This article comes from Den of Geek UK.
This Britannia review contains spoilers.
Britannia Episode 1
Along with “interesting” (which, as Viggo Mortensen’s character says in Captain Fantastic, is a non-word that, ideally, should be avoided), one of the least useful ways to describe a creative work is “like [blank] on drugs”.
It’s a question of accuracy. “Game Of Thrones on drugs” as some have labelled Britannia, wouldn’t really be a dreamier, more blurred-around-the-edges version of the HBO show in which characters visit the underworld and converse with badgers. In reality, Game Of Thrones on drugs would be a solid hour of the Night’s Watch eating Jammy Dodgers and laughing at their boots, or Daenerys Targaryen flying her dragons non-stop up the M1 to start a band with Mani from The Stone Roses because she’s suddenly realised she’s the greatest drummer of all time.
With that understood, when I now say that Britannia is a little bit like all those shows in which characters wear high-pile Ikea rugs on their shoulders (The Last Kingdom, Vikings, Spartacus, and yes, Game Of Thrones) on drugs, it’s because it is a bit like all those shows, but literally everyone is on drugs.
It’s true, even the children get blow-backs from bouffanted wizards. The Druids are so off their tits they’ve got pupils more dilated than Beanie Boos, and have filed their teeth into sharpened points and pierced their fingernails with hardware supplies. The most entertaining character so far, Nikolaj Lie Kaas’ Divis, is higher than Mount Kilimanjaro from start to end. He speaks to the moon and thinks he’s destined to go to Rome and defeat a great earth-demon from hell.
Yes, Britannia is off its rocker, and all the better for it. There are few things worse on TV than po-faced period drama that forgets that even in the oldest of the olden days, we were still all sarcastic, sweary piss-takers. That’s what Britannia’s characters are to a one (especially Julian Rhind-Tutt’s Phelan), except they’re also authentically British (Romans included) by dint of the fact that they constantly make jokes about how crap the weather is.
Take our introduction to Aulus Plautius, the Roman General played by David Morrissey with all the smirking, laddish swagger of an Employee of the Month at Carphone Warehouse. Aulus is here to finish the job Julius Caesar, that wimp, started almost a hundred years ago. He’s going to invade Britannia once and for all. He’s doing it for Rome! (And to scratch some unspecified personal itch about which we’re being kept in the dark for now).
We meet Aulus toying with four would-be mutineers who are strung-up and awaiting sentence. “What’s the matter, you don’t fancy it?” he asks them with a glint in his eye. “What was it eh? The weather?” By the time the accused start mumbling about giant squid and sea serpents, we’re firmly in Monty Python territory. Britannia is funny from the off, and only gets funnier.
Less funny is the Roman slaughter of a tribe of Celts on Solstice. Unarmed and high as several kites, the Celts didn’t stand a chance. They were too busy doing campfire Zumba and dyeing things with woad to fight back, so the Romans moved through them like a hot knife through butter that’s just done a load of hot knives.
The attack leaves poor motherless Cait (Eleanor Worthington-Cox, definitely one to watch) also big-sisterless and granddadless. Cait’s father Gildas (Joe Armstrong) is captured as a slave, so it’s up to her and reluctant travel companion Divis (the Druid outcast who converses with badgers) to save him. The Cait/Divis pairing is sparky, entertaining, and yes, pleasingly reminiscent of Arya and the Hound.
Britannia is such an easy target for Aulus and his army is because its tribes are too distracted by in-fighting to notice the approach of twenty thousand Roman soldiers. Warring tribe leaders King Pellenor of the Cantii (Ian McDiarmid) and Queen Antedia of the Regni (Zoë Wanamaker) are sworn enemies due to some as-yet-unrevealed business involving Pellenor’s daughter Kerra (Kelly Reilly).
Despite his nephew being murdered by the double-crossing Regni in episode one, Pellenor’s anger is mostly directed at Kerra, a kickass archer who saves his life. Britannia’s women are kickass to a one, from young Cait to tough old bird Antedia, who’s all bleach blonde hair, gold jewellery, blue eyeshadow and hostility, like somebody’s shrunk Pat Butcher in the wash. Antedia shits on the souls of the Cantii dead and promises to drink Pellenor’s blood, so you know, this whole thing is unlikely to blow over.
It’s a story about families then, and tribalism, and war, and secrets and great earth demons and an unrecognisable Mackenzie Crook doing mad spells on unsuspecting Romans. It draws on Celtic myth and the history of our shores, and it remembers to be funny as well as fun and occasionally gruesome. Not all of it works all the time, but there’s enough variety thrown at it for a decent portion to do so.
Call it Game Of Thrones on drugs now by all means, but give it time. Britannia has all the bonkers makings of a show that’s very much its own.