Sky Atlantic’s new Romans show Britannia is truly baffling

The Druids, for instance, are straight out of Shameless.

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It is AD 43, and on the coast of Gaul, Aulus Plautius, a general in the Roman army, is preparing his men for the invasion of Britannia, nine decades after Julius Caesar departed those same shores, one look at the Celts having been enough to cause him to scarper. Needless to say, no one’s very keen; the islands are said to be haunted by daemons, ghosts and a giant squid – which is no way at all to talk about Nigel Farage, though they do it all the same, bloody foreigners. But Plautius (David Morrissey, with a dead animal round his neck) is determined. “What’s the plan?” asks his sidekick, Lucius (Hugo Speer). “Same as Egypt,” he replies nonchalantly, sounding, for all his preparedness, a bit like David Davis on his way to yet another meeting in Brussels.

Meanwhile, across the Channel, what do we find? At first sight, it’s an Utterly Butterly kind of a place, so peaceable that farmers literally doze on their cows’ backs. But don’t be taken in. Britannia (18 January, 9pm) is, after all, the invention of Jez ‘Jerusalem’ Butterworth, and his brother Tom. The Druids, for instance, are straight out of Shameless. The one called Veran with the weird eyes (Mackenzie Crook) looks like your average Spice addict; the one called Divis (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) with the bad teeth sees things, and not only because he’s drunk too much Tennent’s Super. And the tribes are everywhere at war. Queen Antedia of the Regnii (Zoe Wanamaker, looking a bit Hot-Gossip-doing-Starship-Trooper) can’t stand King Pellenor, leader of the Cantii (Ian McDiarmid). Though the Romans’ famously straight thoroughfares are here still far in the future, road rage exists nonetheless. Even at a nice, open-air, inter-tribal wedding, Antedia has only to see Pellenor to start shouting the odds from her chariot.

I could go, but I won’t. Just as Plautius is Rome, and where he walks is Rome, so I am the Voice of Reason, and where I walk is the Voice of Reason. And so it behoves me to say quite firmly that Britannia is the barmiest thing I’ve seen on TV since just about forever. The obvious influences are Tolkien and George RR Martin, though I also detect a dash of Rosemary Sutcliff – Jez would be of an age for The Eagle of the Ninth – and perhaps a pinch, too, of Carry On Cleo (Julian Rhind-Tutt as a somewhat sardonic Celt called Phelan provides the double entendres). The tone, in particular, is bizarre. When I read Tacitus eight thousand years ago, it didn’t seem to me like the work of a Reiki master. Yet in Britannia everyone sounds like a self-help book (“When catastrophes come, it’s easy to blame yourself”). Combine this with the dinky pagan statues that litter almost every scene, and it’s like a spa gone wrong.

Millionaires’ Ex-Wives Club (17 January, 9pm) sounds grim: a bit too Channel 5 for my liking. But Lynn Alleway’s BBC2 film turned out to be much better than it sounded. In the UK, marital assets are split 50:50, and thus London has become the divorce capital of the world – a creepy crown beneath which she set to peer, courtesy of several lawyers and two women: Lisa Tchenguiz, who eventually settled with her ex-husband, the South African-born businessman Vivian Imerman, for £15m; and Michelle Young, whose ex-husband, Scot, never gave her the £26.6m she was awarded by the court. (Young vs Young was, until Scot Young’s mysterious death by impalement in 2014, the longest-running divorce battle in British history.)

Entitlement is both a fascinating and repugnant thing. I can never get over the fact that the rich so often need to be richer; that someone could be driven to the edge of madness by the thought of, say, receiving £9m instead of £10m. Of course I felt for Michelle Young. Her husband, a crook, had preferred to go to prison than to write her a cheque; her legal bills had left her with unimaginably huge debts. But as she wept on the sweeping drive of the vast country house where she’d once lived, I felt my heart harden. If I were her lawyer, I would remind her that luck can’t be earned. Nor is it, in most cases, deserved. Just like love, and some marriages, it isn’t necessarily forever.  

Britannia (Sky Atlantic)
Millionaires’ Ex-Wives Club (BBC Two)

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article appears in the 18 January 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Churchill and the hinge of history