Set in 43AD, anarchic drama Britannia follows the Roman army as they return to crush the Celtic heart of Britannia, a mysterious land led by warrior women and powerful Druids who claim to channel the forces of the underworld.
David Morrissey stars as Roman general Aulus, alongside Kelly Reilly, Zoe Wanamaker, Ian McDiarmid and Mackenzie Crook.
In this DQTV interview, Morrissey reveals what drew him to the unusual role and how he was captivated by the show’s stunning set design.
The actor and executive producer James Richardson also discuss working with co-creator Jez Butterworth, the acclaimed playwright behind Jerusalem and The Ferryman, and explain why this isn’t just another historical drama.
Britannia is produced by Vertigo Films and Neal Street Productions for Sky Atlantic and Amazon Prime Video in the US. Sky Vision is the distributor.
Hair, make-up and prosthetics designer Davina Lamont discusses her work on epic Sky and Amazon historical drama Britannia, in which a Roman army faces up to Druids and Celts in 43AD.
When Davina Lamont received a last-minute call asking her if she wanted to come and work on a “nice little Roman job,” there’s little chance she realised the scale of what was to come.
In fact, the hair, make-up and prosthetics designer could not have joined a more ambitious and visually striking series than Britannia, the Roman Empire-set drama coming to Sky Atlantic and Amazon.
But having worked on The Lord of the Rings film trilogy and series such as Sons of Liberty, Legends and two seasons of National Geographic’s Genius, she had the experience needed to bring to life the three vastly different tribes that feature in the story.
“They told me for Genius season one that they had this little project and it’s going to be a nice little script – and then it turned into a monster,” Lamont recalls. “Britannia was the same. I got called in at the last minute and was told, ‘It’ll be really cool.’ Then it just went crazy. But I’m happy for those jobs.
“Producers are starting to like the fact they have one designer who does all three, instead of splitting up the team and having a hair designer, prosthetic designer and make-up designer. They like the fact, budget-wise, they pay one person to do all three, and I enjoy it too. I love the fact I can go from one job to the next and it’s really different – and creatively different. I do prefer to take on those sorts of jobs – the big and difficult ones.”
In television, they don’t come much bigger than Britannia, which is set in 43AD and follows the Roman army as it sets out to crush the Celtic heart of the mysterious titular land, one led by warrior women and powerful Druids who claim to channel the forces of the underworld.
The nine-part historical drama stars Kelly Reilly as fearless Celtic princess Kerra, David Morrissey as Aulus, the head of the invading Roman army, Nikolaj Lie Kaas as rogue Druid Divis and Zoë Wanamaker as Celtic queen Antedia.
All episodes of the series, produced by Vertigo Films in association with Neal Street Productions and distributed by Sky Vision, are available to view from Thursday on Sky Atlantic and Now TV.
With just five weeks of pre-production to put her ideas together, Lamont worked with costume designer Ann Maskrey and production designer Tom Burton to create this unknown world and decide how they would represent the different tribes.
“Then from that point, we all went into this exploratory period,” Lamont says. “Five weeks was all we had to put it together. It was tough to try to figure out what the Druids were going to look like. I know they wanted a lot of tattoos and wanted some Vikings-cum-Game of Thrones elements involved. We just had to work it out and work out how it transcends into each and every tribe.”
That exploration process included plenty of trial and error. Lamont says she even questioned whether they should be putting tattoos on the Celtic king (Star Wars’ Ian McDiarmid, as Pellenor) and queen.
“It looked ridiculous,” she jokes. “There were times when I thought, “Oh my God, this is my last job.’ But then you put everybody else into the same world on the same set and you go, ‘Actually it looks phenomenal.’ It was scary to start with, especially with Veran.”
Veran is the leader of the Druids, a character feared and respected in equal measure and who claims to speak directly from the Gods. Portraying him on screen is Mackenzie Crook, known for turns in the Pirates of the Caribbean film franchise and TV series such as The Office and Detectorists. In Britannia, however, the star is unrecognisable, sporting a shaved head and several layers of prosthetics and make-up that give him a skeletal appearance, with dark sunken eyes and numerous facial tattoos and scars.
