When first you lay eyes upon Britannia, it’s a little too easy to dismiss it as some kind of charmingly low-rent Game of Thrones, ancient Britain on a budget, populated by drugged-out festival goers purporting to be Druids, Romans wanting to take it all for themselves (and going tripping with the Druids — and frankly, why wouldn’t you?) and tribes like the Cantii and the Regni battling it out amongst themselves so fiercely that General Aulus Plautius (David Morrissey), who leads the force of Rome, could save himself a great deal of time and stress by just sitting back and letting them have at it.
And then you realise, as you happily wallow in all the faux-historical melodrama generated by witches brew of weirdly off-the-charts rivalry, that there’s a great deal of narrative substance percolating away under all the agonised looks, pagan debauchery and imperial manoeuvring.
So much so, in fact, that while the show can seem a little over-wrought and wacko, it’s also compelling viewing in its own strange way, a fantasy drama with historical moorings that is less concerned with being accurate to a documentarian fault than being damn entertaining.
In so doing it brings history alive, and if you’re a history buff like me, it will have you scurrying to the likes of Mary Beard and Bettany Hughes faster than you can type “Were the druids really that malnourished and off with the mushroom-addled space pigeons?”
Frankly no one knows exactly what the Druids were up to, such as is the guesswork that circles around the archaeological evidence which is never definitive in detail, but if Britannia was to be so slavishly complaint with every last pagan tattoo swirl and Romanic flourish, and I say this as someone who reads National Geographic for fun, I might be more than a little disappointed.
One fact that is very much not in dispute and is the hat upon which Britannia, a joint production between Sky Atlantic and Amazon Prime Video, hangs its ever more sprawling, trope-heavy storyline, and that is that in AD 43, the Romans, under good old Plautius, did storm the eastern beaches of England and forever upset the established order of the British tribes who saw the interlopers, who had left just 100 years before when Julius Caesar decided to leave the island to its own devices, as demonic hordes come to steal their cultural souls.
OK so that last part is probably just an invention of Britannia‘s gloriously-overheated writing room, but suffice to say, the arrival of the Romans, who mixed military might with geo-political wheeling and dealing, the better to get more money rolling into Rome’s coffers, did shake up the balance of power between an array of infighting tribes.
What Britannia has fun with, and ever more quirky fun has to be said, is exactly how all this power gets shaken up.
In the world of this show’s AD 43, are the Cantii, led by King Pellenor (Ian McDiarmid), who’s a cranky superstitious bastard, enthralled to the drugged-out wan leader of the Druids Veran (Mackenzie Cook), who are, in common, with religious elites everywhere pure of heart and twisted of soul simultaneously, and not exactly father of the year to Prince Phelan (Julian Rhind-Tutt) and rebellious daughter Kerra (Kelly Reilly) who is more than a little fascinated with Rome thanks to her dear departed mother.
And the Regni, ruled over with chutzpah and menace by Queen Antedia (Zoë Wanamaker) who like pretty much everyone else, camps it up with a bravado that you can help but admire, making deals with Pellenor and then Plautius, all with an eye on her own ambitious self interest.
Standing, in theory at least, in the middle of all of this back and forth, tit-for-tat, are Veran’s Druids, who honestly look like they could do with a few good meals, a whole lot less drugs and a few weeks kicking back with a good scroll or two at a seaside resort.
Instead, under the guise of doing the will of the gods, which trust me is as amorphous and open to manipulation then as it is now – at one point Plautius, who may or may not be possessed by an earth demon named Lokka, does a deal with Veran to alter tribal succession, a brazenly political deal passed off as a religiously-ordained wisp of divine inspiration – they romp about doing whatever the hell they like, leaving some, Antedia chief among them, more than a little suspicious about the motives of the religious elite who meddle more than you might think in the tribes.
Our narrative eyes and ears on the ground, however, belong to a small teenage Cantii girl named Cait (Eleanor Worthington Cox) who is one of the few survivors when her village is burned to the ground and its people being put to the sword as the Romans ride in, like a death metal band on a drunken post-concert bender, intent on making a Statement to the local people.
While her father Sawyer (Barry Ward) and other men are taken hostage by the Romans who need them less as labour than bargaining chips, and are not averse to hurting them to get their way, Cait runs into the forest where she is saved, with extreme reluctance by barely-holding-onto-sanity exiled Druid Divis (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) who skips into the Underworld with the kind of ease we reserve for commuting and who may or may not be possessed by a demon king.
If that all sounds tripped as hell, that’s because it most certainly is.
By the end of episode 7, you have witnessed any number of druidic pronouncements, violent incidents, intensely-lustful sex and spiritual moments both sublime and unnerving as Britannia makes clear that it aims to be less historically accurate than a damn good, over-wrought tale of blood, vengeance, betrayal and loss, all of which make for damn fine storytelling in any time and place.
In the case of AD 43 where there is no recourse to the police or justice or a welfare state, staying alive is far more than an academic pursuit, something that the show brings to the fore again and again as people trip up on their own vaulting ambition or poor-decision making and have no other recourse but to roll with the consequences.
Happy to thrust modern lexicon and sensibilities into the drama, with everyone talking in some kind of English accent, the show sometimes feels like it’s not taking itself even remotely seriously, in danger of tipping into Carry On Rome parody.
But each time you think it has gone too far, it injects some deeply poignant moment, courtesy mostly of Cait who is an intense character par excellence – when you see what happens to her you will well understand why she’s not cracking a smile every five minutes – or some off-with-the-demonic-pixies spiritual moment (the journeys into the Underworld are particularly lalalala nutjobby but they work in their epic dolalliness) and balance is restored.
Serious drama Britannia is not but nor is it jokingly fripperous either, balancing, much like Britain itself, on the edge of serious and the sendup, the dramatic and the melodramatic, the old and the new in such a beguilingly full-tilt mad way that you can’t help but keep watching even if you do catch your eyes rolling at the sheer insanity of it all.
It may be garrulously, gloriously over the top much of the time, and will never be used in universities as a depiction of history brought to life, but it is marvellously, immersively entertaining, brilliantly leveraging a mysterious and murky period of history about which much is and isn’t known, leaving it fertile ground for imaginative storytellers to weave their tales of power and lost and the sheer contrariness of fallible, its-own-worst-enemy humanity.