Historical rumpy pumpy in the Wacky Races of the Renaissance
TV REVIEW:AS INSIDERS KNOW, The Borgias (Sky Atlantic, Saturday) has long been a pet project for Neil Jordan. Of course, the working title in the early days was SexPope: Historical Rumpy Pumpy!, and Jordan despaired of ever getting it made. “The people just aren’t interested in breasts and ultraviolence any more!” he probably sighed. “Why don’t you shoehorn in some crowd-pleasing cod philosophy, wordy dialogue and real historical figures?” a helpful TV executive probably replied.
Jordan did just that, The Borgias was created and the rest is history (and hence probably already being turned into a raunchy historical drama by someone else). In fact The Borgias was so successful that it has just returned for a second series (working title: SexPope II: Pontifical Boom Boom!).
Luckily, Jeremy Irons knows exactly the kind of sex comedy he’s embroiled in and plays Rodrigo Borgia, the eponymous SexPope, as a mixture of drunk Peter Cook and Tim Nice-but-Dim, talking as if he’s got something in his mouth. He does have something in his mouth. It’s the scenery. And watching him chew it is one of the chief joys of watching The Borgias.
He begins the new series by trying to get a naked lady out of his bedchamber before Giulia, his official mistress, discovers her. (This should really have been soundtracked by the Benny Hill music played on a lute.) Elsewhere, his malevolent son poisons a troublesome priest before having a sword fight with his other malevolent son, presumably because he has copied his distinctive 1980s-mullet- and-britches look.
Anyway, when not contending with his violent offspring, taunting the plague-ridden king of France, doting on his illegitimate granddaughter, collecting classical erotica and arranging big Roman Empire-themed masked balls, Rodrigo finds himself attracted to Vittorio, a young art apprentice who is clearly secretly a lady. (Viewers will be familiar with this plot from Blackadder.)
To make sure this is not lost on us, when wheezily seducing her, Rodrigo removes her short brunette wig and long blond L’Oréal-style curls tumble out. Vittorio is really Vittoria!
Vittoria wants to be an artist but can’t get a gig in Rome as a lady because of political incorrectness gone mad. Apparently she went to the trouble of faking a whole new identity for herself but never thought of cutting her luscious, well-conditioned Jennifer Aniston hair.
I hoped there would be a sequence of scenes in which Vittoria’s wig would be whipped off to reveal unlikely haircuts: a Mohican, an Afro, a first World War German army helmet and, possibly, as a grand finale, Jedward hair. Sadly they play it straight, and, before long, Rodrigo, Giulia and Vittoria are embarking on a historical bisexual three-way with added Greek classical allusions (the mythological figure Hermaphrodite is mentioned).
Like Spartacus and The Tudors, The Borgias is a reliably ridiculous mix of po-faced high history and humourless potboiler drama. It’s not the Renaissance Sopranos it aspires to be, but it’s occasionally like the Renaissance Wacky Races. Very like the Renaissance Wacky Races, in fact. When the two scowly sons have a horse race, Dastardly sabotages Muttley by throwing spikes on the track.
SUCH UNSPORTING BEHAVIOUR wouldn’t have gone down too well with Bert Bushnell and Dickie Burnell, two rowers brought together in postwar Britain to row a boat across the class divide in the 1948 London Olympics. This event was dramatised in the charmingly nostalgic Bert Dickie (BBC One, Wednesday), in which British bureaucrats struggle financially to host the event and pleasantly upper-class Dickie (Sam Hoare) finds it hard to gel with prickly working-class Bert (Matt Smith).