[dropcap]B[/dropcap]ritannia’s writer and co-creator Jez Butterworth has taken advantage of the current HBO drought by giving viewers Celtic Britain’s answer to Game Of Thrones. The series is the first collaboration between Sky and Amazon, and it’s clear that they’ve banked on making their mark early in the year to catch audience’s attentions outside of the big-budget summer runs.
Set in 43 AD, Britannia is a historical fantasy TV show that follows the return of the Roman legions to the mysterious shores of Britain. Led by the enigmatic legionary Aulus Plautius (played by David Morrissey), the Romans find themselves caught between Celts, druids and other malevolent forces beyond their comprehension. And as the threat of a Roman invasion returns, the local warring clans are forced to choose between fighting each other, or the new foreign invader.
Right off the bat, the psychedelic intro alludes that Britannia is no normal historical TV show. The bright colours and modern styling match with the strange sort of history-through-a-modern-lens theme that the show takes. From the hippy, drug-loving druids to the smooth-talking leather clad Roman leader Plautius (Morrissey), Britannia feels like a strange throwback to the golden age of drugs, sex and rock and roll. On a more rational level, even the use of modern English shows that Britannia has been made for the enjoyment of modern audiences, with little thought to historical accuracy.
But, for all of it’s less than accurate historical styling, the show has some underlying threads of truth. For example, the character of Aulus Plautius is based on a real Roman general of the same name that did in fact lead a second invasion of Britain in 43 AD. Other characters like Queen Antedia (Zoë Wanamaker) are also quite obviously very loosely based on other prominent people of that time, such as Boudica. Other that that, however, the show fashions its own characters into a hodgepodge modern retelling of the second British Roman invasion.
One thing that is very difficult with Britannia, is that it’s hard to watch it and not compare it with the king of fan-favourite historical TV shows, Game Of Thrones. The real question you have to ask is, is Britannia is the product of a world obsessed with Game Of Thrones, or something in its own right? The greatest problem smaller shows like the face when pitted up against such established and well-received programmes, is that the comparisons always come down to the massive discrepancies in budget that give one a ‘one-up’ on the other. For most, there is always that feeling of – ‘well, Game Of Thrones did it better’. But despite this, I really feel Britannia still manages to bring something to the plate – humour.
From just watching the promos and trailers, you might consider Britannia to be a fairly serious character-driven show. However, you’d be dead wrong. Britannia’s main charm lies on the quirky and outright hilarious character interactions. The best example of this is between two of the main characters, Divis (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) the demon possessed ex-druid and Cait (Eleanor Worthington Cox) the newly orphaned local girl. Thrown together under dire circumstances, the constant bickering and comedic back and forth between these two are essentially what breathes life into an average story. I must say, that if they hadn’t been in the show then I really don’t think I would have been able to stick it out till the end. (Also, a special mention for the hilarious Roman duo Brutus (Daniel Caltagirone) and Philo (Zaqi Ismail) who share some of the funniest moments in the show.) In general, the strong cast is what makes the show worth watching.
However, Britannia also has gaping faults. The ‘modern’ styling (which I praised before) is one of its main weaknesses. The way they talk is really jarring with the time period and it just didn’t work. Additionally, the druids, who looked awesome and all powerful in the trailers, are just a bunch of dirty people that do drugs. Now that may be essentially an accurate representation of what druids were like back in that time, but there just doesn’t seem to be any mystery or ambiguity around them.
The closest we get to a unique aspect of the historical-fantasy theming, is through Divis – the ex-druid who has been thrown out for being possessed by a demon – and Veran – the immortal leader of the druids. Divis undoubtedly has the most interesting storyline in the show, but his character is let down by silly things like the way they shot and edited his ‘possessed’ moments. The shots looked fake and cheap, so much so that it made it look more like a cheap tv crime re-enactment than anything else.
In Veran’s case, his make-up was less eerie all-seer and more anorexic 3rd degree burns victim. Also, his ‘reveal’ as an immortal of great power was totally lost and skirted past in favour of a thousand other useless story threads that also never came to fruition. For all it’s harking on about being all about magic and mystery, Britannia severely lacked any real direction that makes it work as a fantasy-historical piece. In truth, this is mainly down to the fact that the show was at conflict within itself and how it couldn’t quite reconcile combining comedy with hard-hitting drama.
As I said before, I think the hardest thing for smaller shows these days with a fantasy/historical theme is that they will always be inevitably judged against a series with such a ridiculous budget and fanbase like Game Of Thrones. But is Britannia a product of Game of Thrones? No. Historical TV shows like Rome and The Tudors have always been the staple of a healthy TV fans diet and to say that shows like Game Of Thrones are ‘revolutionary’ in that sense is ridiculous. But does Britannia try and leech off of the fanbase created from the success of shows like Game Of Thrones? A hard yes.
The show does have it’s own quirks and some really promising characters, but the show doesn’t bring anything new to the plate and this is down entirely to it’s lack of a true and decisive vision. If the show does get a second series, then this is one of the major point that will have to be resolved for it to grow and shine. For me, this diet-GOT wannabe was harmless viewing, but definitely nothing to write home about.