Britannia is the much discussed and much trumpeted new Sky Atlantic drama. It’s also the first co-production between Sky and Amazon. It’s written by Jez Butterworth, who seems to have theater and screenwriting experience in spades, but not much on the CV for telly. Not like our collective expectations are set too high, but it’s been bandied about that Sky are in desperate need of something substantial in the swords and bloodlust category as the wait for Game of Thrones will be glacial. But the people who have seen it already are split into two camps – either it’s brilliantly bat-shit or terribly confusing. Well, which is it then?
Set in 43 AD this is about the Roman conquest of Britain. This is the second time around, as Julius Cesar went home with his tail between his legs in 54 BC, and boy, despite the man being long dead, do we hear a lot about that. We meet General Aulus Plautius, played by David Morrissey, not worrying in the slightest about his accent or where in the Roman Empire he hails from. To misquote Doctor Who, a lot of countries have a north. Aye up legionnaires!
We have a sketchy-looking outcast Divis (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) getting drug-induced visions of this impending invasion while the villagers are celebrating the solstice. He’s such a weirdo that even his fellow crazy-ass druids think he’s making it up and won’t take his warning seriously. The solstice party looks amazing, and it’s interesting how the guests of honor are teenage girls about to undergo an important rite of passage, a naming ceremony. In the first episode alone women feature equally to men in important roles despite the Roman legion being 100% male. This is extremely promising. We also meet black Romans, showing that attitudes of the day aren’t anyway near as old-fashioned as we might think. Sure these characters will encounter prejudice (if they live long enough) but we see them as essential to the culture and society. Points scored here for historical accuracy.
But the party can’t last and the Romans turn up to gatecrash with extreme violence. The villagers are either slaughtered or enslaved. Our nameless heroine (played by Eleanor Worthington-Cox), set-upon before she could receive her new name and the blessing from the gods, escapes and pitches up with the outcast. So far I’ve been able to avoid direct Game of Thrones comparisons, but these guys are clearly Arya and The Hound; mismatched sulky, and enormously angry, but a grudging respect and affection will materialise in no time at all. It helps that he’s got very entertaining Derren Brown skills used to keep them safe from robbers and highway men.
The Romans are back and delighted to meet no organised resistence. No wonder. With violent clashes between tribes (in this case the Regni versus the Canti), we barely even need the Romans for the fight sequences. A wedding at sacred standing stones between bitter rival tribes descends into alarmingly creative bloodshed. Famously a wedding of that caliber took until the end of series 3 in Game of Thrones. There are famous faces under all that woad – in the warring tribes there’s the chieftain’s scheming son played by Julian Rhind-Tutt (best known as Dr Mac from Green Wing) and Zoë Wanamaker as a fearsome queen riding about on a chariot. Unrecognisable until he speaks is Mackenzie Crook as chief druid Veran, with bug-like black eyes, a bald head and a face full of scar tissue.
The Druids are a fearsome bunch, even more frightening than any of the soldiers. Their understanding of the world informs society as a whole – they run the ceremonies, advise the tribes (one princess has taken two husbands by order of the druids, and seems to be having a fine old time) and disseminate their understanding of the world; Rome as hell and the legionnaires as demons seems quite logical considering what the invaders plan to do to anyone who fights back. Goth is very on-trend right now, but don’t love what the Druids have done with their hillside commune – skull columns are a bit off-putting for most guests. Otherwise ancient Britain is a proper green and pleasant land (actually filmed in Wales and the Czech Republic). For a show so keen on Druidic drug use it’s important that the colours pop.
Britannia is a terrifying place to the Romans, because the great Julius Caesar failed to conquer us. We’re told over and over again the army are on the verge of mutiny. Despite the creepy “trees and nightmares” speech we see absolutely no evidence of this at all. The soldiers look to me like they’re all doing their jobs, and bringing the Britons to heal. The General himself is super confident, but maybe just beginning to be freaked out by druidic magic and things that go bump in the night.
I wasn’t sure what to expect at all, but I really enjoyed Britannia. It’s navigating unusual territory, somewhere between a fever dream and a history lesson with real entertainment potential. I’ll certainly be taking advantage of the on demand service and getting myself a big slice of Roman action.
Britannia episode 2 is on Thursday at 9pm on Sky Atlantic. All episodes are available to binge right now on Sky or Now TV.