Versailles review: 'At one point I feared Louis might shag a trio of wolves he confronted while riding in the forest'
Pat Stacey reviews BBC2's very steamy new period drama
Let's begin today’s column with a brief lesson on the subject of tripe. From Victorian times to the latter half of the 20th century, washed tripe — more commonly known as “dressed tripe” — was a popular dish among the working class here and in Britain, chiefly because of its cheapness and nutritional value.
But as people grew more affluent and were able to afford food that could be plucked from the freezer cabinet, as opposed to scraped from the inside of a cow’s stomach and given a rinse and spin, the popularity of tripe as a staple of the ordinary people’s menu declined drastically. These days tripe is mostly used to make pet food.
Continental Europeans, however, never lost their fondness for tripe. It continues to be hugely popular in France, in particular.
The French may not, as the famous 1980s ad for a crap brand of wine insisted, “adore Le Piat D’Or” (they wouldn’t be caught carrying a bottle of the stuff in a brown paper bag, never mind imbibing it), but they really do their love their tripe — preferably boiled in apple brandy, which is a favourite recipe.
I’m guessing we’re going to have to cultivate an appetite for tripe if we’re to enjoy Versailles, the steamy new historical drama that landed on BBC2 last night.
Versailles is not simple, straightforward, humble tripe; it’s tripe that’s been slow-cooked in soapy water and generously garnished with Epoisses, a spectacularly stinky French cheese that smells like a cyclist’s foot after a hot day pumping the pedals uphill.
It’s a strange beast, this: a French series produced by Canal+ but created by an American and an Englishman (Simon Mirren, nephew of Helen).
All the dialogue is in English, nobody attempts a French accent, and the multinational cast features a strong contingent of British actors, headed by George Pagden as Sun King Louis XIV, who prances around in frills and high heels.
Louis is a horndog who shags anything that isn’t nailed down, and probably a few things that are. He shags whores and handmaidens. He even shags his brother Philippe I’s wife. Philippe isn’t too bothered, though. He’s gay and is busy shagging/being shagged by his male lover.
At one point I feared Louis might even shag a trio of wolves he’d confronted while out riding in the woods, but he doesn’t.
The one person Louis doesn’t appear to be shagging with any great conviction is his wife, Queen Maria Theresa of Spain.
But that’s okay; she’s not too bothered either, because she’s obviously been doing some shagging of her own with her male manservant, who’s black and a dwarf and has a tendency to go rummaging around under the Queen’s billowing skirt.
“You always make me feel better,” she tells him, tenderly. I bet he does.
Probably not for very long, though. When Maria Theresa noisily gives birth to her second baby, Louis and his entire court entourage are present and can see the child is — gasp! — not white.
Just in case either Louis or anyone else wasn’t paying attention, the doctor holds the wailing infant (a bad animatronic doll) aloft.
A British tabloid got its incontinence knickers in a twist over all the sex scenes in Versailles, claiming they’d be the most graphic ever seen on British television.
It was a huge exaggeration. I know: hard to believe a UK tabloid would ever exaggerate, isn’t it?
There’s a bit of naked romping, some topless women, a gratuitous shot of Swiss actress Noemie Schmidt emerging from the water wearing nothing but a sopping wet negligee, and an extended bout of sloppy gay kissing.
But none of it is any more explicit, probably less so in fact, than what you’d see in Game of Thrones, while the violence — a Spanish prisoner having his head pulped (out of shot) with a hammer, a fiddling tax official having half his hand chopped off — is tame by that series’ standards.
Versailles is really a soapy historical romp — think of it as a kind of Gallic answer to The Tudors, if that makes any sense — and for all the scheming, plotting and double-dealing, a surprisingly tepid one.
The performances range from hammy to insipidly limp, and a lot of the dialogue is risible.
Amazingly, it’s been an enormous hit in France, smashing all sorts of viewing records. Next thing you know the French will be drinking Le Piat D’Or for real.