TV sketching: BRITANNIA

In 2022 there was very little location sketching, sadly, and it’s been even longer since I sketched from the telly. I hope to do more of both in 2023. To kick things off, here are TV sketches of a fave show of the past few years – BRITANNIA. A dark, dramatic (& surprisingly funny) retelling of the clash of cultures that resulted from the Roman Empire’s invasion of Celtic Britain. 

Britannia: Aulus Plautius
“Walking Dead”’s go-to douche David Morrissey as GENERAL AULUS PLAUTIUS

The series is set 90 years after Julius Caesar’s failed invasions of Britain, when the Romans tried again in 43 AD. Before Caesar skedaddled, he’d established client relationships with British kings. When one of them was expelled, this gave the Romans a casus belli’  to invade again and take what they really wanted

Most of what is known about the Britons & Druids of this period was written by the Romans themselves, and even those accounts were penned long after the events of this series. Therefore, show runner Jez Butterworth uses creative license to fill in the blanks and tell the other, Druid side of the drama. From the get go, trippy title sequences & hippy Donovan songs set a broad psychedelic tone for this tale of clashing philosophies – practical Romans vs magical Druids. 

Britannia: Veran
The Detectorists’ Mackenzie Crook, as the Druid VERAN

Romans of the era portrayed British natives as uncouth savages who needed the healing balm of Roman civilisation. The same trick used to sell self-serving military meddling throughout history – “We want your tin, so here’s a bit of pax Romana”, “We want your tea, so you need the British Raj”, “We want your oil so you need a little democracy” etc.  

The Roman invasion of 43AD coincided with a period of warring Celtic tribes, which the Romans savvily pit against each other. ‘Divide et Impera’ is another trick often used thereafter by students of Roman strategy (see England v Scotland, Cortez v Aztecs, East India Company v India, etc). The South Eastern Cantii tribe (who gave their name to both Kent and Canterbury) were at the center of Roman machinations. In this mythic retelling of the tale, the ‘chosen one/prophecy’ malarkey centres on a young Cantii girl:

Britannia: Cait
Eleanor Worthington Cox in the Luke/Frodo role as CAIT

The British Isles have seen waves of immigration for tens of thousands of years. Perhaps far on the western reaches of the archipelago is a tiny island where bloodlines of stoneage homo sapiens survives untouched by genes of Romans, Saxons, Vikings, Normans, etc, but I very much doubt it. Countless invaders from the continent have left more of a stamp on the place and its culture (and by extension those of us in the Anglophone diaspora) than its original people, who long-ago painted themselves blue and set their own hair on fire – the Picts (from picti– same root word as picture – the painted people). 

Decades ago, when driving past a giant chalk horse carved into a misty hillside in wintery Yorkshire, it struck me that in that place, I was an aborigine. Though an interloper in my hometown on the far side of the planet, my own woad-encrusted ancestors strode these very scenes (or something similar a few valleys over). This warm glow of ancestral connection to the British landscape was soon dashed when I walked into a pub and the barman heard me speak – “Not another bloody Australian..” but my accent obscured (from him) the fact that my roots are of that place, too. 

Nikolaj Lie Kaas in the Cranky Obi Wan role of DIVIS, an outcast Druid

Like many raised in the ‘new world’ I’m a stew made of scraps, with Celt being the dominant flavour in my particular ragoût. However, despite being one myself, I know little of their ancient culture or Druid beliefs. Reason being that this Roman invasion of 43AD was successful, establishing Britain as a Roman outpost that lasted 400 years. The Romans wrote the history of that time, and left an indelible stamp on all the British Isles thereafter. Even modern Britons, who still inhabit that archipelago, probably know more about the Romans (and various subsequent waves of usurper/inhabitants) than the Druids, Picts & Celts. 

1st/2nd century Britain has been described as “Rome’s Afghanistan” by some British academics, but after Boudica was dealt with in 61AD, Britain was pacified & Romanised remarkably quickly compared to other Roman provinces. (If Rome truly had a ‘quagmire’ it was probably Germania or Judea). After withdrawal of Roman legions from Britain 400 years later, local leaders took over their duties and continued to behave as Romans themselves, long after the real Romans were gone.

Britannia: Kerra & Verran
KERRA & VERAN cook King Pellanor

For a time, Britain became Rome, with an empire that spanned the globe. Like the Roman Empire before it, the British Empire believed that it had a mandate from heaven to invade your country and take whatever it wanted. As evidenced by the British crown – a bullyboy’s war bonnet festooned with trinkets nicked from all over the place. More recently, another country has 800 military bases that encircle the globe, extracting tithes and sending them back to the imperial center. McNeo-Roma

The Roman Empire’s military ambition drives the plot of BRITANNIA, but early scenes show Roman grunt soldiers spooked by the idea of crossing the channel and confronting the legendary creepy forest wizards who sent Mighty Caesar packing. Including a hilarious sequence with 2 soldiers ‘turning on, tuning in and dropping out’ after ingesting stolen mushrooms that turn out to be psychoactive.

