Britannia: A half-baked substitute for Game of Thrones

At a time when Britain’s identity is in crisis, Britannia belatedly attempts to construct one

The official trailer for Britannia, Sky Atlantic's new historical period drama. Video: Sky Atlantic

 

As with any finite resource, the world has already begun to worry about what will happen when we run out of Game of Thrones. The question clearly troubles Sky Atlantic, for which broadcasting the series of fantasy and flesh has been very good for business. Now they offer a self-produced substitute in Britannia (Sky Atlantic, Thursday, 9pm), the vape equivalent to your 20-a-day habit.

On the surface, the new show seems hungry for the comparison. Set against the Roman conquest of Britain, beginning in 43AD, it depicts warring, face-painted Celtic tribes in thrall to spell-weaving, otherworldly druids, while cynical Roman forces play politics or succumb to forces beyond their understanding. Flesh is displayed and flayed, incantations are made in strange language, contemporary jokes are cracked.

But Britannia is a zanier creation, a model of particularly English eccentricity, conceived by the playwright Jez Butterworth, his brother Tom Butterworth and their brother-in-law James Richardson. By the time the psychedelic opening credits begin, to the melty strains of Donovan’s The Hurdy Gurdy Man, you get the idea. Butterworth has recommended “a big smoke in order to enjoy this show”, and, watching it on nothing stronger than a peppermint tea, I can’t dispute his advice. It yields little pleasure sober.

Telling the difference between Cantii and Regni is no easy feat, and in the sardonic squabbles of their respective courts, no compelling characters emerge

Your mind needs to be wide open to its insistence on occultism, embodied by dreadlocked and body-modified druids, led by a more-cadaverous-than-usual Mackenzie Crook, who seem to have arrived several hundred years too early for Glastonbury. To convey their power, director Metin Hüseyin often blurs the edges of his frame, in cheap emulation of a swoon, as a demonically-possessed outcast (an engaging Nikolaj Lie Kass) has visions of terrors to come.

Sardonic squabbles

As with these hallucinations, the show struggles to focus. “I don’t even know the names of the bloody tribes yet,” complains David Morrissey’s Roman General Aulus. But telling the difference between Cantii and Regni is no easy feat, and in the sardonic squabbles of their respective courts, no compelling characters emerge.

The loners are better defined: Kelly Reilly’s rebellious Kerra, or the young girl Cait (Eleanor Worthington Cox), violently split from her family and whose unlikely partnership with Kass’s outcast is too similar to the Hound and Arya’s double-act in Game of Thrones for comfort.

If Britannia seems to be in the midst of an identity crisis, shunted between scenes of gore, dizzy apparition and sarky comedy, as though buffeted by mood swings, there may be compelling reason. As a playwright, Jez Butterworth has long been engaged with the search for a British foundation myth, and at a time when Britain’s identity in the world is in crisis, Britannia belatedly attempts to construct one. That it comes up with something so idiosyncratic, so divided, and, in more than one sense, half-baked, may be more revealing than it realises.

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