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TV: the horrible history teacher

'When will I learn? The answers to life's problems aren't at the bottom of a bottle, they're on TV. Television! Teacher, mother, secret lover."

Those are the words of a wise man: Homer Simpson, the foremost sage and philosopher of our age, as well as the supreme role model for middle-aged husbands and fathers the world over.

We'd do well to heed them, too, especially those of us worried that Education Minister Ruairi Quinn's downgrading of history to an optional subject in the Junior Certificate cycle will spawn a generation of young people who confuse Adolf Hitler with Charlie Chaplin and think Winston Churchill is the bulldog from the insurance ads.

Fear not. Who needs dusty, boring school-taught history when we have historical TV dramas to rescue our children and our children's children from a lifetime enslaved in idiocy and ignorance?


Not a big reader? Feeling threatened by the prospect of having to grind through a 500-page history book full of grainy pictures of dead old farts from this, that or the other era? Relax. You don't need books when you can take your education from the series below.

Apart from saving you the trouble of reading, the really great part is you no longer have to imagine all the sex and violence that was an everyday part of life in ye olden times; the current strain of historical dramas sticks all of it – poisonings, decapitations, bare bums – right in your face in 1080i HD and 5.1 digital sound.

THE BORGIAS (Sky Atlantic)

Contemporary portraits of the real Rodrigo Borgia, aka Pope Alexander VI, show him to be a portly, swarthy Spaniard who in profile looked a bit like Alfred Hitchcock dressed for a Renaissance-themed fancy dress party. Neil Jordan's version transforms him into vulpine Englishman Jeremy Irons, who schemes, snarls and slices his way to power, taking time out to bonk every female that's not nailed to the floor.

The Borgias has been cancelled after three series. Not a moment too soon, either.


More Irons in the fire here. While Jeremy rips it up in Rome, his son Max is caught up in the War of the Roses in 15th-century England (actually, it was shot in Belgium; one sun-dappled forest glade looks much like another).

As the suspiciously fresh-faced, well-groomed King Edward IV, who sparks all manner of trouble when he takes a winsome widow from the wrong house as his wife, Irons the Younger proves that neither personal fitness regimes nor dental care in the 15th century were as poor as history books make out.

Historical accuracy is scattered to the four corners of England. Sorry, Belgium.


By all accounts Michelangelo was short, gay, hunched and chose to live in squalor. But this didn't prevent Charlton Heston playing him in the 1965 film The Agony and the Ecstasy (which, by the way, features Rex Harrison as Pope Julius II uttering the immortal line, "You dare to dicker with your Pontiff?").

If ol' Charlton Athletic can paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling, there's no reason why Michelangelo's contemporary, Leonard da Vinci, shouldn't be reimagined as a handsome, ripped, kick-ass action hero who, when he's not dreaming up ingenious devices, such as exploding mechanical pigeons or, as the series' publicity has it, "inventing the future", is doing battle with various supernatural enemies. Well, is there?


Currently being repeated, The Tudors is the series that really kicked off the craze for historical dramas with as much sex and violence, and as little historical fact, as possible.

Henry VIII was thin once, this we know, before he got into the habit of wolfing down whole chickens and carelessly lobbing the bones over his shoulder.

Beyond that, any resemblance between Henry and Jonathan Rhys Myers is purely coincidental. Come to that, so is the series' resemblance to the truth.