Edward Christopher "Ed" Sheeran is an English singer-songwriter. Outside of his hugely successful career in music, he has had several acting roles, portraying Sir Cormac in the short-lived television series The Bastard Executioner and himself in episodes of Shortland Street, Undateable and Home and Away and the feature film Bridget Jones's Baby. Fantasy fans will remember him for singing the end credits song for The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.
Showrunner David Benioff explained that they gave Sheeran the cameo because Arya actress Maisie Williams is a big fan of his, and they'd actually been trying to give him a cameo for several years now (it wasn't just a snap decision this year). Benioff said, "We knew that Maisie was a big fan of Ed Sheeran and for years we've been trying to get him on the show so we can surprise Maisie. This year we finally did it."
Sheeran's presence brings up a production issue: most actors aren't also trained musicians and singers, so the TV show has actually cut out several major songs that appear in the novels. For example, the wildlings have an important song in the books called The Last of the Giants, which sums up a lot of their mental state about how their world is ending. The TV production team originally intended to have Ygritte sing it at some point, but actress Rose Leslie was so terrified of singing on-camera that she politely refused. Similarly, in Season 2, Sophie Turner said that what she was most afraid of filming that year wasn't any of Joffrey's torments, battles, or the riot scene, but the brief moment when she had to sing a hymn (Gentle Mother, Font of Mercy), because she isn't a professional singer. A few actors on the show were also professional singers, specifically Jerome Flynn (Bronn) and Kerry Ingram (Shireen Baratheon), so at various points the TV show had them perform songs that other characters do in the novels. Given how reluctant actors with no singing experience are to sing on-camera, in several respects the only guaranteed way to incorporate these book-songs into the TV show is to have professional singers make cameo appearances to sing them. Indeed, in similar fashion, in Season 2, the lead Bolton soldier singing The Bear and the Maiden Fair was a cameo by professional musician Gary Lightbody.
Ed Sheeran deleted his Twitter account a day after this episode aired, as he was being harassed by viewers who felt it was a needless celebrity cameo. Many professional reviews argued against this, citing that it was only a minor cameo, and a cameo by a professional musician was a way to get much-missed songs from the books into the TV show - moreover, many admonished that irate fans should take up such criticisms with the showrunners and director if they disagreed with it, not by launching personal attacks against a musician who happily responded to a request for a cameo by the producers.
The song that Ed Sheeran's character sings is from the books: Hands of Gold. A minstrel called Symon Silvertongue came up with it to mockingly hint that he knew Tyrion Lannister was continuing his affair with the whore Shae even though his father told him to break it off - apparently hoping to blackmail him. Instead, Tyrion ordered Bronn to kill Symon, and Bronn disposed of the corpse by selling it to a pot-shop that makes bowls of brown out of "all kinds of meat". The song has added irony, as ultimately, Tyrion murdered Shae by strangling her to death with his chain of office as Hand of the King - a necklace made of stylized interlocking gold hands.
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