Boxset Monday: Britannia (UK: Sky Atlantic; US: Amazon)

Robin of Sherwood meets Spartacus

Mackenzie Crook and Kelly Reilly in Sky Atlantic's Britannia
Mackenzie Crook (as Veran) and Kelly Reilly (as Kerra) in Sky Atlantic's Britannia

In the UK: Available from Thursday on Sky Atlantic
In the US: Will be available on Amazon

What is Sky Atlantic’s new show Britannia all about? The obvious answer is that it’s about the second Roman invasion of the British Isles (aka Britannia), way back in AD43. David Morrissey (State of Play, The Walking Dead) is the Roman general in charge of the invading legions who thinks that he can do better than Caesar did 90 years earlier. The tribes of native Celts who once lined the shores to repel Caesar’s invasion are now led by Ian McDiarmid and Zoe Wanamaker, who are at each other’s throats thanks to a wedding ceremony gone wrong as the results of a bit of treachery, so seemingly no obstacle to Morrissey. Around them are other Celts vying for power, including McDiarmid’s son Julian Rhind-Tutt (Green Wing, Hippies); meanwhile, McDiarmid’s warrior princess daughter Kelly Reilly (Sherlock Holmes, Black Box, Above Suspicion) wants nothing but peace and her father’s approval.

However, it wasn’t just the Celts that helped repulse that first invasion. It was the druids and their genuine magic that sent Caesar running back to Rome in a tizzy. And it’s that magic that’s the real reason for Morrissey’s desire to lead Claudius’ legions to victory – he wants to visit the underworld to meet the dead and he needs the help of the druids, including their chief the 10,000-year-old Mackenzie Crook (The Office, The Detectorists). That’s something ‘outcast’ druid Nikolaj Lie Kaas wants to stop as he thinks Morrissey might be a demon from the equally demonic Rome.

But underneath that literal explanation of the plot, there is as the title suggests a deeper introspection of the nature of Britain, Britishness, change and immigration fit for our post-Brexit world. Plus a little bit of ultra-violence.

David Morrisey as Aulus
David Morrissey as Aulus

Britannia

Britannia is an odd beast. A really good one, but also a really odd one. On the one hand, it’s very good at ‘mimesis’, a ponce’s word if ever there was one, but one that essentially means the recreation in drama of reality. Although historical records of pre-Roman Britain are a bit lacking, shall we say, this feels like a good recreation of the time, particularly of the Roman army. Morrissey’s interactions with his second-in-command Hugo Speer (The Full Monty) feel like those of a Roman soldier, with its concerns about supply chains, discipline and tactical formations. The Romans are a highly trained, technologically advanced army bringing their tetsudos and ballistas to bear against a native population still using bows and arrows. They’re also a diverse bunch (sorry Prison Planet Paul), and they worship Mars and other gods, making this a war between pagans, too.

The show’s writers are also canny enough to know that the Romans weren’t the mono-dimensional brutes depicted by, say, Spartacus. Morrissey’s clear that Rome’s motivation for invading Britain is basically to tax, rather than enslave. Pay your taxes and you can get on with your life, more or less as it was before but with all the benefits that Roman citizenship brings.

Unlike Vikings, which brilliantly gave us English dialogue whenever anyone was with their own kind, Old English or Old Norse whenever they encountered anyone else…

…here everyone largely speaks English – very colloquial, modern English at that. If your mimesis breaks at that, ask yourself why you weren’t upset by I, Claudius‘ failure to cast Latin-speaking Italians.

All the same, when Morrissey writes anything it’s in Latin and the druids, although they hate writing, use runes; with each other, they also speak something that could be Welsh (albeit spoken by people who aren’t Welsh speakers, so it doesn’t sound very Welsh) or might potentially even be Breton. So while this lack of communication issues could be taken to be a bit of dramatic licence to avoid slowing the pace of the show, the choice also reflects something larger. The Romans are played entirely by British actors, black and white, while the Celts are played by a mix of Brits and Danes – the ‘English’ are less English than the invaders, reflecting the fact that ultimately Rome will indeed quash the Celts and get to set what the true nature of Englishness is, at least until the Angles and the Saxons turn up.

Mackenzie Crook as Veran

Englishness

It’s this contemplation of what it is to be British (or at least English) that’s at the heart of Britannia and it’s framed in a way that I’ve not seen since Robin of Sherwood in the 80s, which resurrected old Saxon gods Wayland and Herne the Hunter, and gave folk hero Robin i’the Hood the sword Albion and an even older Celtic silver arrow to fight the Normans who’d usurped the true English.

