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 looks to Britain, still run by warring tribes, and sends the general Aulus Plautius to capture it and absorb it into the empire, for good this time. He succeeds. (Sort of.)

This is the history that Sky Atlantic’s new drama series, Britannia, is based on. But this is largely where the historical accuracy ends. There are very few sources about British life before the Roman Empire, and those that exist were written by the Romans themselves; they have a clear bias.

As a result, the show’s writer, Jez Butterworth, decided not to worry about representing an accurate history of Britain’s Roman invasion. He told The Guardian that he wanted to create something “tricksterish and unreliable” that is “more interested in character” and “doesn’t wear its research on its sleeve.”

The result is “baffling”, wrote one reviewer. Iron Age Britain is depicted as a magical world full of druids, sorcerers and warrior women, steeped in hallucinogenic ritual. Before Plautius crosses the channel, his troops fear that a giant squid lies beneath its waves — and in Britannia’s universe, this seem plausible.

It is “pointless”, historian Tom Holland wrote in The Sunday Times, “to sit in front of Britannia complaining” about historical inaccuracies. Much better to “turn on, tune in and drop out.”

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

This cavalier attitude to historical fiction is a dramatic contrast to a series like Netflix’s The Crown, which employs around ten historical researchers, plus a historical consultant, in its pursuit of authenticity.

But how much does this really matter?

Britannia rules

Of course it matters, argue some. When historical TV shows are based on actual events, they are a chance to introduce people to a fascinating past; they do not need to invent things to be exciting. Why, for example, does Britannia omit the character of Caratacus — a tribal king who led a fierce fight for independence against the Romans, earning the respect of Claudius himself? Not telling such stories is a wasted opportunity.

These details are not important, say others. There is so little known about pre-Roman history of Britain, Butterworth might as well start making it up. It is not the writer’s job to always be accurate; his job is to tell a good story. By experimenting with Britain’s myths and magic, Butterworth 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?
  2. Should TV shows try to be faithful to history?

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.
  2. Write the first scene of a historical TV show, set in a period of your choosing. Before you start, do as much research about the time and the events as you can.

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 43AD, 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. All ten episodes of Britannia’s first season are now available on Sky Atlantic.
What do we not know?
Little is known about the lives and traditions of Celtic Britain, although tools, weapons, jewellery and pottery have all been found in archaeological digs. However, there are no written sources about the society which are told in the people’s own words. We also do not know much about life in Roman Britain, although there are a few more accounts.

Word Watch

Claudius
The emperor took over after his predecessor, Caligula, was assassinated by his own bodyguard in 41AD. Until then Claudius had been a relatively minor member of the Roman imperial family, and so needed to consolidate his power.
Sort of
Rome eventually captured most of Britain, but never managed to invade Scotland successfully. It ruled for around 400 years before the empire disintegrated.
Bias
For example, Julius Caesar wrote about Britain based on his experiences there, undoubtedly coloured by his failure to capture the island.
Jez Butterworth
This is the writer’s first TV show, but he has already made his name as a playwright, with several award-winning productions, including Jerusalem and The Ferryman.
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. Very little is known about the druids’ religion, although it had a powerful connection with nature.
Thomas Malory
Author of Le Morte d'Arthur, stories of the legend of King Arthur.

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