Game of Clones: new drama finds ancient inspiration

Vast landscapes, vengeful gods, British accents, mud, horses and violence - from the opening frames Amazon's new show Britannia has the distinct whiff of what you might call a distinctly Throney Game.

The comparison falters when you watch a few more episodes - Britannia tells the story of the second Roman invasion of Britain, meaning it's set more than a thousand years before Game of Thrones (AD 43 as opposed to Thrones' quasi-medieval timeline). Moreover, Britannia is based on history as opposed to vaguely historical fantasy (the second Roman invasion of Britain rather than Thrones' cipher of the War of the Roses). And yet Britannia is not exactly History Channel material either - as creator Jez Butterworth puts it, "I'm as interested as the next person in historical events but turning it in to drama? I'm not interested in that remotely. There's got to be a really good and personal and quite visceral reason to want to do it and for me it was the idea of these two pantheons of gods, the Roman and the druidic, coming together."

The result is what hippies might call a proper trip, with all the good and bad that implies - Britannia has enough druidic dream sequences and voyages in to the mental badlands to make it look at times like a Jefferson Airplane video. Set against the backdrop of the second Roman invasion of Britain in AD 43, it tells the story of the real Roman commander Aulus Plautius (David Morrissey) who under the Emperor Claudius led his army to the land of the Celts and the Druids that had confounded Julius Caesar nearly a century before. Eventually, as we know, he conquered it.

Yet you can't get away from Thrones: Aulus' tactic to civilise the natives in Britannia, for example, is to set two of Britain's ruling tribes, the Cantii and the Regnii, against each other, in a powerplay that Cersei Lannister would be proud of. There are kings and camps and pelts and warpaint. The shadow of the iron throne looms large.

The fact remains that when the biggest show on the planet is about warring tribes, lords of light and bare-knuckle battles for dominance, then anything that strays in to that territory is going to be compared to it. The problem for new shows launching when Thrones is still running is that HBO's behemoth takes some beating: buoyed by seven seasons of success, it has a very big budget indeed.

"Britannia's big but it's not as big as Game of Thrones because they have five to six times more money than we do," says producer Rick McCallum.

Production designer Tom Burton says: "We were trying to keep it grounded in reality. So we built Stonehenge - and it looks exactly like Stonehenge, even to the point where we knew what days we were going to shoot it, so we positioned it so the sunset shone on it at the right time, just like the real Stonehenge. It's not the kind of show where dragons are going to be flying."

"It's not," he adds unprompted, "Game of Thrones."

"But then again," says producer Rick McCallum, "it's not trying to compete in that kind of world. This is the Celts, the Romans, and then the Druids, who are the spokespersons for the gods. And then there's this other world, the underworld, that the dead go to - that everybody is trying to get to. The show really is the inside of Jez's mind. I was speaking to his partner the other day, Laura [Donnelly], who's in the series and she said, 'it's a dangerous place'."

Butterworth for his part is adamant that Britannia is not a knock-off.

"I've never seen a single episode of Game of Thrones," he says, speaking at his home in London. "I would probably enjoy it if I had! In truth I don't get the time to watch any telly."

Britannia is his first foray into series television after a lauded career as a playwright (his play The Ferryman is currently London's biggest draw) and on the big screen (he co-wrote the most recent Bond film).

"I feel that going into writing your first telly thing, the last thing you should do is watch seven series of this or that show."

Instead, Britannia follows a different path. There is enough Thrones in there to satisfy the demands of the zeitgeist, schooled as we are in big set-pieces and breakneck plot twists, but Butterworth's interest, at least, is not in power as a zero-sum game. Aulus' quest changes from a militaristic to a spiritual once as he encounters the druids, in a conscious echo of Colonel Kurtz going native in Apocalypse Now.

It's certainly a touch more nuanced than All Men Must Die.

WHAT:Britannia
WHEN: Streaming soon on Amazon Prime

This story Game of Clones: new drama finds ancient inspiration first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.