“History is just one fucking thing after another,” Alan Bennett once wrote. He could well have been talking about Britannia, Sky’s lavish new epic that has about as much to do with history as Breaking Bad does with CBeebies.
Set in 43AD, it takes us back to a time when men were men, women were women, giant squids were giant squids and druids were possessing people and chatting to their disembodied heads. The History Channel, this ain’t. Our guide to this strange, sceptred isle is General Aulus (David Morrissey), an armed leader determined to invade and conquer Britain, 100 years after Julius Caesar rocked up on our shores, saw what the locals looked like and promptly ran away again.
It doesn’t take long to see why: Britannia imagines the UK as a weird, remote realm, one where nonsense reigns, people believe in age-old traditions and war is just waiting to erupt. It could almost be a glimpse of the country’s future after Brexit.
Within an hour, we’ve seen Aulus bully his troops, shout about going to toilet and chickens without heads and seen one of his troops fall foul of dark magic – the trippy opening credits, accompanied by 60s pop track Hurdy Gurdy Man, is only the start of it.
He’s up against an emsemble that rivals Game of Thrones, as we meet two rival clans: the Cantiis, led by King Pellenor (Ian McDiarmid), who is in thrall to the druids’ every whim, much to the frustration of his daughter-in-law, Amena (Being Human’s Annabel Scholey). She’s got her eye on the crown, via her husband – but faces fierce competition from Kerra (True Detective’s Kelly Reilly), Pellenor’s bow-and-arrow wielding other heir.
They’re fantastically ferocious women, each with men wrapped around their fingers (watch out for Outlander’s excellent Stanley Weber as Lindon and Julian Rhind-Tutt as Cantii prince Phelan), a fine line in withering insults and an unbridled hunger for power. They’re matched hell for leather by Zoe Wanamaker as Antedia, the queen of the Regni clan, whose thirst for revenge against the Cantii tribe is only topped by how cool her neon-blue make-up looks.
In between them all wander Cait (Eleanor Worthington-Cox), a young Cantii whose coming-of-age ritual is interrupted by the Roman invasion – leaving her homeless and caught in a limbo between innocence and adulthood. And, at the opposite end of the scale, Mackenzie Crook’s terrifying Veran, a druid overlord who recites his dialogue like a spell, eyes boggled and teeth bared.
Political intrigue? Check. Human interest? Check. Violent battles? Check. It’s easy to see why Britannia is being positioned by Sky as its answer to HBO’s fantasy colossus. But Britannia has one thing Game of Thrones doesn’t: absolutely no inhibitions whatsoever. This is a vast, ambitious tale that sprawls like a drunk man on the Tube, never thinking to check if its legs are too far apart and barely capable of standing up straight. It’s part-The Wicker Man and part-Gladiator, and 100 per cent bonkers, at its happiest when skipping between brutal action, creepy incantations and gorgeous scenery without a care for logic or narrative.
It’s hard to believe this is from Jez Butterworth, the man who wrote Jerusalem and The Ferryman, an exercise in precise domestic claustrophobia. But this is possibly even better than Butterworth at his most accomplished and literary: this is Butterworth letting himself off the leash, and you can sense his giddy excitement at seeing just what he can project onto a canvas that brushes over historical accuracy with every colour paint it can find.
The cast get the mood immediately, from McDiarmid hamming it up, Star Wars-style (“I am here under the sacred protection of parlay,” announces one guest. “Fuck off back to Rome!” comes the reply) to Morrissey on commanding form – he should be given a cape more often. And, every now and then, in walks Julian Rhind-Tutt, still in Green Wing mode, delivering sarcastic jokes and visiting prisoners to tell them he’ll deal with them later as the Celts’ current plan is “all a bit up in the air”.
The same can be said – and more – of the script, which trades convincing speech for modern, sweary outbursts at every opportunity – and, after an hour of sipping that cocktail, you won’t want it any other way. This is Game of Thrones’ loud, naughty brother, Spartacus’ British cousin, a swords-and-sandals adventure sporting a hoodie and sneakers. It’s gory, it’s scary, and it’s immensely fun. Played straight enough to be taken seriously, Britannia is just one thing after another. You’ll devour the whole lot.
Britannia Season 1 is available now on Sky Box Sets. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream it on NOW TV, as part of a £7.99 Sky Entertainment Month Pass subscription – with a 14-day free trial.