We’ve all been waiting to devour Britannia, we history buffs, just as the Romans did nearly 2000 years ago.
Where Julius Caesar turned and ran, Aulus Plautius returns, nine decades later, in AD 43, brimming with bravado. ‘I am lucky,’ he tells his second-in-command, the wonderfully named Perfectus, vowing to succeed where Caesar had failed. He is assisted by the warring tribes, too busy betraying and killing each other to notice his arrival from Gaul until the gore starts flying.
In this world, women have a rip-roaring time. They politic – Zoe Wanamaker’s Celtic monarch Antedia; fight – Kelly Reilly as Princess Kerra; and fornicate – Amena (Annabel Scholey), the wife of Kerra’s brother who, for dynastic reasons, gets to have two husbands, one of whom is the not unhandsome Stanley Weber. Her other less picturesque husband has to stand back and think of the tribe while his wife attempts to conceive a dynastic baby.
It’s a wonderfully empowering production for women but this isn’t a feminist re-telling. Celtic women did a lot of ruling, ripping and roaring.
Prior to the invasion of Ynys Môn (Angelsey) Tacitus’ describes a ‘serried mass of men with women flitting between the ranks. In the style of Furies in robes of deathly black with dishevelled hair they brandished their torches while the circle of Druids lifted their hands to heaven and shouted imprecations such that [the Romans’] limbs were paralysed with terror.‘ Diodorus and Marcellinus wrote too of ferocious female fighters. And then of course we have Boudicea…
Jez Butterworth, creator of the series, is freed in his portrayal of the Celts and Druids by the paucity of historical information about them. They wrote nothing down, unwilling to risk the secrets of their powers as healers, priests, herbalists, magicians and myth-keepers falling into the wrong hands. (They were apparently skilled keepers of accounts but that doesn’t sit so well with their image.)
In the absence of their own literary legacy, the Romans, in the way of all victors (and keepers of history) recorded events to suit their own needs. When I discussed this dearth of information with Historian Tom Holland with regard to the novel I am currently writing and which features Druids, he made the wonderfully liberating comment. ‘Ah, well, you’re free to make it up then, aren’t you!’
Has Butterworth? Certainly with regard to the Druids he lets rip in a phantasmagorical revel of weirdness, brutality and otherworldliness. I’m not sure about the nose rings or the metal hooks protruding from Druidical fingers like a Celtic precursor of Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine.
I’m also unsure about the use of the Greco-Roman ‘Underworld.’ Supposedly, the Druids themselves referred to it as the ‘Otherworld,’ a dark, regenerative Kingdom of night from whence they would be reborn into this world. That circularity of belief lies at the heart of the Druids’ ferocity and their ability to convince warriors (in a way that mirrors martial force magnifiers throughout history) to fight with suicidal bravery. It is this as much as their famed eviscerations and Wicker Man burnings that terrified the invading Romans.
Butterworth marks a stark contrast between the armoured Roman legion, marching in disciplined syncopated rhythm, led by a leather skirted, fur-draped David Morrissey as Aulus Pautius, and the scuttling, emaciated, woad-daubed, out of their heads Druids. Plautius swills wine from glass goblets as the Druids blow smoke into each other’s mouths and feast on souls. At the end of the first episode, Druids watch from rain-soaked shadows as a bewitched legionary, having delivered his warning to Plautius to abandon these lands, is buried alive.
Butterworth foreshadows Plautius’s intention to create a wilderness which in Tacitus’s wonderful quotation he will then call peace.
Britannia is an ambitious production, leavened with humour that while it occasionally lapses into flippancy, humanises and brings alive these historical figures. The cinematography is beautiful and the theme tune – Donovan’s Hurdy Gurdy Man – adds to the trippiness. Jez Butterworth is having fun. If you can sit back and imbibe that same spirit, you will too.
Linda Davies is having huge fun writing a book for Chicken House that features Druids, Romans and a tribe of warrior girls. Her prize winning historical novel for children, Longbow Girl, (widely read by adults) has been optioned for TV by Kindle Entertainment.
Images © Sky Atlantic