Britannia review: Game of Thrones' weird, preposterous little brother

Thursday, 18th January 2018, 8:10 am
Updated Thursday, 18th January 2018, 9:10 am

"On your knees, w****r!" screams a bandit with a strong West Country accent, in the opening episode of Sky's major new historical drama Britannia.

Moments later, a character unleashes previously hidden Jedi mind powers - complete with blurry screen effect.

It's fair to say that Britannia might not be the most accurate depiction of the Roman conquest of Britain.

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And that's before we even get onto the fact that Donovan's '60s folk hit Hurdy Gurdy Man plays over the main titles and credits.

Like many things in the show, it's a weirdly jarring choice.

David Morrissey chews the scenery

Britannia clearly isn't trying to be a straightforward historical epic. If the theme song didn't convince you, then the trippy, acid-tinged imagery and rampant use of modern colloquialisms will.

The year is AD43. It's nearly a century since Julius Caesar landed on the south coast of ancient Britain, took one look at the terrifying locals, and promptly headed home.

Now, 20,000 Romans have returned to conquer and enslave the land - which is populated by hippy, dippy druids and warring Celts.

Julian Rhind-Tutt's modern day phrases and dry humour are an out-of-place hoot (Photo: Sky)

The drug-quaffing antics of the aforementioned druids allow for plenty of psychedelic, arty-farty sequences. But the tone at times has the air of an offbeat comedy - whether intentional, or not.

Julian Rhind-Tutt's dry humour and flippant use of modern phrases while portraying a Celtic prince ("It's all a bit up in the air at the moment...bigger fish and that"), is a hoot.

It's as if his character from Green Wing accidentally wandered onto the wrong set and started being witheringly sarcastic at everyone else's expense.

David Morrissey, meanwhile, is having a marvellous time eviscerating every bit of night-soaked scenery as invading Roman commander Aulus.

"I am Rome, and wherever I walk, Rome is!" he bellows, when he isn't paraphrasing Clint Eastwood's 'hell of a thing killing a man' speech from Unforgiven.

Mackenzie Crook - resembling Skeletor

A strong cast do their best with the hammy dialogue. Kelly Reilly - serious of stare and skilled of bow - is a valuable addition to the attempted intrigue.

Mackenzie Crook, resembling Skeletor under a mountain of make-up, is suitably menacing as the leader of a more sinister druid faction. Being abducted while going to the loo and coming face to face with him really would be terrifying.

After this, he's off to battle He-Man (Photo: Sky)

Veterans such as Ian McDiarmid and Zoe Wanamaker are also on board. But no one is really being given Grade A material to work with here.

This might seem strange, as creator Jez Butterworth is an award-winning playwright with a serious pedigree behind him.

Bizarre and messy

"I’ve never actually seen Game of Thrones," Butterworth told i recently. "It feels to me like a programme that’s prog rock rather than punk, and I quite like the idea that if you enjoy it, you probably won’t enjoy this."

Thrones fans will probably be left scratching their heads with Britannia, for sure. Though there are a few faint echoes of that swords-and-scheming show.

There's the feuding factions, and the building of shaky alliances.

On a character level meanwhile, fans will note the gruff, bearded outcast who reluctantly finds himself escorting a young, bereaved girl, and the scheming princess who has taken another lover.

That said, a fairer comparison might be HBO's excellent Rome, which perfectly captured the oddities, machinations and excesses of the empire, while also investing us heavily in its main cast of characters. Britannia isn't a patch on it.

The Roman conquest of Britain is a fantastic subject for TV drama. But on first impressions, Britannia is too bizarre and messy a beast to really do it justice.

Bordering on self-parody

Sky has clearly thrown a whole lot of money at the production, given its hefty sets, sprawling cast and numerous extras, but the execution is certainly not especially high-brow.

There are lots of lofty monologues and po-faced anecdotes that fail to say anything of interest or worth. When Morrissey launches into a story about literal headless chickens, it's hard to care.

Characters, crucially, come across as two-dimensional clichés. And it doesn't help that their introductions are rushed amid the chaos of the invasion, so that you'll be hard-pressed to remember their obscure names - never mind anything else of note.

Some of the action sequences are very well directed (Photo: Sky)

On the plus side, there are some enjoyable bursts of blood-spewing action, including an early clash between two rival tribes, and a night-time attack on a druid festival. Both are well directed.

For the most part, however, Britannia is thoroughly weird and uneven. Its treatment of mysterious, woodland backdrops with shades of folk-horror is certainly an interesting choice. And it deserves credit for attempting something different. But this is no Ben Wheatley-esque exercise in occult terror, and it fails to sustain a potent atmosphere.

Instead, the opening hour-and-a-half is a somewhat preposterous beginning that's difficult to take seriously, bordering as it does on bonkers self-parody.

Britannia is close to being utter rubbish. But for all of that, it's sporadically entertaining rubbish.

Britannia starts on Sky Atlantic at 9pm tonight. All episodes of Britannia are available from today (18 January) exclusively on Sky Atlantic and NOW TV.