The biggest change as series three of Jez Butterworth’s Celts v Romans romp, Britannia (Sky Atlantic), kicks off is that they’ve switched the theme tune to T Rex’s Children of the Revolution. This is part of a pattern, with Donovan’s Season of the Witch having displaced his other big hit, Hurdy Gurdy Man, in the handover from series one and two.
That’s about as radical as the reinvention goes as playwright Butterworth, who wrote the script with brother Tom, dishes up yet another serving of delirious derring-do in the early years of Roman Britain. As before, Britannia unspools like Game of Thrones if filmed backstage at Glastonbury circa 1975 and where everyone’s coffee was spiked with premium-grade LSD.
David Morrissey is back as perpetually exasperated Roman general Aulus Plautius, and once again his performance is modulated somewhere between Russell Crowe in Gladiator and Ricky Gervais in The Office.
Zoë Wanamaker meanwhile returns as deposed Celtic queen Queen Antedia and Eleanor Worthington-Cox as “Chosen One” Cait (seemingly the only person in Pagan Britain to grasp the concept of personal grooming). And we are reintroduced to Mackenzie Crook’s mad druid Veran – the evolutionary link between Iggy Pop and a raisin left in the sun too long.
There isn’t much plot and each of the eight episodes generally boils down to the characters running around in various states of foul-mouthed agitation. Morrissey’s Aulus receives an early surprise when wife Hemple (Sophie Okonedo, majestically over the top throughout) arrives from Rome to oversee his conquest of the Britons. In a scene seemingly played for laughs, she promptly serves him a traitorous lieutenant as lunch.
“Can you please stop eating people?” Aulus requests later on. It is one of those moment where it’s impossible not to wonder if the Butterworths are trying to smuggle a swords-and-sandals sitcom on to Sky Atlantic.
As the enslaved tribal queen Antedia, Wanamaker spends most of her screen time covered in mud and scrabbling around on her hands and knees, like the anarcho-syndicalist peasants in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. And Crook’s Veran suffers an early mishap that leaves him in a state of heightened emotion and floating in a pool – a potentially handy stop-gap for Love Island fans suffering withdrawal symptoms.
The Butterworths clearly have little interest in the sort of slow-burn skulduggery that made early Game of Thrones so absorbing. Instead they carry on where they left off at the end of series two by serving up a high-camp fever dream.
As before, it’s hard to feel much attachment to the protagonists (with the exception of Cait all are uniformly nasty). And the dialogue feels like they’ve had a bet to squeeze in as many anachronisms as possible. The C-word is chucked about with particular aplomb and the script is full of lines such as “not now, love, Daddy is having runes carved into his head” (uttered by Julian Rhind-Tutt’s Prince Phelan, as he is joins a rival tribe).
And yet there is something charmingly ridiculous about a series that features comic-relief cannibalism, orgies, throat-slashing and druids who look like they’ve wandered in from a music video by Voodoo People-era Prodigy. Much like a really great music festival, specifics are hard to hold on to – but Britannia’s sheer sensory overload brings its own bonkers rewards.