“As dead as the ancient Britons.”
In the late seventies, British television was notable for series which generally kicked ass on the performance front, but suffered from woefully inadequate production values. The most well-known example is Doctor Who, but that was just the tip of a dramatic iceberg which included the likes of Blake’s 7 and this series: in some cases, you can look past or ignore the deficiencies, because the acting is good enough to counteract them. That, sadly, isn’t the case here, with Phillips (a compatriot of Diana Rigg and Glenda Jackson at RADA) sadly adrift as Boudicca, the queen of the Iceni who takes on the occupying Roman forces after her daughters are assaulted. Having enjoyed the 2003 version, with Alex Kingston in the title role, I thought I’d give this one a chance, but when a supposed army of 6,000 is represented by four chariots and, maybe, ten guys in animal skins, it’s hard not to notice.
Phillips is fine as the queen, possessing a certain royal gravitas that’s fitting. But the “warrior” part of the equation is all but neglected, with her fight against another tribe’s chief, to prove herself capable of leading the revolt, among the least-convincing in television history. She is also burdened with two daughters who appear largely to have strayed in from a family sit-com of the era, and Gothard as a loony Druid priest, perpetually burbling about “angering the Gods.” Perhaps the only other decent performance is Hawthorne as the Roman bureaucrat who is the trigger for, and the first to face, Boudicca’s wrath. He would go on to comedic stardom, playing Sir Humphrey Appleby in Yes, Minister, though is best known worldwide as Dr. Cocteau in Demolition Man, and brings much the same combination of world-weariness and snooty arrogance to this role.
However, the absolute poverty-row level of costumes, sets and (in particular) the battle scenes are easily what will leave the most lasting impression, and I don’t mean that in a good way: it’s hard to say how it might ever have past muster, even in the days of a less-sophisticated viewing audience (I was 12, and certainly less-sophisticated!). The net result is that this has all the impact of something made on the cheap for showing to schools, and given the trouble I had retaining consciousness, would likely not have enlivened even the dullest of history lessons.
Dir: Michael Custance and Neville Green
Star: Sian Phillips, Michael Gothard, Patti Love, Nigel Hawthorne