil War. Bradford is pregnant with history. It should be excavated.”

What sets apart Vikings from shows like Game of Thrones is that there’s no fantasy element. Its gory battles, religious conflict and compelling characters are depicted in a naturalistic way. “I prefer the reality of Vikings,” says Michael. “We do as little green-screen shooting as possible. Our actors ride, row and go to war in real time. The thing about fantasy is it can be entertaining, but is meaningless because anything can happen. It doesn’t have to obey laws of nature or biology. I’m proud that Vikings is essentially a story of real people who did real things and affected not only our history, but the way we live now.”

The show’s female Viking warriors fight alongside men - they’re not just there to look pretty in plaits. Michael has given central, important roles to women characters. “I rejected the idiotic prejudice of historians who refused to believe that shield-maidens could fight in the Viking shield-wall. The discovery that that totemic grave of the Viking “warrior”, discovered with his weapons in a grave in Scandinavia several decades ago, was actually the grave of a woman warrior, justified my stance. Just shows you - historians can be as bigoted, prejudiced and wrong as anyone else!”

* Michael Hirst is at the Alhambra Studio, Thursday, October 3. Tickets are free but must be booked at bradford-city-of-film.com