Britannia: a mad trip through British history and myth

Starting tonight on Sky Atlantic, ancient history drama Britannia is a surprising, funny trip you’ll want to take…

It’s the press launch for Britannia, and playwright and screenwriter Jez Butterworth has the audience in stitches. He’s describing the difference between writing for the stage, film and TV. “I’ve done lots of theatre where people pay attention to what you’ve got to say, but in film,” he says, “it’s a bit like being a sperm donor. In that they need you, they absolutely need you, but once you’ve done your thing… they really don’t want you to show up at any of the rest of it at all. As you leave, they give you a look like ‘and who does that, for money?’”

For Butterworth, whose first TV show this is, the responsiveness of television was a revelation. Writing a scene and then “three weeks after it, seeing the rushes, it felt like a real process. Write it, do it, it comes back, wow.” In film, he says, it’s more a case of, “write it, seven years later, somebody makes it and it’s got your nose but there’s no real resemblance and you walk past it in the street and go ‘huh’.”

“Television is the absolute opposite,” he concludes. “Doing stuff on screen and being listened to was a complete surprise.”

It wasn’t the only surprise of Britannia, a Sky Atlantic-Amazon co-production set in the British Isles in 43 AD, all of which will be available to stream online after episode one airs tonight. That he was doing the project at all came as a bit of a shock. Producer, writer and Butterworth’s brother-in-law James Richardson brought the concept to Jez and his writer brother Tom over dinner one evening. “I came to them with this idea that I’d had about Romans and Celts and Druids,” explains Richardson.

Ad – content continues below

“The funny thing is,” says Butterworth, “we both thought it was a terrible idea. We told Jay this and then somehow in the morning, we were both doing it.” He’s probably joking but who can tell. Butterworth talks about his work with the kind of self-deprecation that can be afforded by someone whose latest play has been drenched by five-star reviews and awards. “If you watch the series,” he tells the audience, “it gets better as I get better at learning a whole new form.”  

“I’ve never done any television at all before this, so sitting down and starting something where you realise characters are going to be there longer than ninety minutes or a hundred minutes was… I’m as surprised as everyone else that there’s a second episode! And a third!”

There are nine in total, and they’re hopefully the beginning, says producer Sam Mendes, “of a long and illustrious journey.” Mendes, who directed Butterworth’s hugely successful 2017 play The Ferryman and worked with him on two Bond films, welcomes viewers to “the mad and beautiful mind that is Jez Butterworth’s.”

Mad and beautiful is right. Before the screening begins, Mendes shares Butterworth’s suggestion, as quoted in the Sunday Times, that “you need to have a big smoke in order to enjoy this show.” It’s not a requirement, but you can see where he’s coming from. Hallucinogens, possessions and spell-casting occur with some frequency in Britannia. As Zoë Wanamaker, who plays Antedia, the warrior queen of the Regni tribe, puts it delightedly at the launch, “I just thought this was barking!”

Wanamaker was such a fan of Butterworth’s stage work that she signed up for Britannia without even reading it. “I didn’t see a script” says Wannamaker, “I just thought ‘fuck it, I’m going to do it’.”

The same more or less went for David Morrissey, who plays Roman General Aulus, the leader of invading army. “For me, it was just about working with Jez,” he says, “before I even read the script I wanted to work with him. I love his work.”

Ad – content continues below

Antedia’s status as a warrior queen (a contender for “possibly one of the greatest entrances in 2018” says Q&A moderator Grace Dent) was also appealing to Wanamaker. “[They] were very prevalent during that time and there were a few of them, leading up to Boudicca, who’s the most famous.” Research about Antedia’s people, the Regni, was thin on the ground though. “There’s so little about that time about the tribes,” bemoans Wanamaker, “so little.”

That dearth of historical material is a boon of sorts to Britannia. As creator James Richardson notes, “the historical adviser said at the beginning when we started this idea ‘we know roughly forty per cent of what the Romans did. We probably know twenty per cent of what the Celts did and we know nothing about what the Druids did, so if anyone comes up to you and says ‘you’ve got it wrong’, they’ve got it wrong.”

A few key historical facts were inspirations for the series. Julius Caesar’s abandoned invasion of England years before its 43 AD setting is one. A Roman massacre of druids is another. “It wasn’t ever really about the history,” says Richardson, “it was about the moment in time, that moment of change… a whole world is about to change.”

If you’re looking for a primer on the sorts of themes Britannia draws upon, A Short History Of Myth by Karen Armstrong might be a good place to start. It’s the book Butterworth gave Richardson to read after he became intrigued by “this whole ancient British myth thing”, as tapped into by Butterworth’s previous play Jerusalem.

It was Jerusalem that paired Butterworth with Mackenzie Crook, the actor who appears in Britannia, transformed by witchy prosthetics, as head Druid Veran. Britannia’s druids are a total trip—a riot of dilated pupils, spell-casting, bones and sharpened teeth. As Zoë Wanamaker says, “the whole period was tribal, basic, earthy, and not of the Earth at the same time.” Translation: things get wiggy.

They also get funny. Especially when Danish actor Nikolaj Lie Kass, who plays exiled Druid Divis, is on screen. There’s battle and gore, yes, but it all comes mixed in with some very entertaining comedy. There’s no separation between the two for Butterworth. “I know I’m writing in a vein that feels natural to me when it is as funny and as painful as can be. I think if it’s just painful, or just funny, then I’m off. They sort of have to happen on the same page.”

Ad – content continues below

It means the storytelling is more likely to feel true, he says, because “that’s what it’s like being us. Everyone’s day is full of those things. I’ve never been able to select a genre and go ‘this is a tragedy, this is a comedy’. All of those things come down the same tube for me, I can’t help it.”

Whatever the tactic, it definitely works, however much Butterworth casts doubt on his mastery of the form. “It was a bit of a whirlwind I was hanging on for dear life,” he tells the audience. That could be more to do with the circumstances of production, which were pressured. “It’s not been easy,” says Mendes in his introduction, “there have been choppy waters.”

Water, or at least its frozen variety, is David Morrissey’s overriding memory of filming during what Mendes describes as the “less-than-civilised surroundings of Prague in the winter”. It was so cold on the night shoots that the rain machines froze underneath a layer of ice. Morrissey remembers being hit continually in the face with freezing rain. “All of us were outside just looking at each other going, what the fuck are we doing?!” he laughs. (By the way, if you’re offended by swearing, then you’re probably best off giving Britannia a miss.)

A whirlwind then, with the talent and imagination of Jez Butterworth at its centre, Britannia will garner comparisons to other swords-and-sorcery shows of our time, but it’s really its own thing – entertaining, British, gruesome, and a little bit off its head.

Its creators are well aware that they have stiff competition. “We’re living through a period of television which is a bit like music was in 1971 where there’s seven or eight good albums coming out every week and you’d love to listen to them all,” says Butterworth. “If you’re living in a time of tremendous bounty, then you’ve got your work cut out for you, but that’s a real challenge that we’re really happy to take on.”

Britannia starts tonight on Sky Atlantic at 9pm. All nine episodes will be available to stream from Thursday the 18th of January.