In The Mix

His Roads Led to the Romans

In his TV series debut, a noted playwright conjures a culture clash of 43 A.D.

Benji Wilson
  • Britannia’s Hugo Speer (left) and David Morrissey

    Stanislav Honzik/Amazon Prime Video
  • Jez Butterworth

    Matt Frost

Over his 25-year career, Jez Butterworth has written award-winning plays like Jerusalem and Mojo.

He's cowritten big-budget movies including Spectre, Black Mass and Edge of Tomorrow. His latest play, The Ferryman, is the hottest ticket in his native London and will most likely move to Broadway next year. But only now, at age 48, has he turned his hand to series television.

"There isn't really film the way there used to be 25, 30 years ago," he says, speaking at his London home. Instead, it's now television that offers "all of those chances to be as daring as can be."

So, Butterworth has written a TV show, although anyone familiar with his stage work will have guessed it is not your average diversion. Britannia, a nine-episode series for Amazon, is his take on the second Roman invasion of Britain in 43 A.D. And it is definitely his vision.

"Britannia really is the inside of Jez's mind," producer Rick McCallum (Star Wars) says. "I was speaking to his partner the other day, Laura [Donnelly], who's in the show, and she said, 'It's a dangerous place.'"

Butterworth says he'd "been really interested for years in any period of history where one set of gods and another set of gods have to come together and be different gods in the same time. Where one culture and another culture just sort of collide and say, 'Well, you believe this and we believe that — what are we going to end up believing?'"

That gave him license to explore hallucinating druids, pagan ritual and a voyage into a heart of darkness, with David Morrissey's Roman commander Aulus Plautius standing in for Joseph Conrad's Mr. Kurtz.

The whole thing has a trippy, psychedelic hue that couldn't be further from a history primer.

Butterworth notes he's interested in history, but not in turning it into drama. Instead, he writes about what might have been happening inside people's minds, particularly when they were a little out of their minds — which, in Britannia, is often.

"So much of what is ritual and what is considered sacred, so much of that happens in an altered state," he says. Britannia is "set at a time where altered states are valid; they are as real as can be."

The show is very much Butterworth's own invasion of TV. Sky, which made the program in the U.K., told him he was hired to bring his own sensibilities. In other words, he should, as he says, "Go for it." For example, episode one ran 20 minutes longer than the standard hour but was left unaltered.

That kind of leeway is a luxury he says has become the norm in high-end television drama. "What's been extraordinary about this process is, I've never been involved in anything outside the theater that's been more my call. I think a lot of television happens like that now: 'This is what we're doing, and people can like it or they can lump it.'"

And if people lump it?

"I don't care at all. I feel that with something like Britannia, one of two things is going to happen. It's going to completely fail and not appeal to anyone. Or it's broadcasting on a frequency that lots of people will spot a mile off. What I do know is, it won't be for everyone."

This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 2, 2018