Sky Atlantic's Britannia: "Game of Thrones meets the most debauched year you ever had at Glastonbury"
Sky's historical romp set in ancient Britain may be smaller in scale than US giant Thrones but it has a mad, earthy charm all its own, says Paul Jones
We all love Game of Thrones but you have to admit, sometimes it can have a bit of a stick up its arse. Lots of people standing around with furrowed brows swapping portentous quotes, even when they’re in brothels and should be having fun.
It could do with having a bit of a smoke and getting messed up on mushrooms. Basically, it could do with being a bit more British.
Enter Britannia, which lives up to its name with an opening episode that’s a cross between Thrones, the Carry On films and the most debauched year you ever had at Glastonbury.
Set in 43 AD, it’s a time of druids, infighting local tribes – the Regni and the Cantii – and, as we kick off, the Romans’ second attempt at invading, 90 years after Julius Caesar decided the whole island was a bit too mad to deal with and gave up.
Much of the dialogue is written as if we're more or less in the modern day – “What is your problem?” “How's it going?” “Things are all a bit up in the air at the moment” and, most British of all, "Well at least the rain held off" – which is a lot of fun, and means we relate more immediately to the characters, but also leads to those occasional Carry On moments, especially from Julian Rhind Tutt's entertainingly sardonic Phelan, who in another time might have been played by an uptight Kenneth Williams.
David Morrissey's invader Aulus Plautius is a rock star Roman general who acts like he owns the place, but whose ruthless brutality is businesslike rather than sadistic. Turns out he’s also not averse to trying some of the locals’ stash if it takes him where he needs to go.
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Mackenzie Crook's druid shaman Veran – with his shaved head, facial tats and scars, looking about as far from Gareth out of The Office as you've seen him – is the area's main supplier, and his drugs do work, leading to a couple of interactions with the Romans that leave us wondering how the dynamic between these two sides and the other key players, the warring Celtic tribes, is going to develop.
But perhaps the most intriguing character in these early stages is Divis (played by Danish actor Nikolaj Lie Kaas), a man who rolls around in dead foxes for fun and claims to have been possessed by a demon that even the druids are terrified of. As with Veran, it's unclear at this stage where the drugs end and the supernatural begins but if nothing else Divis has a talent for hypnotism: "Look into my eyes. Not around the eyes, into the eyes. Drop the sword. Three, two, one… and you’re back in the room."
In the first episode, Divis begrudgingly saves the life of Cait (Eleanor Worthington Cox) – a young Celtic girl about to enter womanhood who is separated from her family when the Romans first attack – and he’s shaping up to be the kind of loner antihero who could play a big part in the wider unfolding drama.
Britannia looks beautiful, gorgeously shot in Prague but also Wales, reminding us how green and pleasant some bits of this green and pleasant land still are, and how lush so much of it must have been back then.
There’s a good UK pedigree to this story of an un-united kingdom, too. It’s created by Jezz Butterworth – who wrote acclaimed plays Jerusalem and The Ferryman and co-scripted Bond’s latest outing Spectre (and you don’t get much more British than 007) – and it boasts loads more Brit acting talent to add to the above, including Zoe Wanamaker as the brilliantly sweary, no-nonsense Regni queen Antedia, Ian McDiarmid as her sworn enemy King Pellenor of the Cantii, Kelly Reilly as his super-serious, kick-ass daughter Kerra and Hugo Speer as General Plautius’s staunch right-hand man Lucius, along with its international cast.
Meanwhile, Hurdy Gurdy Man by Scottish born eclecti-folk singer Donovan couldn't be a more perfect title theme to capture the show's woozy weirdness.
While the money Sky Atlantic has spent on Britannia is very much in evidence, at times it can feel more small scale than we're used to from shows like Game of Thrones, as two-wheeled chariots trundle through fields and up hillocks at the head of a tiny group of people that call themselves a kingdom, yet that's probably how it was in Britain back when the whole population numbered less than half that of modern London.
And so what if it's a little more modest in scope than its transatlantic fantasy cousin? Britannia also takes itself a bit less seriously and has an earthy charm all its own.
After all, it’s British.
Britannia starts on Sky Atlantic and NOW TV at 9pm on Thursday 18th January with every episode available on-demand immediately afterwards