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
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