“Basically I woke up one morning and wanted to change him completely,” Lamont says of creating Crook’s appearance. “That’s how he came about. I designed the look and then I sent it off to the producers and told them to sit down because this was what I wanted to do with him. But they loved it and said go for it.
“When I rang up Mackenzie for the first time and we chatted over the phone, he said it was brilliant and was exactly what he wanted to have. So it was great, it worked out perfectly. He was brilliant, and then I said I had to shave his head – he was all for it.”
At that point, however, the scripts were still being pulled together by lead writers Jez Butterworth, Tom Butterworth and Richard McBrien so it was unclear how many days Crook would be required to get into costume. But thanks to Crook’s startling look and impressive performances, his screen time grew and grew.
“I don’t remember how many prosthetics we did on him in the end, it was massive,” Lamont says. “We made it to three to three-and-a-half hours for him [to get ready]. It’s a long time.”
Crook also came in with his own ideas for Veran’s image, in particular the little round hooks we see on the end of his finger nails.
“On the very first day we did his make-up, he came in with these hooks and started drilling into his nails,” Lamont remembers. “I was like, ‘What are you doing?’ He said, ‘I’ve got something to show you – I really want to do this.’ He drilled into his own nails with a drill and put these rings on. It was brilliant. So he’s fantastic to work with, he’s down for anything. He’s a brilliant actor.”
Speaking about his transformation, Crook says: “I found it brilliant. I loved every minute of it. From the design to going and having a cast made, and the daily ritual of putting it on, we started off at five hours and then they got it down to three-and-a-half – it was a brilliant process. Watching the skill of the make-up team and seeing myself slowly transformed in front of the mirror helped me get into and form the character.”
Another actor who spent plenty of time in make-up was Gershwyn Eustache Jr, who plays Vitus. Also a Druid and part of Veran’s gang, he needed to have a similar look, calling for more tattoos and scarification on his face. Lamont continues: “We also had Divis (Lie Kaas). We really didn’t know what we were going to do with him. At one point he was also going to have a shaved head, and then the producers really loved the fact we etched runes into his forehead and made them like scarification. Everybody had tattoos, prosthetics, contact lenses, big battle wounds. Every single character had something.”
With the amount of money washing through television drama these days, you might expect the design teams get to play with a bigger budget, especially on a show such as Britannia. Yet Lamont says the figures she has worked with over the last few years haven’t seen the same upward trend as overall series budgets.
“They like to start off by giving me a budget that’s really small,” she explains. “But then the scripts don’t portray the budget I have. Nearly every job over the last 10 years, especially in TV now, I get a budget and it’s nowhere near close enough to what [we need for what] we have to do. My budgets do end up getting a lot bigger. Especially on Britannia, the scripts were still being developed as we were going along so we really didn’t know what would come up in the mix or all the new characters coming through. It was a big guessing game.
“When you don’t know what’s coming up, it gets really expensive because you have to have a number of wigs on hire or made and prosthetics that have to come with it. That’s what happened with Veran’s lot. We didn’t know there were going to be three other actors involved so they became big elements for us. It’s definitely changed from what TV used to be, even 10 years ago, when you could pretty much picture the budget. Now we’re basically doing five feature films in one TV show.”
Unsurprisingly, bigger budgets are demanded by dramas at the fantasy end of the spectrum, as opposed real-world stories on which Lamont has worked on like Top of the Lake. The designer admits she doesn’t know why she continues to be drawn back to genre shows, but says part of the fun is getting to create new worlds for each job.
“I feel like I’m probably meant to be in the fantasy world but I love the fact I can go from a job like Britannia and then go and do a job like Genius,” she adds. “They’re hugely different. With Genius, I have to make people look like they were from the 1900s, like Picasso [season two] and Einstein [season one] – actual people from the past. I love recreating people in that way. I’ve never really been into fantasy but I always get pushed into that genre, so I’ll run with it for now.”
Britannia, Sky Atlantic’s epic Romans-in-Britain drama, debuts early next year. Ahead of the show’s world premiere at Mipcom this week, DQ talks to Sky drama chiefs Anne Mensah and Cameron Roach.
After the success of Sky Atlantic’s Penny Dreadful and sister channel Sky1’s Jamestown, period drama appears to be working well for Sky drama commissioners Anne Mensah and Cameron Roach.
