Ahead of series three of Britannia coming to Sky Atlantic on 24th, read an interview released by Sky with co-creator and writer Jez Butterworth...
Promising to be epic, action packed, full of humour and terrifying in equal measure, series three of Britannia sees a radical transformation in Cait’s (Eleanor Worthington-Cox) journey as the Chosen One with a decision that will tie her to the future of her war-torn people and their ravaged land. Aulus (David Morrissey) comes under pressure from a new and dark force - otherwise known as his wife (Sophie Okonedo), whilst Amena (Annabel Scholey) finds herself in a lethal Ménage à trois with both of them. Divis (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) gets a new job which he despises, and Veran goes to the underworld and sees the future.
Britannia was created by the multi-award-winning writers Jez Butterworth, his brother Tom Butterworth and James Richardson. Here's the interview with Jez...
Where do we find the characters at the start of this series?
We pick them up a few weeks or months after the ending of series two. Aulus is being honoured by Rome and the druids are licking their wounds.
At the beginning of series three you introduce a new character, Hemple, who is Aulus’s wife. Where did that idea come from – was it always part of the master plan?
It depends what you mean by the master plan! I mean, we very much have been creating Britannia by following goose bumps. We’ve known the general arc of it but she did suddenly crop up in our imaginations one night and we loved the idea of having somebody who is within the cult that Aulus follows, who is senior to him, who he kind of doesn't feel he has to answer to but he does. She has this kind of sort of ambiguous status that I think a lot of people might recognise in marriages: he thinks he's in control, and he's not. And there's something quite fun about that.
Really, it's kind of Fawlty Towers. We love these sorts of mashups. And the idea is taking something which could be a Darth Vader kind of relationship and making it more like Basil and Sybil.
What does it do to Aulus’s standing when she turns up?
I think it does everything that that implies. It rocks his world; it makes him feel much smaller and more under pressure than he was. It brings out the whole idea of the sacrifices that he has made. Also, the idea that, on a more historical serious note, there were dozens and dozens of competing cults around this particular time, of which Christianity was just the one that caught the wind and stuck. The cult that we’ve devised is a very powerful faith, but it lacks any sense of forgiveness. It's kind of a fascist faith, really, and as such you see what it lacks compared to what Christianity had at that point.
So yes, it's tremendous fun just to draw in the ideas of a set of beliefs and tenets that could be completely made up but contain all kinds of recognisable elements.
In the first episode there’s a flashback to Aulus doing something terrible, and then we see him trying to deal with those demons. Would you say forgiveness is a major theme in this series?
I would say definitely. I think the opportunity that ongoing drama presents to the writer is the chance to endlessly fill in the backstory and motivation of characters. I'm pretty sure that when JRR Tolkien wrote, “In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit”, he didn't have any idea what path that was going to end up taking.
By bringing in Hemple you do also get to explore the image we have of Romans with their orgies and decadence, don’t you?
We do, and I think the real fun is that we’re not really showing you a Roman model of that, we’re showing you a cult within the model and as such, the Romans are actually cast as rather strait-laced and ordinary by comparison. It’s kind of fun to subvert that and dial it up out loud.
Tell me about the casting of Sophie Okonedo.
It’s a real measure of where we've got with Britannia that actors of her calibre would wish to be a part of our adventure. And she really is one of the absolute best. I've wanted to work with her for years and years, I love her work in the theatre. I think she’s just incomparably good. It’s such a thrill when people like that want to get involved and she's been fantastic.
Talking of evolving characters, we see the more vulnerable side of several other characters, and I’m thinking in particular of Queen Antedia. Having not seen her much at all in series two, were you always planning to bring her back for the third series?
I tell you, it’s not easy saying to Zoe Wanamaker, “We’re going to put you aside for an entire year but when you come back here and you'll be front and centre”! But there's been an enormous amount of trust from the actors from the beginning in the experiment. When we were working on series one, they didn't really know whether their arcs were headed, but who does know where they're headed in real life? I don't know what my arc is! But yeah, she's back in this series and she comes back into full effect. And again, that’s the calibre of actors we’ve got and it’s fantastic.
Moving on to Cait, she was a child when you started series one and is now a grown woman and so her arc reflects that. Was that enjoyable to do?
