The Borgias

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Watch The Borgias and you will be entertained by a gripping, sumptuous drama telling the story of Rodrigo Borgia, a man who schemed, bribed and poisoned his way to become Pope Alexander VI. This nine-part series follows the rise of the despotic Borgia family as they struggle to maintain their grip on power.

Actor Jeremy Irons is so convincing as Rodrigo that he makes God's envoy on earth appear "human" despite the inhumane methods he uses. Murder, intrigue, treachery and sex make this so much more than a stilted costume drama - although the costumes are stunning.

The Borgia pope ditches his courtesan "wife", who bore him five children, telling her, "My dear as pope I cannot be seen to have a whore as a wife." He then goes on to install a new, even more beautiful mistress in the Vatican.

"I accuse you of...simony!" crows a rival cardinal, Orsini, at the new pope. With no more than a raised eyebrow Rodrigo replies, "Oh yes ... simony," dismissing criticism of the practice of accepting payment from those who have "sinned" so that they will be pardoned and therefore find a place in heaven.

When Mario Puzo wrote The Godfather he based the character of Don Corleone on Rodrigo Borgia. Neil Jordan, who made The Crying Game and Mona Lisa, has written and directed The Borgias. The series has been a massive hit in the US and Canada. A second series is being made, in which the pope's daughter Lucrezia Borgia, who is married off at 14 to a brute in an attempt to consolidate Papal power, plays a more central role.

In medieval Europe the Catholic Church ruled from the Papal State of Rome. Its wealth was based on tributes and taxes paid by landowners and a mosaic of local rulers who exploited the peasantry. Alliances and agreements were crucial to papal rule, as the Papal State had only a small army of swordsmen.

When the French king marches on Rome, his new weapon, the cannon, blasts through fortified castle walls. In the final episode we find out whether the papal ruler can survive through religious legitimacy alone.

Not to be missed, even if you have to wait for the DVD.

The Borgias is being played on Sky Atlantic