It’s been 10 years since HBO’s classic Rome (and four since Starz’s Spartacus), but the satcaster looks to be taking advantage of a renewed interest in classical history on TV, with Britannia set to debut in January 2018.
Bad Wolf’s Jane Tranter was, of course, responsible for overseeing Rome for HBO and the BBC alongside Anne Thomopoulos
And while it isn’t set in the same era, BBC1’s upcoming £8.5m (US$11.3m)-per-episode show Troy: Fall of a City certainly shares some of the appeal of these ‘sword & sandal’ drama series.
The success of Game of Thrones, with its dynastic bloodletting, treachery, hedonism and epic battles, has probably helped spark an increase in curiosity about Ancient Rome, while HBO’s 2005-07 series was felt by industry insiders to have been something of a dry run for Thrones itself, brought to grief by budgetary issues.
Rome stars James Purefoy (Mark Antony) and Kevin McKidd (Lucius Vorenus) went on the record saying they wouldn’t join former colleagues Ciaran Hinds, Indira Varma or Tobias Menzies in the hit series because they thought Rome was cancelled to set up Game of Thrones’ success.
More recently, two cinema releases used the Roman occupation of Britain south of the Antonine Wall and the disappearance of the Ninth Legion as subject matter – 2010’s Centurion (directed by regular Thrones helmer Neil Marshall), which coincidentally starred Britannia’s David Morrissey (The Walking Dead) as a veteran legionary, and the following year’s The Eagle with a cast led by Channing Tatum and Jamie Bell.
Britannia scribe Jez Butterworth has also previously tried his hand at the Roman era, co-writing 2007’s The Last Legion with his brother Tom. The film was set in the dying days of the Western Empire and starred Colin Firth, Ben Kingsley and Rome’s Kevin McKidd.
The movie also featured no fewer than five prominent Thrones castmembers – Iain Glen (Jorah Mormont), Owen Teale (Alliser Thorne), Robert Pugh (Craster), James Cosmo (Joer Mormont) and Alexander Siddig (the gout-ridden Prince Doran Martell).
For Britannia, Butterworth has once again partnered with his brother Tom and James Richardson to create a story set in AD43 that follows the Roman army as it returns to conquer the land held by warrior women and powerful Druids who claim to channel the forces of the underworld.
Kelly Reilly (True Detective) plays Kerra, daughter of the King of the Cantii, who is forced to put her differences with arch-rival Queen Antedia (Zoe Wanamaker) aside to face their invaders. The Romans, led by General Aulus Plautius (Morrissey), are determined to succeed where Julius Caesar failed and conquer this mythical land at the far edge of the Roman Empire.
As tribes and Druids, led by Mackenzie Crook’s Veran, unite to fight the Romans, Kerra is thrust into the most important role of her life as she spearheads the resistance against the might of the Roman army.
The show is produced by Vertigo Films and Neal Street Productions and distributed by Sky Vision. It will also air on Sky Atlantic in Ireland, Germany and Italy, while Amazon Prime holds the US rights.
Asked if there were any particular influences that led to the commissioning of Britannia, Roach says: “The fact that period drama in the shape of Penny Dreadful worked for Sky Atlantic led us to look at something similarly experiential, with Britannia offering a truly original experience – one that doesn’t ape other shows.”
Mensah is also keen to emphasise the “visceral” nature of Britannia: “It combines epic scale with a human, personal level – some of the communal pagan rites that the Britons and Druids go through bear comparison to modern-day festivals such as Burning Man.”
Mensah is confident the show’s presumably hefty budget will all be up on the screen for viewers to see. With more than 200 people working on the production and reconstructions of Stonehenge and the Celtic underworld (which included animating hundreds of life-size skeletons and disembodied skulls), Britannia doesn’t aim to stint on arresting visuals.
Flashes of unexpected Burning Man-type modernity will apparently not be reflected in the show’s dialogue, which Mensah and Roach assure will stay true to Butterworth’s “unique voice,” rather than attempt a cod-Classical or a slangy contemporary style.
Although Butterworth did not consciously base Britannia on any specific contemporary account of the Roman invasion of Britain (the third after Julius Caesar’s two abortive attempts a century earlier), he did consult with historian Jonathan Stamp – a BBC History producer and a consultant for HBO’s Rome – to ensure the look and veracity of the series was generally accurate.