Once we realised that this adventure might continue, we knew that we were going to have this unique opportunity to have Eleanor go from – I think she was 15 when we started and she just turned 20 last month – so we’ve been able to paint somebody’s journey from childhood into adulthood which is a fabulous opportunity. I feel really, grateful to her for giving us all of that time and energy at such a crucial juncture in her life. She's pulled it off so, so effortlessly. It's pretty extraordinary.
A lot of the joy of this season comes from some characters who have not necessarily had scenes together before, coming together on a road trip to become the Magnificent Seven. Where did that idea come from?
Again, one of the really fun things about series drama is that you can have all of these characters that are entirely disparate, that are on completely different sides of the board, and as the action unfolds you can bring them together and make it look like that’s what you always had planned!
I’m joking. We did always know that it was going to become a quest centred on Cait but we wanted to hold off for as long as possible so that with the characters that you had on that journey, you knew so much about them already but they had so much to find out about one another.
And it gives you an opportunity to put Phelan and Divas together. Tell me about their relationship.
Well, one of the joys of getting to come back to these things is that you realise what actors are capable of. We realised quite quickly in series one that Nickolaj and Julian were just hilarious. And talking about what we found funny about those characters and leaning into that was so much fun.
I think Phelan - or Kwunt as he is now - his Job-like journey where he’s put through every single wringer we could think of, and yet he keeps buoyant – is such fun, and there’s something about a character like Divis who can’t be wrong is just funny.
And where do we find Veran?
Veran is one of the few that's aware of the overall picture in this crisis that they're facing. It’s kind of like being someone who has all the facts on global warming. Other people don't know, but he can sense that the druids are ultimately losing this battle and that the tectonic plates of history, and the movement of the gods, is shifting away from them. An audience has the benefit of knowing that to be the case and so it's kind of fascinating to be able to play this kind of fantasy-feel story in a historical context because you know, of course, what happens to the druids.
Mackenzie Crook directed some episodes. Why did you want him to direct?
I just think he's one of the absolute best we have in this country. He can absolutely do anything. When we cast him, he was not known for playing that kind of visceral, searing, incredibly powerful character, and he pulls it off. In fact, he did it with two characters in series two. He’s kind of become the soul of Britannia.
The first series opened with the crucifixes and that theme, along with Lucius, return in the third series. Did you have any trepidation about doing that?
It’s been a subject for drama, painting and songs for millennia now. I feel that what we're adding to it is probably more with the spirit of something like Monty Python. If Christianity has to worry about us, then that’s a problem. The scenes of Queen Antedia and Cait getting revenge on men, or using men to gain money and power, are interesting.
In the last year we have seen a lot of anger from women about safety on our streets, sexism and abuse. Did you feel that bubbling up and respond to it, or was that just what you wanted to do with those characters?
It’s more that you look at the colours that you have in your palette, and where you want to play it, and my mind just got drawn there. It’s been thrilling to discover that's where the drama goes now. In the Magnificent Seven, the majority of them are women. It's just been how it’s gone. It wouldn’t feel real if we were doing it for any other reason. We cast those great actors and then we yearn to use them as much as possible.
How big are you going with battles and action sequences?
We went as large as we could. We always throw everything we can at this, but my penchant is towards small effects that are huge. It is fun to really get the pyrotechnics out, but it has to be for a reason because people have seen so many pointless firework displays at the end of movies. The story comes first but yeah, if there’s a reason for it then it’s great fun blowing stuff up.
Who’s your favourite character to write for?
Whoever I’m writing for at that particular time, really. We love everyone now. By the time we got to the third series it’s incredible how easy it is to find yourself just killing someone off who you’re not that into! There are characters you are drawn to and I think it’s one of the reasons why third and fourth series of any TV show tend to be the best because by that time, your squad is pretty fine-tuned. If I had to pick an absolute favourite, I would have to pick Divis.
Do you have a favourite line from Divis?
“Shut it, Kwunt”.
How much longer do you think Britannia can continue?
Well, we’ve got another 2,000 years to go in terms of its historical source, so I hope we’ve got a few more in us yet.
All episodes of Britannia series three will be available on Tuesday the 24th of August on Sky Atlantic and NOW. Viewers can catch up on all episodes of the first two series of Britannia on-demand on Sky and NOW.
Image & info - Sky