Friday 1 May 2015

Warrior Queen (1978)

Warrior Queen is a six-part 1978 British television series dealing with Queen Boudicca’s revolt against the Romans in AD 61. It’s an ambitious idea and it’s not without interest but it is sadly somewhat let down by a minuscule budget.

Warrior Queen was made by Thames TV and was undoubtedly inspired by the huge success the BBC had had with the superb I, Claudius series a year earlier. Welsh actress Siân Phillips had played the wicked but fascinating Empress Livia in that series and had created something of a sensation. Starring her in another historical drama, especially in such an iconic rôle, must have seemed like a splendid idea at the time.

The series begins with the death of the king of the Iceni, a British tribe that had been allied to Rome. Roman imperial policy in dealing with client kingdoms was to annex the kingdom on the death of the client king. The king of the Iceni has tried to forestall this by making a will leaving half his kingdom to Rome and half to his two grand-daughters. The king has however not counted on the rapacity and foolishness of the Roman procurator Catus Decianus (Nigel Hawthorne). The procurator has the king’s widow Boudicca (sometimes known as Boadicea) flogged while Boudicca’s two daughters are raped.

Boudicca is not prepared to let this outrage pass. Encouraged by the druid priest Volthan (Michael Gothard) she decides on open revolt. To have any chance of success she will need allies from other British tribes. She establishes herself as leader of the revolt by defeating Morticcus, king of the Catuvellauni, in single combat.

The revolt goes well at first but challenging the Roman Empire was not something to be undertaken lightly. The Roman Ninth Legion is destroyed in battle and Boudicca’s Britons sack the cities of Verulamium, Camulodunum and Londinium. The Britons will however still have to face the army of Suetonius Paulinus, a tough professional soldier.

The casting of Siân Phillips as Boudicca is generally successful. She has the kind of charisma to make a believable leader although she’s less confident in action scenes. Her single combat with Morticcus is ludicrously unconvincing and quite embarrassingly badly staged.

Nigel Hawthorne as Catus Decianus gives exactly the kind of overripe performance you’d expect from the actor who went on the win fame as Sir Humphrey Appleby in Yes Minister. Hawthorne plays the procurator as a full-blown melodrama villain. He doesn’t actually twirl his moustaches when contemplating evilness (Romans being clean-shaven) but you know that if he did have moustaches he’d be twirling them. Surprisingly the performance works.

The standout performance however is by Michael Gothard as the druid priest Volthan. Volthan is actually the most interesting character in the series. Catus Decianus is pure wickedness and Boudicca is brave and noble but Volthan is more ambiguous. To a certain extent he manipulates Boudicca for his own ends but at the same time there’s no question of his ultimate loyalty or of the ferocity and sincerity of his hatred of the Romans. At times he’s a wise adviser, at other times he can be seen as an evil genius propelling Boudicca towards a tragic fate.

The series does take a rather sceptical (or at least ambivalent) stance towards the druids. If the Romans are stereotypical bad guys and the Britons are depicted as stereotypical good guys then the druids are something else again. The series makes it plain that the druid religion was pretty savage and Volthan is most certainly a fanatic. He is not however an outright villain. He is totally sincere in his belief that cataclysmic disaster will inevitably follow if the Britons turn away from their old gods. 

Michael Gothard goes totally over-the-top, all crazed eyes and doing some delightfully creepy wolf growls. The scenes where Volthan writhes on the ground in a wolf-skin are probably the most striking scenes in the whole series. And the most effective - those scenes really do convince us that we are dealing with a civilisation that is very alien in its values. It’s also makes it easy to understand why the Romans regard the Celtic inhabitants of Britain as complete barbarians.

The sets and costumes are reasonably good and the makeup (when the Britons paint their face prior to battle) is effective. The problems with this series arise when it comes to the battle scenes. This is after all a story of war. The battle scenes are crucial. And it’s not easy to do memorable battle scenes when you only have a couple of dozen extras. The method chosen to get around the difficulty is to use lots of freeze-frames and close-ups but it’s hardly satisfactory. Most fatally we just don’t get any genuine sense of the might of Imperial Rome, or of the awe the Roman soldiers must have felt when facing Boudicca’s army which at its peak certainly numbered many tens of thousands.

In 1978 British television’s obsession with gritty realism was starting to reach its high-water mark and at least some of that obsession is on display here. Warrior Queen does pull its punches at times, perhaps not altogether surprising since the half-hour format suggests the series was originally aimed at younger viewers. On the other hand there are some quite grim moments, and some very grim concepts, so I can't say I’m entirely sure it was ideal viewing for the kiddies.

The overall atmosphere is fairly convincingly grungy, very much in the style that became increasingly popular for historical dramas.

Warrior Queen has its problems. As spectacle it falls pretty flat. It does feature some fine acting though, Volthan is a wonderfully larger-than-life figure, and the series moves along at a pleasingly brisk pace. The basic story is reasonably accurate historically. And it’s generally quite entertaining. I’m quite happy to give this one a recommendation and if you’re a fan of British historical dramas you’ll definitely want to see it. Worth a purchase. Network’s single-disc DVD release looks perfectly fine.


  1. The series was actually a children's TV production, shown in the early afternoon (before 5.30pm). Viewed that way, it's rather an impressive production. It was part of an era when Kid's TV was really pushing the boundaries of what was acceptable for the 'little ones'. You can see what the makers were intending to do, but the budget simply wasn't big enough to make it work. It's probably a shame that they didn't go for broke and do it as an adult show, as the kids department simply did have the dosh to do it justice.

  2. A concise description of my memory