herald

Wednesday 17 January 2018

Borgias just too coy

THE BORGIAS (SKY ATLANTIC, SATURDAY)
O'GORMAN (RTE1, SUNDAY)

"Simony!" bellows Derek Jacobi's excitable Cardinal Orsini in the opening minutes of The Borgias. I don't mind admitting I had to check 'simony' in the dictionary. It means the selling of sacred objects.

Sadly, Jacobi, giving a performance as ripe as a brown banana, didn't get to contribute much more to The Borgias, Neil Jordan's opulent historical potboiler. Within 20 minutes he was foaming at the mouth and spluttering blood all over his dinner, poisoned at his own table by an assassin.

But luckily for us The Borgias still has Jeremy Irons as Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia, aka Pope Alexander VI, the venal patriarch of a Spanish family who buys, cheats, intimidates and murders his way to the vacant Papacy in 15th-century Italy, and then does more of the same to hold on to it.

Irons alone makes The Borgias worth a look. He's wonderful. Gaunt of cheek and hollow of eye, he finds the perfect balance between gravitas and camp. One minute he's tottering under the weight of the Papal crown, his dark eyes communicating the deep guilt and self-disgust he feels at what he's doing. The next, he's lolling wearily back on his throne, contemplating his own evilness with lip-smacking relish.

His wife, Joanne Whalley, is disappointed to discover that his becoming Pope means both of them have to remain chaste.

"Must we take a vow of poverty as well?" she asks. "Poverty? God forbid!" The chastity, needless to say, doesn't last long.

Having told a sexually frustrated young wife (Lotte Verbeek) in the confessional to whip her naked body nightly, Rodrigo/Alexander is soon scurrying through a secret passage to her chamber to have his Papal way with her.

Without Irons, The Borgias would be nothing. But even with him, it's not all that. No one else on screen, least of all newcomer Francois Arnaud as his eldest son Cesare, who does most of his dirty work for him, and Holliday Grainger as daughter Lucrezia, a teasing, teenage ditz who says things like, "I want a unicorn," can hold a candle to him.

Jordan is pitching The Borgias, which comes from the same stable as The Tudors, as a kind of historical romp-cum-gangster saga -- and indeed a scene where Cesare arranges to have the body of a servant girl placed in a cardinal's bed recalls the horse-head moment from The Godfather.

But for a romp, The Borgias doesn't romp nearly hard enough and the intrigues aren't all that intriguing. It's a story full of sex and violence, yet the opening two episodes, directed by Jordan, treated both commodities in a curiously coy way, drawing a discreet veil over the raunchier, bloodier bits.

The script is oddly leaden, too, full of long-winded expository dialogue and endless scenes of gossiping clergymen in mitres as tall as church spires gliding along gloomy corridors like Renaissance Daleks.

Older viewers will have spotted an irony here. At exactly the same time as the BBC's disastrous 1981 serial The Borgias, starring unintelligible Italian actor Adolfo Celi as Rodrigo/Alexander, was being laughed off the screen by critics and viewers, a bright young newcomer was making his name over on ITV in Brideshead Revisited. His name was Jeremy Irons. It's funny how things change.

Nothing at all changes about O'Gorman, mind you. The new series, which kicked off last night, is exactly the same as the previous one, which was exactly the same as the one before that.

It's no-frills television, quietly and competently produced, with just Paddy, his hat and his little dog Snoop, tramping the highways and byways of the country talking to people (well, Paddy does the talking; the hat and Snoop keep their counsel).

He was in West Cork last night, playing a bit of road bowling and getting a woman to open up about her breast cancer operation and a widowed man to talk about finding new life and love in Thailand, "where there's no fingers pointing". Remarkable stuff.

THE BORGIAS **

O'GORMAN (RTE1, SUNDAY) ***

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