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).

“Rather than blame the silver spoon you see in my mouth, take a good look at the chip you have on your shoulder,” says Dickie eventually, and soon they’re bonding over their emotionally unavailable fathers. Ultimately, Dickie’s silver spoon is used to eat Bert’s shoulder chip. And if that sounds like a homoerotic allusion, it is. There were times I found myself shouting “kiss him, you fool!” as they smouldered angrily beside one another.

I ALSO SHOUTED “kiss him, you fool!” during Battle Station (RTÉ One, Monday and Tuesday), John Bowman’s two-part historical documentary about politics behind the scenes at RTÉ, an institution he’s happy to criticise but also, I suspect, wants to snog. (Bowman and RTÉ remind me of Ross and Rachel in Friends.) Stylistically, it featured moody piano arpeggios, archive footage (what’s left of it), literate talking heads and abstract shots of vintage televisions – in the snow, beside babbling brooks and in 1960s-style sitting rooms.

The first episode grappled with the burgeoning station’s internal battles for control between Gaeilgeoirí, commercialists, Catholic plants and liberal-agenda-pushing mavericks. The second dealt with the way the station’s political programming was manipulated over the years by Workers Party stooges within and autocratic political sleazeballs without. For the most part it was a brave and honest programme befitting the station’s mood of self-flagellating introspection. That said, the references to the Fr Reynolds affair felt prematurely conclusive (placing the scandal in the same context as ancient squabbles seemed like wishful thinking) and a bit flimsy compared with the weight of all that history.

In the first episode of Battle Station we heard Éamon de Valera say: “Sometimes I think of television and radio and their immense power and I feel somewhat afraid.”

I THOUGHT OF THIS while watching the new series of The Only Way Is Essex (ITV2, Sunday), a postapocalyptic reality programme in which the orange-skinned children of Thatcher waffle, bicker and mate. (This makes it sound like a Margaret Atwood science-fiction novel.)

My favourite Essexian is Joey Essex, a handsome yet easily confused noble savage who will struggle to survive if his habitat is ever destroyed. In this episode he laughs heartily at references to Vanessa Feltz before whispering “Who is Vanessa Feltz?” thus evoking the first line of Atlas Shrugged.

Elsewhere a girl called Sam reads Fifty Shades of Grey – “the first book I’ve ever read” – and a fellow with a passing interest in genetics and reproduction informs us that “two mingers make a fit baby, and two fit people make a minger”. Later, possibly attempting to conceive a fit/minging baby, a large man called Arg (his name always feels as if it’s missing a “h” and an exclamation mark) texts his girlfriend a photograph of his genitals. This, now that I think of it, is the sort of thing Rodrigo “SexPope” Borgia would do . . . although he’d almost certainly add a classical reference.


Bernice Harrison is on leave

Get stuck into

We Love the Monkees (UTV, Monday), a documentary about the hilarious artificially- created sitcom troubadours. They’re the reason most musicians would say they started a band, if they were honest about it.