Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Culture
  2. TV & Radio
18 January 2018updated 03 Aug 2021 2:16pm

Sky Atlantic’s new Romans show Britannia is truly baffling

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

By Rachel Cooke

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.  

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. A handy, three-minute glance at the week ahead in companies, markets, regulation and investment, landing in your inbox every Monday morning. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A weekly dig into the New Statesman’s archive of over 100 years of stellar and influential journalism, sent each Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.
I consent to New Statesman Media Group collecting my details provided via this form in accordance with the Privacy Policy

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

This article appears in the 17 Jan 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Churchill and the hinge of history