The Borgias: Great Plot or Camelot?

Jeremy Irons plays the original Godfather, Pope Alexander VI..
Jeremy Irons plays the original Godfather, Pope Alexander VI..
THE BORGIAS: Saturday 6th August, Sky Atlantic, 9pm

Creating an intriguing plot is easy for people like JK Rowling, Stephen King or that bloke who dreamt up The Wire, but the rest of us storytelling blaggards must sometimes rely on history for inspiration. There’s no shame in dressing your GCSE coursework up as a viable TV series.. (Shakespeare himself worked his way through a veritable dynasty of British monarchs during a particularly bad spell of bard’s block) ..but before you start playing fast and loose with the phrase ‘Based on Real Life Events’ you have to make sure you’ve picked a half decent part of history. Neil Jordan has certainly done that with The Borgias (which is heading for Sky Atlantic in the very near future..)

Set in Vatican City circa 1492, this is a series which has selected both its arena and its era superbly. Not only does Renaissance Rome provide a rich tapestry of famous names for the show’s writers to play with. Arch-schemer Niccolo Machiavelli finds himself acting as a subterfuge consultant within the first few episodes and the ensuing power-struggle fought between the various papal nation states is widely considered to have inspired him to write his political masterpiece ‘The Prince’ some years later. After over a thousand years of unquestioned dominance and wealthy growth, the Vatican was at its zenith, making the battle for St Peter’s all the more tangible. With Martin Luther’s reformation, Henry VIII’s defiance and some free-thinking intellectuals fast-approaching, the Roman Catholic Church was about to face serious challenges for the first time since the Roman Empires agreed to stop persecuting Christians back in the fourth century. Back in 1492, the Pope was the undisputed leader of the free world, which explains why Alexander VI was prepared to nearly-bankrupt his family to buy his way on to the throne, as we see in the opening scenes of the first episode.

Jeremy Irons is excellent as the manipulative patriarch in question, but the show is a little slow to add meaningful characters and you can’t help but feel that the excellent Derek Jacobi is slightly wasted. However once the key pieces are laid out, you get the feeling that there is enough intrigue, politicking and of course sex to keep the whole thing bubbling along nicely. Episode five is certainly the watershed moment in which the manoeuvres really start with a vengeance.

While the series is probably guilty of taking certain historical liberties, a bit of internet digging reveals that the real-life Borgias were certainly every bit as dastardly as their on-screen counterparts. Indeed such was their corruption that Mario Puzo was thought to have based The Godfather on their shenanigans. Fans of high-end drama will also be pleased to hear that while this isn’t quite as richly constructed as Game of Thrones and Boardwalk Empire, it is several rungs above Starz’s rather ridiculous Camelot on the ladder of historical drama.

One comparison that would stand up to closer inspection is between Sky Atlantic’s new series and The Tudors, which concluded on the BBC a few months ago. But while both are produced by the same American production company (Showtime) and focus upon decisive points in European history, The Borgias possesses a weapon that it’s English-based predecessor did not. As entertaining as The Tudors was, even the worst historians among us had a fair idea of where the story was heading. Yet you would need to be a scholar of some note to know the fates of this lot without Wikipediaing them. We’re assuming they don’t all die though, because Showtime have ordered a second series..