Sky’s newest epic features incredible acting and a bold premise
No, it’s not Game Of Thrones’ final season, but Sky Atlantic’s new series, Britannia.
Not entirely dissimilar to the hit show, it may help viewers mark time before the final clash between Game Of Thrones’ warring clans is screened later this year.
In contrast to the fictional fantasy world created by George RR Martin, however, Britannia – written by Jez Butterworth, the acclaimed playwright who also co-wrote the James Bond movie Spectre – is a dramatised British tale based on fact.
Britannia starts with the Roman invasion of our island in AD43, when the landing legions found Celtic Britain full of tribes locked in bloody conflict and powerful Druids claiming they could channel the underworld.
The real-life invading Roman general, Aulus Plautius, is played by British favourite David Morrissey.
The Walking Dead’s David Morrissey plays Aulus Plautius
This is a land in which the Romans have been defeated before under Caesar
In his opening scene his character’s ruthlessness is made evident when he offers to spare the life of one his own army deserters in exchange for that deserter killing the other three.
But Aulus is not just an evil manipulator – he’s a thinking man who realises that to subdue these strange, uncivilised Britons, he must try to understand them.
“He’s a Roman general, a ruthless guy, but he’s also searching for something else,” explains David, 53.
“This is a land in which the Romans have been defeated before under Caesar – where they’ve turned tail and gone back to Rome [which happened under Julius Caesar in 55BC]. So he’s out to prove himself in that respect, but also, he’s there on a personal, spiritual journey, to find out what he can about the Druid philosophy and belief system. He’s a man on a mission.”
In Britannia, Aulus finds that the feuding Regni and Cantii tribes have been shedding each other’s blood for as long as anyone can remember, in an echo of Shakespeare’s Montagues and Capulets.
The Queen of the Regni, Antedia (My Family’s Zoë Wanamaker), loathes the Cantii, who humiliated her and broke her heart years ago after she married off her son and only heir, Gildas, to Kerra, Princess of the Cantii (Kelly Reilly).
When their union proved extremely short-lived and ended brutally, Antedia began seeking her revenge on the Cantii, and spies her chance when the Romans arrive.
“She is a lioness. She’s a tiger. She is powerful,” explains Zoë, 68, of Antedia.
“She’s a warrior queen, of which there were a few in that era. There was another warrior queen in a tribe up by Norfolk or Suffolk, so I based the performance on a lot of that information, as little as there is.”
Zoë Wanamaker plays ‘strong’ Queen Antedia
In a wild blonde wig and with intricate face paint and eye-catching outfits, Zoë certainly looks fearsome and imposing.
“Meeting with the make-up designer, the costume designer and creating her hair and the tribal tattoos, just seeing them create the look of Antedia, all that just came together,” says Zoë.
Meanwhile, the pawn in that now-defunct marriage, Princess Kerra, is furious with her father, Pellenor, King of the Cantii (Ian McDiarmid), for the way he used her.
She’s not a woman to take a slight against her lightly.
Kelly Reilly’s princess Kerra is a woman unwilling to be used
On the contrary, she’s far likelier to go on the offensive, and Kerra is a skilled warrior whose arrows never miss their target.
“She’s quite a bold figure to play,” explains Kelly, 40.
“Kerra’s tough. She builds this sort of fortress around her, and she’s also physically able – she’s a great horsewoman and has had to protect herself.”
Sprinkling a bit of magical mysticism throughout this ancient civilisation are the terrifying Druids, led by an unrecognisable Mackenzie Crook – of Detectorists and The Office fame – as Veran.
For his performance Mackenzie drew on the strangest of inspirations.
“This is going to sound weird, but I sort of drew on Springwatch,” says the 46-year-old actor.
“It’s actually the most brutal and violent show on television. That sympathy and empathy that humans have, it doesn’t exist out there. Veran is like the seasons. There’s no room for sentiment, sympathy or empathy.”
That sums up the ethos of Britannia. And while it might not have dragons, it has enough sex and savagery to fill a Game Of Thrones-sized gap in the TV schedules.
Britannia airs Thursday 18th at pm on Sky Atlantic