Wednesday 21 February 2018

Television review: From the Sun King to the King of the Ring

* Versailles, BBC1
* Parkinson Meets Muhammad Ali, BBC4

The veteran broadcaster Michael Parkinson. Photo: Getty Images
The veteran broadcaster Michael Parkinson. Photo: Getty Images

Emily Hourican

'Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown." Behind the almost sing-song truism of that line, learned by every school child, lies a very painful reality, as the young Sun King is learning in BBC1's Versailles. For all his glorious tumbling locks and fantastically ruffled shirts - with the electro pop score, this is like a 1980s revival, a New Romantic version of history - Louis XIV is growing in determination, to subdue his advisors, to build his dream palace, to be king of France and not just Paris.

But pretty much everything is going against him. William of Orange is massing troops along his borders, Spain is plotting - what exactly, we don't yet know, but something. Something big. His brother, Philippe, is treading a remarkable line between flamboyance and savagery, and his wife, Maria Theresa of Spain, has given birth, but the royal baby is black.

The royal physician, in fear for his life - heads that wear crowns may be uneasy, but they are also often unreasonable and vindictive - attempts an explanation: "a little Blackamoor . . . gave her a look of such force, it served to corrupt the royal womb with darkness." The baby is taken away, pronounced dead and secretly taken to a convent. But this is the court and so the time-honoured favourite court game of conceal-and-reveal plays on: "It is time to show them who you are," orders the ghost of Louis's mother. "The time has come to prove to me who you are," Louis later orders his courtiers during an extravagant feast. "I will show them who I am," he then tells Bontems, his valet. In kingly terms, that usually means something nasty, and sure enough, the body of the "little Blackamoor" promptly floats to the surface of an ornamental fountain.

The gift of revealing and concealing in order to further enhance mystique, is one that Muhammad Ali had in spades. In a week of remarkable Ali reminisces and documentaries, the BBC4 compilation of four separate interviews, conducted between 1971 and 1981, with Michael Parkinson, was a chance to appreciate all over again the true genius of the man.

Among the many things Ali was master of - his obvious physical grace and skill, and astounding mental acrobatics - was a psychological sophistication that kept him permanently several steps ahead of whoever he was talking to. His ability to switch from light banter to something else - hypnotic self-promotion, boxing bravado, religious and social rage - in an instant, and to make himself master of that new form, was as quick, as complete and unnerving as the famous 'Ali Shuffle.'

When Parkinson says, in an interview conducted at the very height of Ali's career, that he is known to have more white friends than any other black fighter, Ali parses a neat distinction between "friends" and "associates". It's a distinction I feel Louis XIV would appreciate. When Parkinson pursues the matter, citing writer Budd Schulberg, who, says Parkinson, "has known you for a very long time," Ali throws it off: "He's known me for the few minutes he's around me every so often," he says grandly. Then adds "I don't even have one black friend, hardly . . . a friend is one who will not even consider giving his life for you."

From there, he works himself into a rage that seems entirely genuine, discussing the teachings of Elijah Muhammad and "the white man," specifically of America: "England people have never lynched us, raped us, castrated us, tarred and feathered us, burned us, pulled our sockets apart, stick knives in pregnant women's stomachs," he says, in a rush of angry eloquence, before insisting "it's a fact that white people hate black people," talking right over Parky's mild objections. In an instant Ali has set up a dynamic whereby Parky was going to try and 'trap' him, expose him as a hypocrite for having white friends, and he's having none of it. "I'm supposed to be trapped now and look bad. How you going to trap me? You a white man and your knowledge ain't nothing to a Muslim, how you going to get me on a TV and trap me?"

Parky, for a moment, looks guilty of lese majeste, before Ali, just as suddenly, talks himself back into good humour, inspired by what looks like amusement at his own brilliance and verbal aggression. "You do not have enough wisdom to corner me on television. You're too small mentally to tackle me on nothing that I represent," he says. It's a line I feel Louis could usefully use with his duplicitous courtiers.

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