In terms of casting, Mensah and Roach stress how happy they to secure such familiar and audience-friendly names as Morrissey, Reilly, Wanamaker, Crook (The Office), Ian McDiarmid (Star Wars) and Julian Rhind-Tutt (Green Wing), with fresh faces including The Enfield Haunting’s breakout star Eleanor Worthington Cox.
Crook previously co-starred with Mark Rylance in Butterworth’s hit stage play Jerusalem.
The visual style of Britannia is also going to be a change from some of the bleakness and windswept vistas seen in similar genre pieces such as the aforementioned Centurion, with Roach promising “a look to the show that really hasn’t been seen before, with lush primary colours and a vibrancy not usually associated with period drama.”
Both Roach and Mensah stress that amid the carnage of the invasion, Britannia will not be without humour, and that the Romans, although understandably the antagonists in the series, will possess shades of grey, as will the native Britons and the Druids.
“Complex characters and believable motivations” are key, according to Mensah, hence Britannia’s presence on Sky Atlantic – which, according to Sky Entertainment director of programmes Zai Bennett, is primarily the home of “heavily serialised, smart, grown-up storytelling,” in contrast to Sky1, where series such as Stan Lee’s Lucky Man have “really clear heroes and villains.”
And while Mensah and Roach are wary of comparisons with Game of Thrones, they are upbeat on the prospect of Britannia extending beyond season one, with story arcs mapped out at least to a possible third season.
In Mensah’s words: “The ambition is to be big.”
With speculation rife that Thrones’ eighth and final season will not appear until 2019 and the attendant spin-offs in the following years, Britannia may have the potential to provide Sky with a homegrown show appealing to a similar audience, which could score a swift season two pick-up (as have Tin Star for Sky Atlantic and Jamestown for Sky1), echoing the success of Vikings for History.
Like office workers using up their holiday entitlement before the end of the year, TV channels are rushing to greenlight scripted shows before they shut up shop for the holiday season.
Among those celebrating this festive bounty is UK producer Neal Street Productions, which has just been given the greenlight by the BBC to produce a sixth season of period drama Call the Midwife. The new order comes despite the fact season five has yet to air.
Neal Street executive producer Pippa Harris said: “I am delighted the BBC has decided to commission season six of Call the Midwife even before we have gone on air with season five. It really demonstrates their commitment to and passion for the show. The success of Call the Midwife is down to the incredible writing skills of Heidi Thomas and the talent and dedication of our wonderful cast and crew. I hope the audience will enjoy watching season five, which I firmly believe is our strongest yet.”
In the US, meanwhile, protests in front of HBO’s offices seem to have paid off, with the premium pay TV channel announcing that it has ordered a third season of critically acclaimed drama The Leftovers.
Fans of the show were so desperate for a renewal that they took to the streets to make their feelings felt – and it seems the channel has listened: “It is with great enthusiasm that we welcome back Damon Lindelof, Tom Perrotta (the creators) and the extraordinary talent behind The Leftovers for its third and final season,” said HBO programming head Michael Lombardo. “This show has proven to be one of the most distinctive HBO series, and we are extremely proud of its originality, which has resulted in such a passionate following by our HBO viewers. We admire and fully support Damon’s artistic vision and respect his decision to bring the show to its conclusion next season.”
As Lombardo’s comments make clear, next year will be the final season of The Leftovers. This is a neat way of giving the fanbase what they want and allowing the show’s creators to achieve closure, while tacitly acknowledging the fact that the show has not done that well in the ratings.
“On behalf of our incredible crew and superb cast, we are all tremendously grateful that HBO is giving us an opportunity to conclude the show on our own terms,” said Lindelof in a statement. “An opportunity like this one rarely comes along, and we have every intention of living up to it.”
Over in Canada, public broadcaster CBC has greenlit a four-part miniseries from producer Shaftesbury and Sharon Mustos. Based on Ann-Marie MacDonald’s novel Fall On Your Knees, the story follows four sisters in the early 1900s.
Moving from Nova Scotia via the battlefields of the First World War to the emerging jazz scene of Harlem in New York City, the show is described as the riveting tale of a family beset by hidden desires, terrible secrets, intolerance and repression.
