It seems inevitable that Sky Atlantic’s new show about the Roman invasion of Britain – with its sex, brutal violence, earthiness and sheer scale – would be compared with Game of Thrones. But Britannia star David Morrissey insists it’s a “very different world”.
Speaking to RadioTimes.com on the fiercely chilly Czech set, fresh off the back of his noble steed, Morrissey dismissed the idea that the dramas are alike. “I don’t know about that,” he said, shaking his head. “I think it certainly has that mud and dirt. I don’t know whether it has the dragon-y stuff of Game of Thrones. It’s a very different world, really.”
Britannia might not have “dragon-y stuff” but it certainly has an element of fantasy, with magical Druids claiming to speak for the gods. Writer Jez Butterworth told British Vogue the idea for the series was inspired by taking psychedelics. “I remember the first few times I took mushrooms, I saw a lot of images that I recognised from cultures from a long time ago. It’s like this connection to the past, a way of envisioning that struck me as fundamental to the series.”
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Morrissey, who plays Roman general Aulus in the series, added that “although it has an element of drama about it, [Britannia] is rooted in something that actually happened.
“It’s about our soil and that’s what I love about the show. It’s about our land and that’s really important.”
This view was echoed by producer Rick McCallum. Despite the show being epic in size for a Sky drama (drones fitted with aerial cameras to capture the striking sets were buzzing overhead when we spoke) he said it would not rival or emulate Game of Thrones. “There’s no way we could compete with them in terms of the scale and everything else,” he explained.
“They set a standard that we know we could never achieve because, I mean, the budget is like 10 times as much. I think they’re about $25m dollars an episode [the figure $15m has been widely reported], so it’s impossible.”
“We have to fight it in language and humour,” he added. “That’s the only way we can compete.”
This said, it’s not hard to see where the comparison is rooted. In Britannia’s opening episode, bloody battle and murder abound. There are close ups of daggers slicing through necks, general carnage and chaos and squelching sound effects all over the place.
As with Game of Thrones, the cast went through countless hours of stunt training. Morrissey’s co-star Stanley Weber, who plays a warrior in the Cantii tribe, told us he was carted off to hospital to get stitches after injuring his finger during a sword fight. And as we walked through the set after lunch, we came across a troupe of burly Czech stuntmen sparring with giant knives in preparation for their next scene.
Annabel Scholey, who plays the queen-in- waiting for the Cantii throne, even said she watched a few fights between Game of Thrones’s Lena Headey and Natalie Dormer to “see the tone they’d gone for”.
But the thing Game of Thrones is most notorious for is killing off major characters halfway through a series. Britannia star Julian Rhind-Tutt admitted: “On every page of the script, I don’t know if I’m going to get killed, which has an impact on my mortgage.” So don’t be surprised if there are a few premature deaths in Britannia, too…
Britannia begins on Thursday 18th January at 9pm on Sky Atlantic