Television: ‘Versailles’ is more off with their kit than off with their heads

Review: ‘Versailles’, ‘Top Gear’, ‘Euro ’88: We Can Beat This Lot’

Why does every big historical drama have to open with a crude metaphor? As we get our first sight of Versailles (BBC Two, Wednesday) a storm is raging in the French countryside, signifying, of course, the wider political storm raging across 17th-century France.

King Louis XIV is lying in his bed at his father’s hunting lodge in Versailles, tortured by fevered dreams. Around him enemies are gathering: assassins have been sent to kill him, and the French nobility are plotting to overthrow him. Louis awakes to an epiphany: he will build a magnificent palace right here in Versailles that will show the world the glory of France and become a magnet for France’s nobility – all the better to keep them under his thumb.

Versailles is not your usual mannered costume drama. There are no stiffly choreographed balls, piano recitals, coyly waved fans or skittish laughter in this first episode. It's smouldering intensity and urgency all the way, set to a darkly atmospheric indie-electro soundtrack. And there's no sign of the Rada crowd who seem to pop up in every other costume drama.

This cast is young and little known but well up to the job, wearing their period costumes as though they’d just slipped on a casual number from Zara or H&M. Besides, the costumes don’t stay on long enough to grab the limelight – it’s more off with their kit than off with their heads.


While the king’s wife, Queen Marie-Therese, awaits the arrival of their second child, Louis is having an affair with his brother’s wife, Henriette. (She emerges Bond-like from the water in a see-through shift: definitely a contender for Miss Wet T-Shirt 1667.) His brother Phillippe, meanwhile, is under the control of his gay lover, the manipulative Chevalier. And Louis’s enforcer, the ruthless Fabien, deals out violent retribution on anyone suspected of plotting against the king. They’ll never get those gore stains out of the costumes.

Louis doesn’t know who to trust. “Have you got my back?” he asks his brother. The look on Philippe’s face suggests he hasn’t even got his brother’s left shoulder blade. His noblemen keep urging him – a little too forcefully – to go back to Paris. He decides he’s safer right where he is and begins plans to build his palace, which will include a giant lake that requires the diversion of several rivers – a major headache for the contractors. “We will need to buy most of Venice for the glass,” the king adds. Yes, it’s a metaphor for the Celtic Tiger.

This is a nicely twisted tale of intrigue, betrayal, adultery and what you can achieve with planning permission. You just know that Louis’s bubble is going to burst – and that it’ll be fun to watch.

Taking over at the helm of Top Gear (BBC Two, Sunday) must be every motoring fan's dream. Having sent Jeremy Clarkson, James May and Richard Hammond down the memory hole with Orwellian efficiency, the BBC surely has had no shortage of petrolheads eager to get their hands on the wheel of this lucrative franchise.

They ended up picking two 1990s stars in fast cars. Chris Evans and Matt LeBlanc are an unlikely double act, but they fit the bill given who’ll be watching: car-crazy blokes who have crashed or are about to crash through the fiftysomething bollard. So the BBC isn’t exactly reinventing the wheel here, but neither has it hit a ditch.

After the obligatory jokey reference to his predecessor – "We don't talk about the caterers" – Evans is off and running with the opening segment, a Top Gun-style muscle-car challenge at a US air-force base in Nevada. Evans drives a Dodge Viper and the German racer Sabine Schmitz drives a Chevy Corvette. Wow, look at that TV licence money go: the Beeb spares no expense on this adrenaline-fuelled opener.

Next up is a road trip to Blackpool in two very unreliable Reliant Rialtos, which gives LeBlanc and Evans a chance to play up the US-UK rivalry and dispel rumours of animosity between the pair. (There’s actually a spark of chemistry here.) And it’s bonkers. If you’ve ever wondered which is best at pulling a Reliant Rialto to the summit of a Lake District fell – a US army jeep or a British army Land Rover – you finally have your answer.

LeBlanc then puts an Ariel Nomad through its paces in a beautifully filmed segment (kerching!) in the Moroccan desert: pursued by paparazzi on a motorcycle, in a motorised paraglider and using a camera drone. “This isn’t offroading: this is low-level flying!” he says.

The celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay and the film star Jesse Eisenberg are the first up in the revamped Star in a Rallycross Car segment. No prizes for guessing whether the Ferrari-owning, foul-mouthed kitchen-rage bunny or the bicycle-riding, geekoid star of The Social Network comes first.

Evans and LeBlanc can’t hope to re-create the camaraderie built up by Clarkson, May and Hammond over 14 years and 22 series, so until bromance truly blossoms the cars are the real stars here.

Ireland's great football moments can be counted on one hand. (Okay, two.) But, boy, do we savour them. And the one we most savour must be that moment when Ray Houghton scored the winning goal against England in Stuttgart, 28 years ago. Euro '88: We Can Beat This Lot (RTÉ One, Tuesday) brings us back to Ireland's first major international finals, when we beat England 1-0, drew with Russia 1-1 and were finally knocked out of the tournament by the Netherlands. As a scoreline it doesn't look very impressive; as a morale booster for Euro 2016 it can't be topped.

This half-hour documentary, the first of three in the run-up to the Euros, tells the story of European underdogs who proved they had bite. The FAI had just taken a gamble on hiring Jack Charlton as manager. Many of the players he chose for his squad were unknown to the greater Irish public; by the end of the Euros they were all household names.

Dads flocked to credit unions to finance their trips to Germany. “They wouldn’t dream of bringing mammy,” noted radio presenter Deirdre Ní Fhloinn. Germany had never witnessed such a sea of green – and well-behaved green at that. While English fans rioted, the Irish celebrated peacefully in pubs.

This is a colourful, nicely edited collage of football nostalgia, soundtracked by the big hits of the 1980s – as the Netherlands defeat us the Pet Shop Boys sing It's a Sin – and, of course, by the team's rendition of the Ireland '88 anthem, We Are the Boys in Green. Why can't Reeling in the Years be this much fun?

Bernice Harrison is away