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Borgias, The (1981)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Borgias, The (1981)
BBC2, tx. 14/10 - 16/12/1981
10 x 55 min episodes, colour.
DirectorBrian Farnham
CompaniesChannel 7
 Time-Life Films
ProducerMark Shivas
ScriptJohn Prebble
 Ken Taylor
PhotographyKenneth MacMillan
MusicGeorges Delerue

Cast: Adolfo Celi (Rodrigo Borgia); Oliver Cotton (Cesare Borgia); Anne Louise Lambert (Lucrezia Borgia); Maurice O'Connell (Michelotto); Ralph Nossek (Johann Burchard); Louis Selwyn (Jofre Borgia); Eleanor David (Sancia); Barbara Shelley (Vannozza Canale)

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The lives and crimes of the notorious Italian Renaissance dynasty.

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The BBC scored a ratings and critical success with I Claudius (1976), a studio-bound drama about the political intrigues of ancient Rome, based on the books of Robert Graves. In the hope of replicating that success, the corporation began a search for historical costume dramas with similar themes. It felt it had found them in The Cleopatras (1983), set in ancient Egypt, and the ripe Renaissance Italy tale of The Borgias (1981).

The story of the noble 15th century Valencian/Italian family that mixed patronage of the arts with notoriety - involving a corrupt papacy, rape, murder and the kind of ruthless political plotting that is said to have inspired Machiavelli's 'The Prince' - clearly had all the elements for a compelling drama. Instead, however, The Borgias became one of the most panned series of its day, a fixture of 'all-time worst TV' lists ever since.

The programme focused on Rodrigo Borgia, his family and his eventual appointment as Pope Alexander VI. But instead of convincingly creating a world of subtle manoeuvring and Renaissance grandeur, the scripts, from Ken Taylor and John Prebble, delivered ten episodes of strained melodrama, drenched in blood and punctuated by plenty of nudity.

The biggest problem with the production was the casting of the Italian-born Adolfo Celi, best known as James Bond's adversary Emilio Largo in Thunderball (d. Terence Young, 1965), where he had been revoiced by the Italian actor/director Lucio Rietti. The Borgias, however, left Celi to deliver all his own dialogue. His broken English and heavy Sicilian accent rendered much of what he said unintelligible - a major failing for a main character, especially one with so much explanatory dialogue. The limitations of its studio-bound, all-video production added to its woes, especially when compared with ITV's sumptuous Brideshead Revisited, transmitted concurrently and beautifully shot entirely on film and on location.

Mauled by critics for its graphic violence and poor acting, the series marks one of the few failures of its producer, Mark Shivas, whose early career included The Six Wives of Henry VIII (BBC, 1970) and Dennis Potter's first serial, Casanova (BBC, 1971). Ken Taylor went on to contribute scripts for Mansfield Park (BBC, 1983) and The Jewel in the Crown (ITV, 1984). His co-writer was less fortunate. Despite earlier successes in costume drama, including episodes of The Six Wives of Henry VIII (BBC, 1970) and Elizabeth R (BBC, 1971), Prebble seems not to have worked in television again.

Anthony Clark

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Video Clips
Complete first episode (53:40)
I, Claudius (1976)