The enduring charm of the Borgias
One of history’s most notorious families is returning to TV – this time with a class cast. Sarah Hughes has a preview…
Monday 21, March 2011
As The Tudors rollicks towards its final episodes, complete with extra wheezing from Jonathan Rhys Myers as the declining Henry VIII, fans of ludicrous yet oddly addictive historical dramas are feeling a slow-burning sense of loss. How will we spend our Saturday nights now that Rhys Meyers, his incredible cheekbones and his distinctly odd way of Declaiming. Each. Sentence. As. Though. He. Was. Learning. To. Read. For. The. First. Time. are no longer with us?
Luckily there is hope on the horizon, for Showtime, the channel that originally commissioned The Tudors, is clearly aware that some of us can never have too much frippery, flouncing and fornication on our television shows, provided that is that they come accompanied with suitably ripe dialogue and the weight of history on their side.
So it is that the US cable channel has headed to 15th-century Rome for its latest drama, a new take on one of history’s most notorious families, the ambitious, murderous Borgias. On paper this is a brilliant idea with the potential for much mayhem, blood, guts, poisoning and heaving of breasts – and Showtime’s extended trailer for the new show, which begins in the US on 3 April before coming to Sky Atlantic in July, certainly plays up to the family’s reputation with rousing music, close-ups of a sorrowful yet sinister Jeremy Irons, the suggestion of dark deeds afoot, and the snappy tagline: “The Original Crime Family”.
So far, so satisfying. However, any new version of the Borgias raises an old spectre: will it be as bad as the infamous 1981 BBC adaptation, which was reckoned to have killed costume drama at the BBC for the best part of a decade?
That 10-part series was infamous for the graphic (for its time) nudity and violence and for a particularly memorable scene where half-naked actors crawled across the floor picking up chestnuts with their mouths. By the time the Vatican issued an edict condemning the BBC’s The Borgias the only question asked by anyone with any taste was what on earth took them so long?
Thankfully, the new Borgias looks like it will actually be rather good. Jeremy Irons, who plays the power-crazed Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia later to become one of history’s most infamous Popes, has a whale of time. His Rodrigo, all hissing sibilants and subtle suggestions, wields his power quietly yet absolutely, more Godfather Part II-era Michael Corleone than Tony Soprano.
While Irons dominates, the rest of the cast, which includes Derek Jacobi and Colm Feore as Rodrigo’s rivals, Joanne Whalley as his principal mistress, Vanozza dei Cattanei, and a couple of brooding bruisers (François Arnaud and David Oakes) as his murderous sons Cesare and Juan Borgia, are no slouches and manage to sell some fairly baroque moments involving the campaign for the new Pope, which could easily teeter into Monty Python-esque parody.
That they don’t is also thanks to the involvement of the idiosyncratic Irish director Neil Jordan, who is the series’ co-creator and will direct the first two episodes. The Borgias is something of a pet project for Jordan who has been trying to make a film about the family, described as “The Godfather set in the Vatican” since 2000.
That said The Borgias is also the work of Michael Hirst, the man behind The Tudors and the scriptwriter for Elizabeth and Elizabeth: the Golden Age. Hirst, a man who never met a period of history he couldn’t joyfully sex up, is the sort of wilfully over-the-top writer whom you either love or despise.
Should historical drama be accurate? The only sane answer is yes but Hirst has so much fun proving the opposite that it’s hard not to get swept along. His involvement suggests that this Borgias might be more Rome than I, Claudius, more Tudors than Elizabeth R but it’s also the case that even if the series does turn out to be tosh, it will be lavishly shot, lovely to look at and completely addictive tosh.