"The Borgias" is the "Our Family Honor" of haute TV, and much more fun to watch. The 10-part 1981 BBC mini-series, sumptuously attractive and lush with scandal, premieres tonight at 9 not on public television, as one would expect, but on the Arts & Entertainment Network, an advertiser-supported cable channel available on some systems in the Washington area.
While the series may eventually show up on PBS, it makes its American premiere on A&E as part of that network's first-refusal agreement with the BBC, a pact in effect until 1990 (and handed down from The Entertainment Channel, a cable network that folded two years ago). If it were on PBS, "The Borgias" would easily qualify as the glittery centerpiece of the season; it is the most scrumptious portrait of societal decadence since "I, Claudius," which PBS imported in 1977.
Host Edwin Newman, doing an Alistair Cooke for A&E, calls "The Borgias" "one of the most lavish series ever produced for television" and calls the Borgias "one of the most infamous dynasties in history." The notorious transplanted Spaniards who presided over the Italian Renaissance left behind ripe pickings for future serializers, and although the series gets off to a rather slow start, it glistens with tantalizing portents of things to come.
Merely as a thing, "The Borgias" is an artful object, entirely in keeping with the BBC's high production standards. The interiors are radiant, the exteriors are verdant, and the tone of the whole thing seductively mordant. John Prebble's script dawdles too long tonight on the 15th-century process of selecting a pope, and director Brian Farnham makes the earliest introductory scenes needlessly abrupt and confusing, but once the story settles in, the rich historical gossip that is the essence of the program becomes awfully hard to resist.
As the series opens it is 1492, Pope Innocent VIII has died, and a Borgia pope, Rodrigo, is about to make a messy ascent to the throne. He accomplishes this with petty politicking and bribery. Host Newman points out in his introduction that in these days, the papacy was a far more earthly institution than in modern times, and the pope himself "a worldly prince, not a spiritual leader." Thus does Rodrigo celebrate his victory in the college of cardinals by, in part, stuffing grapes down the cleavages of female guests at an election night banquet.
Soon after, at the wedding of his famous daughter Lucrezia, Rodrigo plants a kiss on her lips that persists too long and with too much fervor to be merely fatherly. It evolves that not only Rodrigo but also his bastard son Cesare harbor incestuous desires for the famous poisoneuse. Lucrezia's vial ways don't become apparent on the premiere; as played by Anne-Louise Lambert, she looks all but beatific. The only vice discussed tonight is an excessive fondness for pearls.
Rodrigo is played with weighty, and indeed rotund, authority by Adolfo Celi, whose great face seems a map of Italian history, certainly an icon of Italian character. Not all the characters materialize in Part 1 tonight, but of those who do, Oliver Cotton makes a very strong impression as Cesare, impetuous and headstrong and not-so-vaguely intimidating. He will soon be marching off to intimidate the French, who have decided to invade the country.
Certain aspects of the A&E presentation of "The Borgias" are discouraging and make one wish PBS had gotten it first. There will be 8 minutes of commercials per hour during the telecasts, as many as there would be on ABC (which is a part owner of A&E), CBS or NBC. Newman's participation is not limited to openings and closings; he pops up during the chapters as well with lead-ins to station breaks. This is destructively disruptive, and he should be ashamed.
Worse, A&E censors have chopped 4 1/2 minutes from the serial in order to sanitize the nudity out of it. Surely the standards for a cable network devoted to the arts don't have to be as numbingly innocuous as those for the regular commercial broadcast networks, or is the same kind of cretinous mind-set at work? It's not as if the trimmed scenes were pornographic. They played in England without causing any riots. Nudity does seem relevant to a tale of exhibitionistic dissipation.
One problem afflicting "The Borgias" was apparently built in. The quality of the BBC's sound recording leaves much to be desired, especially during scenes in seemingly cavernous halls. Some of the dialogue sinks into unintelligible muddiness (Celi's accent is, at times, a further impediment). Despite the drawbacks of presentation, however, "The Borgias" promises to be rewarding and entertaining. As television, this has the wit, sparkle and wallop of a genuine event.