Film, TV and the Arts

Film, TV and the Arts

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Sex, the Pope & HBO

As The Borgias gets going, Reel 6 looks at the appeal of the Renaissance

It is no surprise that the age of syphilis was a bit of a romp. It is certainly proving very fertile ground for TV networks, as we start getting our teeth into The Borgias on Sky Atlantic. Over the past few years, many have enjoyed The Tudors, though I found that my interest level in that was directly proportional to my hormone level: the more balanced I became, the more and more I became aware of the fact that Jonathan Rhys-Meyers believes that the sum-total of acting is making your eyes bulge.

Why is it then that the Reformation era is so often a source for big blockbuster TV series? The answers are many and simple.

Firstly, sex. Every good schoolboy knows that Henry VIII put it about a bit, and every naughty schoolgirl has a touch of Lucrezia Borgia in them. This was the time when “the pox” reared its head and spread like wildfire (it was, peculiarly, very common amongst the clergy). The networks are keen to cash in on the continental brothel which renaissance Europe sometimes appears to be.

So, there is shagging aplenty, largely from our main characters, though if they are distracted in an episode with trivial matters like a war with France or ruling over the largest religion in the world, there’s bound to be some busty maid downstairs, ready and waiting to relinquish her already questionable chastity to some lesser noble with bulging biceps and achillean abs.

Secondly, costumes. It is a truth universally acknowledged that we all love great costumes. Period dramas are so instantly popular that Nick Clegg would probably experience an increase in his ratings if he started donning a ruff. Sufficed to say, the 16th Century was a never ending catwalk of corsets, bodices and doublets. Everyone in the programmes, therefore, is spectacularly turned out, and no-one looks better than the clerics. The cardinals, especially, all decked out in red (even more opulent in HD), look very good this season. The public of course lap it up.

Finally, the acting. Much as audiences are attracted to programmes with plenty of period dress and sex, so actors are attracted to the scripts. In The Tudors, we endured Rhys-Meyers but devoured Sam Neill and Jeremy Northam. In The Borgias, we have Jeremy Irons at his very best, growling lines with his magnificent rasp. Lines like “What would Rome be without a good plot?”. Presumably, this show Jeremy.

Others to have graced these shows have been Derek Jacobi, Simon McBurney, Max von Sydow, Steven Berkoff and Peter O’Toole. So, whilst we watch the titillating nonsense playing out across the battleground of the Renaissance, the high-brow can say that the performances are very good. That’s true, but do we believe that this is anything other than an excuse?

I must say that I have found The Borgias better than The Tudors. The latter did follow the formula of sex – intrigue - more sex - war with the French – sex - Sam Neill – sex - Sam Neill having sex - peace with the French - oh no, war with the French again - one last bit of sex - end credits endlessly, and its surprisingly low production values, uncompelling central performance and flippancy with historical detail finally took their toll.

The Borgias appears to have been made with a deal of care, has a great cast and a magnificent central performance, but it hasn’t yet shown real flare in the script writing. Perhaps that will come with time, particularly as it does take some shows a while to really get going.

One thing the two have in common is this: as it stands, their advertising is more exciting than the actual programme.

The Borgias continues on Sky Atlantic, Saturdays at 9pm
The Tudors is available on DVD 

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