Magazine article The Spectator

Television: Britannia

Magazine article The Spectator

Television: Britannia

Article excerpt

It's a terrible thing for a TV critic to admit but I just don't know what to make of Britannia, the new Sky Atlantic drama set during the Roman invasion of Britain, scripted by Jez Butterworth, starring a top-notch cast including David Morrissey, Zoë Wanamaker and Mackenzie Crook, and heavily touted as the next Game of Thrones.

Is it really in the Thrones's league? I'd say not. You remember how Thrones started, all those seasons ago: the scouting party in the creepy frozen wood; the dead child with milky-blue glowing eyes; the shockingly draconian punishment meted out by Ned Stark to the party's sole survivor. Within the first ten minutes it was all there: the gnawing tension, the 'anyone can die' cruelty and horror. But perhaps most important of all was the absolute seriousness. Here was a swords-and-sorcery epic determined never to sell itself short through flippancy or self-parody.

Britannia, on the other hand, can never stop smirking at its own irreverence, its awkwardness of tone, its defiant inauthenticity. Yes, it begins with an actual historical invasion led in AD 43 by the general Aulus Plautius, but everything else is up for grabs, including the landscape of southern England. The coastal shots are filmed in Wales, the sylvan interiors -- featuring a craggy Celtic fortress built around a lake that's a very un-English shade of blue -- were shot in the Czech Republic.

These topographical infelicities aren't a dealbreaker. But they are an odd choice for a series scripted by a writer who, thanks to plays such as Jerusalem, has become arguably Albion's greatest, maddest celebrant since William Blake. 'This is us! This is where we came from! Aren't we mad? Aren't we great?' he seems to be telling us. Yes. So why shoot it somewhere so recognisably not where we came from?

Then there's the language. No one expects the characters to speak in Celtic or Latin -- though the Druids have been given a special, weird tongue -- but Butterworth is at such pains to make everything so colloquial and modern and kid-friendly that you feel you could almost be watching an episode of Merlin. 'Wow!' says the pubescent-girl, Arya Stark-wannabe character. 'I'll get me torque,' a Britannic princeling says with an almost-knowing-grin to camera. 'Fuck off back to Rome!' his Dad tells an envoy. There's lots of first-class swearing in Thrones too, of course, but it's there to make it more earthy and real, not to remind you that this is all a fantastical pastiche and you're not meant to take anything too seriously. …

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