Britannia verdict: rubbish history, great TV

Toil and trouble: Mackenzie Crook plays a druid, and spent five hours in make-up daily. © Sky

Should historical TV shows be accurate? The author of Britannia, which millions will start watching this weekend, says the facts do not matter and he hopes it will enrage “the pedants”.

The year is 43AD, almost a century after Julius Caesar tried — and failed — to invade the British isles. Rome’s newest emperor, Claudius, needs a political victory. So he decides to try again, and sends the general Aulus Plautius to invade and absorb Britain into the empire. He succeeds. (Sort of.)

This is the history that Sky Atlantic’s new drama series, Britannia, is based on. But there are very few sources about British life before the Roman Empire; much of it remains a mystery.

As a result, the show’s writer, Jez Butterworth, decided not to worry about creating an accurate retelling of Britain’s Roman invasion. He told The Guardian that he wanted to create something “tricksterish and unreliable” that is “more interested in character”.

In the show, Iron Age Britain is shown as a magical world full of druids and sorcerers, rituals and gods.

It is “pointless”, The Sunday Times wrote this weekend, “to sit in front of Britannia complaining” about mistakes.

When asked by The Guardian if his story will enrage pedants, Butterworth responded that “I actually hope it does.”

But how much does historical accuracy really matter?

Britannia rules

Of course it matters, argue some. When historical shows are based on actual events, they are a chance to introduce people to a fascinating past. Instead, Britannia ignores interesting historical figures like Caratacus — a tribal king who led a fierce fight for independence against the Romans. It is a wasted opportunity.

These details are not important, say others. It is not Butterworth’s job to always be accurate; his job is to tell a good story. By experimenting with Britain’s myths and magic, he is taking his place in a great folk tradition that stretches all the way back to Shakespeare and Thomas Malory. Good for him.

You Decide

  1. Does Britannia sound like a good show?

Activities

  1. Think back to a historical film, TV show or novel that you have enjoyed. Write down three things that it taught you about the past.

Some People Say...

“History is not the past — it is the method we have evolved of organising our ignorance of the past.”

Hilary Mantel

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The Roman Empire invaded Britain for the second time in 43 AD, and eventually gained control over the southern half. Before this, Britain was home to several Celtic tribes and kingdoms, with their own cultures and religions.
What do we not know?
Little is known about Celtic Britain, although tools, weapons, jewellery and pottery have all been found in archaeological digs.

Word Watch

Claudius
The emperor took over after his predecessor, Caligula, was assassinated by his own bodyguard in 41AD.
Sort of
Rome eventually captured most of Britain, but never Scotland. The empire ruled for around 400 years.
Iron Age
The period from the first use of iron to make tools in Great Britain, up to its Roman invasion.
Druids
Priests in Celtic, iron age Britain, who also acted as teachers, healers and judges.
Thomas Malory
Author of Le Morte d'Arthur, stories of the legend of King Arthur.