No won­der the Ro­mans were scared

Sur­rounded by seas full of gi­ant squid, and pop­u­lated by sex-mad druids with a weak­ness for hu­man sac­ri­fice, the Bri­tain in Jez But­ter­worth’s new TV se­ries Bri­tan­nia is ter­ri­fy­ing. But did it ever ex­ist? By

The Guardian - G2 - - Arts -

It is 43 AD. Bri­tain. A young girl is on the verge of an ini­ti­a­tion cer­e­mony that will nudge her into adult­hood via chant­ing, danc­ing and some­thing nasty with a knife. Zoë Wana­maker as Ante­dia, war­rior queen of a Bri­tish clan, is mag­nif­i­cent in elec­tric-blue eye­shadow and bird’s nest hair. A mys­te­ri­ous out­cast from the druids is re­ceiv­ing signs – from the badgers and the frogs, among other au­thor­i­ties – that some­thing in Al­bion is badly amiss. Macken­zie Crook, who has clearly spent hours in makeup, is list­ing and sway­ing men­ac­ingly, face caked with clay­coloured grime, high as a kite on some name­less drug. Crook, a ca­dav­er­ous vi­sion, is the druidic leader, Veran.

Mean­time, just over the Chan­nel on the north­ern shore of Gaul, a Ro­man gen­eral is on the brink of in­vad­ing Bri­tain, sur­vey­ing a bunch of foot sol­diers who have ex­pressed, let us say, reser­va­tions about cross­ing a (re­put­edly) gi­ant-squid-filled ocean to take arms against a bar­barous, ter­ri­fy­ing land full of magic and hu­man sac­ri­fice. “What’s the pun­ish­ment for mutiny, Lu­cius?” roars David Mor­ris­sey’s Au­lus Plau­tius, as he pours him­self a glass of finest Faler­nian.

This is Bri­tan­nia, a hugely fun, ex­tremely vi­o­lent, new se­ries for Sky At­lantic about the Ro­man in­va­sion of Bri­tain – the se­cond, suc­cess­ful one, by the em­peror Claudius, rather than the un­suc­cess­ful, prob­a­bly rather sham­bolic at­tempts made by Julius Cae­sar. Jez But­ter­worth, author of the hit plays Jerusalem and The Fer­ry­man, co-writer of the James Bond movie Spec­tre, is be­hind the se­ries, with fel­low writ­ers Tom But­ter­worth (his brother) and James Richardson. It is not the first time he has vis­ited Ro­man Bri­tain: there was, in 2007, a film called The Last Le­gion, de­scribed by Guardian film critic Peter Brad­shaw as riper than “a hunk of old Brie, left all day in a glove com­part­ment in a car” – proof that even a great writer is not im­mune to the oc­ca­sional flop.

But­ter­worth has made it clear in in­ter­views that he is not too wor­ried about his­tor­i­cal ac­cu­racy: and why should he be? He is a sto­ry­teller, not a pro­fes­sor of clas­sics. And he has long been en­chanted by the myths of Bri­tain, by its old gods and spir­its – a pre­oc­cu­pa­tion of Jerusalem, with its in­ti­ma­tions of the un­canny and the nu­mi­nous, the hint that the myth­i­cal Bri­tish gi­ants Gog and Ma­gog might one day, quite soon, wake.

And yet in one way, Bri­tan­nia – mar­vel­lously pre­pos­ter­ous as it fre­quently seems, with its lurid scenes of drugged up, or­gias­tic druidic rites – is firmly within a tra­di­tion of writ­ing, think­ing and fan­ta­sis­ing about Ro­man Bri­tain. This tra­di­tion was be­gun by the Ro­mans them­selves – the first peo­ple to con­jure the idea of “Bri­tain” into life.

The most com­pelling pic­ture we have of the Celtic, iron age tribes of

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