It’s usually the case that the further back in time you go, the worse things get for gender equality. That is, unless you go all the way back to 43AD. Sky Atlantic’s new epic series Britannia is unique in that it’s a historical drama set in a non-patriarchal society, where women are equal to – and sometimes more powerful than – men.
When the Roman army arrives to crush the island’s Celtic heart once and for all, after the failure of Julius Caeser, they find a land ruled over by warrior kings and queens.
One of such queens is the Celtic monarch Antedia, played by Zoë Wanamaker. Speaking to RadioTimes.com on set, she said that when creator Jez Butterworth offered her the part he described her character as “an angry queen”, to which Wanamaker responded: “Well, there’s a queue isn’t there! In Soho!”
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Queen Antedia is fierce, unforgiving and full of hatred. Her people, the Regnis, have a bitter and bloody rivalry with the Cantii tribe. When we met Wanamaker in a frosty field just outside of Prague, she was sporting a shock of white hair and had just come from filming a scene in her wooden fortress, surrounded by the skulls of large mammals and decapitated human heads on sticks.
As we watched a scene in which Wanamaker let out a blood-curdling howl and dropped to her knees, make-up and hair designer Deb Watson described her as “an extraordinarily spunky woman” – and she didn’t just mean Antedia.
Another leading lady in the series is Kerra, played by Kelly Reilly. She is the rebellious daughter of the King of the Cantii (Ian McDiarmid) and the arch-rival of Queen Antedia. “I know that my character in another drama would have been a man,” Reilly said, wrapped in robes and shawls to protect her from the icy Czech wind. “It would have been the son that was the tearaway, not the daughter.”
Reilly did her own stunts for Britannia, which included fighting off the Regni tribe on horseback. Producer Rick McCallum told us that “Kelly Reilly is one of the best actresses I’ve ever seen on a horse”.
Someone who is more intent on sitting on the Cantii throne than on a horse is Amena. She has two husbands wrapped around her little finger, one of whom she uses simply as a “toy” (Lindon, played by the impossibly handsome Stanley Weber). The actress behind Amena, Annabel Scholey, admitted: “It’s great for women this series”.
On what it’s like to portray a warrior woman, Scholey grinned: “It’s so refreshing… absolutely amazing, liberating.”
She revealed how it makes a big change from playing Shakespearian women, which she is well-versed in, who lived in a world where they were very much considered the weaker, fairer sex.
In contrast, said Scholey, “Britannia’s women were thought upon as goddesses. The moon is female and in the Pagan times the woman was celebrated much more.
“It’s been really interesting for us to be able to play that.”
Britannia begins on Thursday 18th January at 9pm on Sky Atlantic