The pre-publicity campaign for Sky Atlantic’s Britannia was long and loud. The trailers – full of snapshots of ancient battles and bloodletting – suggested that this “Romans invading Britain” saga was going to be little more than a Game of Thrones knock-off, so I was planning on skipping it. I love GoT and don’t need a cheap imitation in my life. I’m a busy man.
What did pique my interest, however, was that Britannia was co-created by Jez Butterworth, the playwright who wrote the stupendous Jerusalem. Could he bring some of that theatrical magic to Britannia? I watched the first episode to find out.
David Morrissey’s wine-swigging general Aulus Plautius kicks things off by sailing with his army to Britannia in order to conquer the place. Unfortunately for them, it soon turns out that, while Britannia might be green, thanks to a panoply of warring tribes and weird-looking druids it’s not such a pleasant land.
First thing to say is the trailers didn’t lie. Butterworth and his co-creators have borrowed liberally from Game of Thrones. Just as the new Star Wars movies unapologetically mine the original trilogy for material, Britannia chucks in so many Game of Thrones references that at times it feels like you’re watching a tribute act. Sweary modern vernacular, crude sex scenes and sudden, violent killings are just a few of the elements taken from the Thrones school of hard knocks. The smirking, knowing humour is very GoT, too.
Yet despite all of these Throne-isms, Britannia is enjoyable in its own right because the script, while hammier than a pig farm in places, is fast, funny and economical. The actors, including Morrissey, Mackenzie Crook and Zoë Wanamaker, deserve credit too for throwing themselves into the maelstrom with an infectious gusto.
By the end of the season opener, the Romans were heading inland, their progress checked slightly by the druids sending a chilling warning, via that tried and trusted medium of a possessed legionary, for them to turnaround and head home. This sets things up nicely for the rest of the series. Fans of ahistorical, well-made silliness are in for a treat.