Grace Dent on TV: Imagine – Who’s Afraid of Machiavelli?

Mr Memory, who was brought on Monday’s Newsnight to memorise the title sequence and couldn’t even remember that Jeremy bloke with the beard’s name. Gosh I love telly. 

While watching this week’s Imagine on The Prince by Machiavelli – a self-help book for potential leaders, dictators, bosses and head honchos – I was reminded of when Channel 4 showed Big Brother, when one of the very worst things one could be seen to be as a housemate was Machiavellian. Well, sort of Machiavellian. “He can be proper Mockyavanian” housemates would say to each other. Or, “I am nominating Terry as he is well Mackyfulhamian”, well-meaning numpties would say in the diary room. This was always amusing. Not merely because the author of the infamous Italian 16th-century “ulimate power for dummies” manual was sounding increasingly like a novelty double-whipped skinny Starbucks coffee of the month, but because housemates all believed that arriving in the Big Brother house with a gameplan to win was morally wrong.

Here was a gameshow about a group of people pitting their wits against each other in a bid to win a life-changing amount of money. The game gave contestants the option of visiting a secret “diary room” to petition the public about their greatness and trumpet pithy observations about their rivals. Still, the natural default for housemates was to find the concept of a “gameplan” distasteful. Obviously they may have been feigning distate, as pretending to distance oneself from the personal urge for power is a Machiavellian tactic. But in Big Brother, I’m fairly certain old Mockywockyvolly was thought to be pretty bad.

This has been precisely the case for Machiavelli and his writings from the 16th century until now. Vast, vast swathes of the human race believe it is better to be wholesome, honest and upfront rather than quietly power-hungry, ruthlessly pragmatic or socially strategic. Meanwhile, rulers such as Napoloeon, Mussolini, Kissinger and Nixon loved Machiavelli’s The Prince. Mussolini did his dissertation on it. Now there’s an image: Mussolini holed up in his room which, I like to think, smelled of toast and slightly mildewed socks, flicking through pages which suggest that being feared is far more useful than being loved. Fear is in your control, people can decide to stop loving you, but they cannot decide to stop fearing you, Machiavelli suggested. Actually I’m not sure Machiavelli was “suggesting” anything. He wrote the whole bloody thing as a massive willy-waving “You Need Me” exercise while under house arrest. As Alan Yentob mooched around Machiavelli’s farmhouse explaining how the author had been cast out of Florence as a troublemaker, one got the feeling Machiavelli’s The Prince was one long wine-fuelled “OK, the gloves are off, here’s the truth; this is how you run a bloody city state.”

This was a rather wonderful Imagine referencing the BBC’s House of Cards and Hilary Devey’s role on Dragon’s Den, Thatcher’s approach to ruling her cabinet and Blair’s Machiavellian traits. Devey read The Prince when she was 15 years old. She said that her first six weeks as a dragon were a massive lesson in how Machiavellian her co-stars were, but once she learnt the game she was as good at being bad as them. Blair, we were told, would stare at his notes furiously during the more boring parts of his televised speeches so they would not make the TV cut, raising his eyeline for the triumphant one-liners which would make good News at Ten.

All of this was gilded by the wonderful Peter Capaldi, who tiptoed through the hour, whispering encouragement to viewers to “act like a fox” (Shag loudly? Take other people’s chickens? Oh. Be wily. I see) and accept that “evil things” must be carried out for the good of the realm. And how every prince needs a second-in-command to carry out the vilest deeds. And how lightning bolts of “good fortune” are needed for a true prince to rise to power. In a macabre section – but then the essence of the The Prince is panto-macabre – the early death of the Labour leader John Smith and the rise of Tony Blair was used as an example of “good fortune”. Alastair Campbell was on hand to describe Blair’s early lessons in handling power, and how during his first cabinet reshuffles, Blair would almost be sick with nerves caused by guilt and anxiety. Yet by the third, he was fast, clipped, ruthless. “He did the big beasts face to face,” said Campbell, “And the others by phone.”

George RR Martin, the creator of Game of Thrones, was wonderful chatting about the difficulties of power and how The Prince relates to the trials of Ned Stark and Cersei Lannister. He also revealed how,  while teaching at a remote all-girls school in America, the quest for the prized head-of-department role was as ruthless as anything in Medici Florence. At one stage Alan Yentob took himself off for a “How Machiavellian are you?” test. Yentob answered questions such as “Should powerful people be flattered?” reasonably, indicating no real urge for power. He was awarded the mark of “average Machiavelli”. “But then if I was a true Machiavellian, I wouldn’t have told the truth would I?” he said. “No” admitted the man marking the test. I enjoyed this brilliantly entertaining hour spent celebrating arch-eyebrowed beastliness. That Mochyvullim, he totally had a gameplan.

Arts and Entertainment
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
classical
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there