Show under tight security as 30 million people prepare to tune in to see who lives and who dies
Television’s biggest show returned with a bang last night as Belfast’s Waterfront Hall staged the star-studded premiere of the final season of Game of Thrones, described by its producers as a “homecoming”.
Nor were they the only ones to feel that way. “It’s hard to describe all the emotions I feel about being here,” said Kit Harington, who plays Jon Snow. “It’s the place where I spent most of my 20s, where I made some of my closest friends and where I met my wife [he is married to Rose Leslie, who played Ygritte]. It would be doing my time here a disservice if I didn’t reflect on it and give in to the emotions I feel.”
The story of the warring Seven Kingdoms of Westeros, adapted from George RR Martin’s fantasy series, has become a television phenomenon over the past eight years.
It is TV’s most illegally downloaded programme and the one most shrouded in secrecy: guests at last night’s event signed agreements not to leak any salient plot points and had to guarantee there would be no use of phones or recording devices.
“I did notice coming back to the show how much tighter the security surrounding the show [was],” said Joe Dempsie, who plays blacksmith Gendry. “There’s no paper on Game of Thrones these days. No paper scripts. Everything is electronic. Everything is kept under wraps. It’s all locked down.”
The days when viewers talked of “sexposition” – criticising the show for its juxtaposition of sex and murder – are long gone: most of the estimated 30 million people who tune into the opening episode will be doing so for one reason: to find out, after seven tumultuous seasons, who lives and who dies.
Game of Thrones has become a pop culture phenomenon, watched by Barack Obama, the former US president who reportedly asked for episodes early and received them, and rapper Jay Z, who apparently bought one of Dragon Queen Daenerys’s eggs for his wife, Beyoncé.
Donald Trump ran into a spot of bother when he used the show’s distinctive font to announce that “Sanctions Are Coming”, a message that misread the show’s central message and led to a slap down from HBO. “We were not aware of this messaging and would prefer our trademark not to be misappropriated for political purposes,” said a spokeswoman for the cable channel.
Game of Thrones is thought to bring in about £18m each year in tourism revenue to Northern Ireland, historically one of the poorest regions of the UK, in addition to providing upwards of 900 full-time and almost 6,000 part-time jobs.
Northern Ireland Screen has estimated that £210m was spent on goods and services during the show’s production; most recently a £1m set was built in Belfast’s Titanic Quarter for the final season, the most expensive movie set to have been made in Northern Ireland.
The show has also been credited with boosting Northern Ireland’s property market, as Belfast benefits from the establishment of the country as a film and entertainment hub.
Ulster Museum is displaying a magnificent 77-metre Bayeux-style tapestry depicting every gory event in the show’s history from the Red Wedding to the Battle of Hardhome.
Yet while fans gathered in Belfast might have come to mark the end of an era, the show itself is not quite ready to die. A prequel series, The Long Night, starring Naomi Watts, has been commissioned by HBO and begins filming in Northern Ireland this October.
Harington has his own ideas of what’s coming next: “I don’t like to plan anything too much,” he said. “But one thing I do know is that I don’t feel like playing the hero for a while. I’d like to play something less straightforward and a bit messed up.”