Indeed, even if Britannia has none of Robin of Sherwood‘s poetry, it does owe it some debts, such as the appearance of Mackenzie Crook’s druid, which owes a lot to Richard O’Brien’s celtic sorcerer Gulnar.

Richard O'Brien as Gulnar in Robin of Sherwood
Richard O’Brien as Gulnar in Robin of Sherwood

But Robin of Sherwood‘s concerns in turn stemmed from concerns in the 1970s about the nature of ‘lost’ Englishness and England’s pre-Christian and ancient heritage, Penda’s Fen being their zenith. It’s these concerns that Britannia echoes most strongly, with its druids, stone circles and holy places within nature, the (genuine) magic of the show’s druids feeling very 70s and hallucinogenic indeed. You can even see those interests within the show’s 70s-esque title sequence and it’s marvellous use of Donovan’s historic call-back ‘Hurdy Gurdy Man’ as its theme tune.

However, just as Richard Carpenter actually had very little historically to work with in recreating his ancient green religion of the forest for Robin of Sherwood, so Britannia has to invent even more for the ‘true English’ religion of its pre-literate society of Celts. Usually, it sticks with what (very little) is known, such as the use of woad by certain Celts, human sacrifice by druids, impressive stone circles which are still in their heyday here and more. But what Celtic gods we do know largely get overlooked – although Sulis gets a name check – in favour of ones that AFAIK are completely made up or ‘close cousins’ of the true gods.

What it does make up is very credible and interesting, though – it feels real and English, even if there’s nothing there to be mimetic towards. It’s also horrifically gory, so if you have a weak disposition – or even a strong one when it comes to episode 5/6’s human sacrifice – you’re going to have give Britannia a miss because it makes Spartacus look like mere comic book violence. You get to see sinew, muscle and marrow here. I’m not kidding.

Equally to the show’s credit and in keeping with the show’s complicated concerns regarding identity, this isn’t a simple “them versus us”, the beauty of animistic nature paganism versus the Romans’ cruel anthropomorphic paganism. The Romans are arguably more civilised than the Celts and what they do is simply a more efficient, mechanised version of what the celts and the druids do. The Romans crucify, the celts flay – which is better?

Indeed, the Romans follow a rule of law whereas the druids and Celtic kings basically get to do whatever they feel like, provided their gods approve. The Celts and the Romans are two halves of Englishness and must combine if they are to become the civilised Englishness of later centuries. Those centuries-old traditions? Maybe they aren’t worth upholding, maybe England has to change and maybe the new European ways might even be better…

Kelly Reilly as Kerra
Kelly Reilly as Kerra

Pacing

There’s a real magical quality to the early episodes and it’s only by the 4/5th episode that things start to flag and become a little more prosaic. But the show does pick up again in episode 5/6. At its peak, we get some quite psychedelic ventures into the underworld from iconic English sites, the battle scenes are really hugely impressive and the choices of locations and the set design for the druids’ haunts are wonderfully atmospheric.

Unlike the likes of Robin of SherwoodBritannia has no real heroes and Morrissey is no Sheriff of Nottingham bad guy. Reilly is the closest to a heroine, a would-be Boudicca before her time, but even by the end of the 5th/6th episode (the first episode is two episodes combined, so pick your counting system), she’s not had a chance to do any leading. Instead, we have factions of Celts doing unpleasant things to one another while Morrissey goes off having meetings with them and the druids to avoid war.

Rebel druid Nikolaj Lie Kaas is the closest thing to someone you can get behind, but he spends most of the first few episodes doing Jedi mind-tricks on passers-by and having fights with a nameless girl (she literally has no name and is neither girl nor woman, for reasons explained in episodes 1/2). He and Rhind-Tutt are a surprising source of laughs in the show, helping time to fly surprisingly quickly, against the backdrop of magic, violence and politicking the rest of the show offers.

Episode 5/6 is as far as my preview went, so I can’t tell you what happens in the second half of the season. But all the arrows are aligned in the right direction and the somewhat scattered action looks set to coalesce. The show makes few false moves in the episodes I’ve seen, although Rhind-Tutt’s wife (Being Human‘s Annabel Scholey) is a pretty one-dimensional scheming b*tch that the show really should be above.

Conclusion

Britannia is marvellously good fun, but with a real sense of the historic. This is no mere Merlin retread or a would-be Game of Thrones, but a thoughtful contemplation of English identity and how even 2,000 years ago, things weren’t that clear cut, with ramifications still being felt now. It’s also one of the most entertaining historicals of the past few years, with a great cast, great locations and a plot that keeps you gripped.