Britannia: Cait & Divis
CAIT learns to fly

In this story of Druid death-magic & Roman Imperial violence, imagination is used to fill in the historical blanks (much like pachyderm DNA might be used to recreate a missing sequence in a mammoth genome). This grafted mock-history is often entertainingly outlandish. However, some of what I’d assumed to be Jez Butterworth’s dramatic exaggeration did in fact happen. 

Emperor Claudius really did come all the way to Britain with war elephants to celebrate early victories. That an emperor would make such a long journey seemed far fetched to me upon first viewing, but he made the trip to consolidate his position. Only newly on the the throne, Claudius perhaps wanted to appear strong, at a time when the Roman Army had enough power to make even a Roman Emperor nervous.

Britannia: Veran in the Henge
Chillin’ in the henge

Watching this BRITANNIA narrative unfold, made it clear to me that I have more in common with the Romans than my own Celtic ancestors. The expansionism of Roman thinking, is baked into everything I’ve been raised with. Who knows if Jez Butterworth’s version of Celts/Druids is accurate, but I enjoy this attempt to show what it might have been. 

16 thoughts on “TV sketching: BRITANNIA”

  1. And to think that all this time I believed the Asterix explanation that the Romans took Britain while the Brit’s were having their afternoon tea…

  2. “….a bullyboy’s war bonnet festooned with trinkets nicked from all over the place.” Hahaa! You hilarious, eloquent bastard! That’s the whole five volume text book on the British Empire in one sentence.

  3. I recall in one of the Arthurian legends there was a king who cut the beards off the leaders he had conquered and wove them into his cloak. His way of tea-bagging, I guess.

  4. Man, these illustrations are so great, Baker! I have no witticisms today, just raw gushing.

    Really inspired by the expressiveness of these characters in their respective dramas.

    On Howpia I have been learning lots about those motley tribes in Saxon land and beyond. I’ll watch the show to get some more of these fascinating Times.

  5. Great read, Mr Baker! It put me in mind of the opening passage of Conrad’s HEART OF DARKNESS, in which the narrator imagines Roman soldiers facing the wilderness before them, and likens ancient Britain to the novel’s up-river Africa. (“The horror! The horror!”) Our family’s English origin was reflected by the fact that, when we lived there, people knew how to pronounce my last name correctly. (Unlike the antipodean Bakers, we Evelyns only made it as far as Virginia.)

  6. Excellent coverage in word and sketches.
    Being a Chicago native, not educated too well, you have increased my historical knowledge somewhat, even though it’s theatre!

  7. Hi,
    James I enjoyed the history lesson, the only one I remember at school was All Quiet on Western Front.

    I don’t read much these days but might try and see if I can watch BRITANNIA somewhere.

    I gave 4 of my close friends a book for Xmas .. “The World, A Family History” by Simon Sebag.. You might want to check it out.

    Stay well and safe. Say hi to Julia, one day we may meet. Baci

    • Hey Lisa! Didn’t we study ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT at O’Connor? I know I read it a long time ago, when I was probably too young to appreciate it.
      Thanks for reading & commenting!

  8. Love that show. I believe recent thinking is that ‘Celts’ were more like an invading culture from Europe into Britain and it ranged from Germany to the Mediterranean with all the requisite influences (culinary, creative, fashion, weaponry etc). Apparently Welsh was the common language across the whole of Britain before the Brits were subsumed into Celtic culture although the language held on in our our little corner of the isle. A cultural ‘stew’ indeed – I like to think of it more like the delicious seafood cioppino they serve at Scoma’s on the wharf! Once those straight-road and plumbing loving Italians showed up the Welsh resistance were dubbed Celts while the Scots team were the Picts. Regular team playoffs saw Inter-Milan face the pasty locals dressed only in blue woad!

    • Yes! I saw a fascinating documentary that said ‘celt’ was a culture more than a ‘race’, and that the culture survived longest in the western part of Europe, even after it had died out in the regions where it began.. (as if England disappeared but their culture still survived in all their earlier colonies). And yes, your mob there in Cymru were the OG Brits! Who knows what the truth of it all is.. but it is fascinating to think about. I think one thing that becomes clearer over time is that ancient peoples were a lot more mobile than we’d once thought. What is now Britain has been a crossroads/mixing bowl for many thousands of years.

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