Mustos said: “I am proud to bring this much-loved, acclaimed novel to the screen in partnership with Shaftesbury. Celebrating the quiet heroism of women in the face of heartbreak, adversity and the sweeping changes of the early 20th century, it is a remarkable story.”
Published in 1996, Fall On Your Knees has been translated into more than 20 languages and will be adapted by Adriana Maggs.
Meanwhile, it’s not quite a renewal but NBC in the US has given a hefty vote of confidence to freshman medical drama Chicago Med, which has been awarded five extra episodes. Part of a Chicago trilogy of TV shows from Dick Wolf, the first four episodes of Med’s first season have averaged 8.9 million viewers in live + same-day ratings. With the new instalments, the total order for season one is up to 18 episodes.
Still with the US networks, Fox has ordered Shots Fired, a drama that will be written and executive produced by Gina Prince-Bythewood and Reggie Rock Bythewood. The show, set to air in 2016, looks at the tensions that arise when a black police officer shoots an unarmed white teen in a small town in Tennessee.
David Madden, president of entertainment at Fox Broadcasting Company, said: “Gina and Reggie have crafted a profoundly moving portrayal of a timely and sensitive issue that pervades our culture at this very moment. This is not only an important story to tell, but also an explosive mystery-thriller, and we couldn’t be in better hands both with the creative team behind this and Sanaa Lathan leading the cast.” Lathan plays an expert investigator who digs into the case, alongside a special prosecutor sent to the town by the Department of Justice.
One of the most hotly anticipated series of the new year is Fox’s six-part reboot of The X-Files, which debuts on January 24. The show has now been picked up by Channel 5 in the UK.
“Securing the UK premiere of the hugely anticipated return of The X-Files is a major coup for the channel and will create one of the TV events of 2016,” said Ben Frow, director of programmes at C5. “This acquisition underlines our ambition to deliver a diverse slate of brilliant, must-see programming on Channel 5.”
With Downton Abbey over, the key participants are now out there looking for their next job. Last week, we reported that season five and six producer Chris Croucher is now working on ITV drama The Halcyon, while creator Julian Fellowes has been crafting his version of Anthony Trollope’s Dr Thorne.
Meanwhile, US cable channel TNT has announced that it is going to series with Good Behaviour, the story of a thief and con artist that will star Michelle Dockery (Lady Mary in Downton). It’s not clear if Dockery will have to use an American accent in her new role, but if you’re wondering whether she can, watch this appearance on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert.
With Downton done, there are reports that the show’s production company Carnival has won a second-season commission from BBC2 for The Last Kingdom, which has just finished its first season. There has been no official confirmation yet but executive producer Gareth Neame has already sketched out the plot and character development for a follow-up. The show is based on a series of novels by Bernard Cornwell, whose work also gave rise to the long-running Sharpe franchise (set during the Napoleonic Wars).
Switching briefly to corporate news, this week has seen suggestions that SVoD platform Netflix is gearing up to launch in the Middle East next year, while rival streamer Amazon has started offering its users access to cable channels such as Showtime and Starz.
Under a new scheme entitled the Streaming Partners Programme, Amazon Prime members can pick and choose SVoD versions of famous TV channels – a move that may well push the pay TV subscribers further towards cord-cutting. Showtime and Starz will be available for US$8.99 per month, with the promise that the latest episodes of series will be available simultaneous with broadcast.
“The way people watch TV is changing, and customers need an easier way to subscribe to and enjoy multiple streaming subscriptions,” said Michael Paull, VP of digital video at Amazon. “With the Streaming Partners Programme, we’re making it easy for video providers to reach highly engaged Prime members, many of whom are already frequent streamers, and we’re making it easier for viewers to watch their favourite shows and channels.”
David Nevins, president of Showtime Networks, said: “By marrying Showtime with the powerhouse retail capabilities of Amazon, we greatly expand our footprint, making sure our service is available to new subscribers whenever and however they want to watch us.”
Starz CEO Chris Albrecht added: “Starz is excited to offer subscriptions to our premium hit shows like Outlander and Power, as well as our thousands of movies, to Amazon Prime customers.”