With only six episodes of Game of Thrones left in the locker, it’s no surprise Sky Atlantic is on the hunt for fresh blood. And Britannia, created by playwright Jez Butterworth with his brother Tom, certainly has plenty of that – usually geysering out of people’s throats as they’re sliced open by broadswords – along with Thrones levels of sex, nudity and NSFW language. All that’s really missing are the dragons – though Mackenzie Crook’s terrifying, skull-headed shaman comes pretty close, skulking in the forest like a cadaverous Colonel Kurtz and belching out clouds of smoke, if not actual fire.
Butterworth has a long-standing fascination with the ancient folklore of these islands, not least in his acclaimed play Jerusalem, with its talk of giants and ‘the lost gods of England’. Here he’s given the budget to plunge headlong back in time to AD 43, when General Aulus Plautius (David Morrissey, wearing what appears to be a dead dog for a scarf) led 20,000 legionaries in the Roman invasion of Britain.
Not that many of them were keen to go. To most Romans, Britain was ‘a cursed land, ruled by the dead’, its forests filled with demons and its seas ‘swarming with serpents and giant squid’. (And they drive their chariots on the left, as well.)
It is this world, real or imagined, that Britannia conjures so vividly: a landscape of gods and monsters, blood and magic, mystic visions and voodoo curses. It is, quite frankly, utterly bonkers – a demented, prog rock hybrid of GoT and Asterix that’s perhaps best summed up by this week’s wedding scene, which ended with the groom’s throat being cut as the mother-of-the bride (Zoe Wannamaker in full warpaint) screamed ‘I s*** on the souls of your dead!’
I suspect the boldness of the Butterworths’ vision might prove too strong for some. But it’s beautifully cinematic, every frame filled with wreaths of smoke or shafts of slanting sunlight, and the characters feel modern and relatable enough to wrestle the thing back towards some semblance of sanity. As to whether Britannia will rule the post-Thrones airwaves… watch this space.
Hits, Hype and Hustle
Billed as ‘an insiders’ guide to the music industry’, this extended exercise in stating the bleedin’ obvious did nothing to dispel the idea of the record business as a bunch of fly-by-night chancers riding the coat tails of talented artists. Typical insights included ‘You need a great song and a great look!’ while, according to agent Emma Banks, key ingredients for scoring a hit record include ‘good timing’ and ‘lucky breaks’. Yeah, thanks for that.
Call the Midwife
If it’s January, it must be Call the Midwife. Series 7’s opener stuck doggedly to the ratings-slaying formula, mixing twee homilies on birth, death and everything in between with a fearless, un-squeamish approach to all things gynaecological (‘Something’s ‘appenin in me back passage, nurse!’ ). The BBC snowblower may have been working overtime recreating the Big Freeze of 1963, but in Nonnatus House there was enough warmth to melt the Arctic. Welcome back, ladies.
Published in Waitrose Weekend, January 25, 2018
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