Sunday 19 November 2017

John Boland: A holy show of bums, birettas and borgias

The Borgias Sky Atlantic Fiddling the System: Ireland's Bogus Beggars TV3 Surviving Hitler: A Love Story BBC Four My Father Was a Nazi Commandant BBC Four

Where would we get our vicarious thrills if it wasn't for historical dramas? We've had four seasons of The Tudors, otherwise known as Tits and Tiaras, followed by two seasons of Spartacus: Blood and Boobs, not to mention a season of Camelot, with its blend of chain mail and crumpet.

And now Sky Atlantic offers us bums and birettas in The Borgias, a nine-episode series created, written and directed by no less an eminence than Neil Jordan, whose literary leanings are evident in the screenplay's rhetorical flourishes but who's not averse, either, to occasional bouts of rumpy-pumpy.

Thus, Rodrigo Borgia's opening-scene pledge to restore the reputation of the Catholic Church was immediately followed by the sight of his clerical son vigorously humping a young woman who, while he was dressing the next morning, contentedly purred: "There was nothing ecclesiastical about you last night."

However, those viewers hoping to wallow in an orgy sex and violence must have been disappointed by the progress of the opening episode, in which Jordan showed himself more interested in the evils of the hierarchy than the joys of hanky panky.

Indeed, my main criticism of this opulently entertaining opener was that it erred on the side of good taste and high-mindedness when a bit more gleeful vulgarity wouldn't have gone amiss.

Still, there was a good deal of amusement to be got from the machiavellian plottings of Rodrigo and son Cesare in the former's bid for the papacy. And Jeremy Irons, looking even more emaciated and exhausted than usual, oozes just the right degree of sneering duplicity to rivet the attention, while Halliday Grainger's sweet-smiling and insinuating Lucrezia suggests what Drew Barrymore might be like if she were to become a really bad girl.

I have no idea how faithfully the series will adhere to the known historical facts, but the majority of viewers -- and probably rightly -- are less concerned with such pedantic matters than they are with spectacle, conniving characters and absorbing intrigues, and The Borgias looks set to deliver on these dramatic fronts.

Anyway, the chasm that frequently exists between myth and truth was at the heart of Fiddling the System: Ireland's Bogus Beggars (TV3), in which reporter Paul Connolly boldly went where no man had ever gone before in his attempt to discover whether Dublin's Roma scroungers were just waylaying passers-by for their own pecuniary ends or whether they were part of some terrifying conspiracy involving "criminal gangs" and "begging rings" and "crime bosses" making a fortune from their "foot soldiers".

In search of an answer to this profoundly disturbing question, our fearless and intrepid journalist traversed the mean streets of our capital city. Disregarding his own safety, he allowed himself to be approached -- and in broad daylight, too -- by some young female Roma supplicants on O'Connell Street.

Pleading extreme poverty, they told him they eked out a miserable caravan existence in the Phoenix Park, but he followed them to the north inner city and, lo and behold, he found that they lived in (would you believe it!) a house and that the house contained other Romas and that there were (oh my God) vans parked outside. "I had hit the ground running," an excited Paul told us, "and on Day One!"

However, he was forced to concede that he hadn't yet found out "the criminal connections" or "how ruthless they could be" -- or, indeed, "what proof there was of their existence".

In the meantime he talked to a guy from the Irish Solidarity Party, who fumed at the "welfare wonderland" these Romas were enjoying, and to a geezer from the Democratic Right Movement, who wanted "to deport every single one of them", but Paul hadn't forgotten the Romas themselves, who were "squarely in the crosshairs of my investigation".

Finally, aided by a translating Romanian, he gained access to three houses in which the Romas lived and instead of sinister crime bosses he found people who existed in "extreme poverty and desperation". It was an honest conclusion to a film that had spent most of its time prematurely jumping to other conclusions.

Two arresting BBC4 documentaries concerned Nazism. Surviving Hitler: A Love Story concerned a young woman of Jewish lineage on her mother's side who fell in love with an army officer. Towards the end of the war, both found themselves incarcerated in different prisons -- she because of her heritage, he because he was an accomplice in the Stauffenberg bid to kill Hitler -- while her mother and father were also locked up in separate locations.

Miraculously, all four survived, though the narrative didn't satisfactorily explain how that happened. However, the testimony of the woman, now in her late 80s, was eloquent.

My Father Was a Nazi Commandant brought together Monika, daughter of the reviled Amon Goeth, who ruthlessly ran the Plaszow camp outside Krakow (and who was chillingly played by Ralph Fiennes in Spielberg's Schindler's List) and Helen, who was employed as a teenage slave in Goeth's house and who witnessed many of the horrors perpetrated by Goeth.

Both women were filmed as they met, first at the Plaszow memorial and then at Goeth's house, a weeping Monika given no solace by Helen, whose traumatic memories were still painfully intense more than 60 years later.

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