Last Night's Television - Bang Goes the Theory, BBC1; The Scandalous Adventures of Lord Byron, Channel 4
Affairs to remember
Tuesday 28 July 2009
The Scandalous Adventures of Lord Byron, Rupert Everett's jaunt around Mediterranean Europe in the footsteps of "the first modern sex symbol", began with Everett in the bath, a copy of Byron's Selected Poems wrinkling on the soap rack. Later, he bathed again – this time with bubbles – at the British Embassy in Istanbul. He even performed a striptease to camera, for no apparent reason whatsoever. Of the hour's many disrobements, a couple were at least relevant to the matter in hand: he gladly got his buttocks out for a sudsy massage at a Turkish hamam, and peeled off everything but his Y-fronts to swim across the Hellespont, a Byronic feat that proved too much for Everett in the end, though of course there were fewer Russian cargo ships to contend with in the 19th century.
Everett is enviably trim for a man of 50, but what exactly does watching him cavort around a bathroom in his pants have to do with Byron, the rebel Romantic? Presumably, the idea was to parallel the poet's character with the actor's. After all, they're both incorrigibly vain, fond of a good party, and happy to go home afterwards with a member of either sex. But then Lord Byron wrote "Don Juan", whereas Rupert Everett is most famous for My Best Friend's Wedding.
Our journey began in Lisbon where, in the summer of 1809, at the height of the Napoleonic Wars, a young Byron landed in search of Latin prostitutes. Everett took one such lady to dinner, where she informed him that Englishmen were unexpectedly considerate lovers, but Brazilians had the biggest willies. At this point, my hopes for the remainder of the documentary were not high.
Yet despite all the yawnsome shots of Everett gazing moodily from castle battlements, or strutting the deck of his yacht in a vest, he somehow won me over by the end of the evening. He may be self-obsessed, but he possesses charisma and intelligence and, as a primer of the poet's life, his programme was periodically enlightening.
In Albania, Byron encountered the brutish despot Ali Pasha, who turned out to be an old queen keen to woo the young Lord with almonds. In Istanbul, he enjoyed lap dances from young Turkish men, and made a nuisance of himself at the British Embassy, demanding (among other things) an audience with the Sultan. Born with a withered leg, Byron was obsessive about proving his manliness, hence his fondness for boxing and fencing, and that swim across the Hellespont. In Greece, he again irritated the British ex-pats by picking a fight with Lord Elgin over the plunder of ancient Greek treasures.
Previously a country squire of only modest means, it was this early trip around the Med that first made Byron famous and plunged him into London society, thanks to the publication in 1812 of his semi-fictionalised, narrative poem account of his adventures, "Childe Harold's Pilgrimage". Most readers believed the rogueish title character of the racy tome was merely a pseudonym for Byron, and he encouraged them to.
Everett described the poet's character as equal parts charming and utterly vile, then cheekily enquired of his producer, "Remind you of anyone you know?" But his own fabled charm occasionally deserted him. At an Embassy function, he rolled out a Byron quote once paraphrased by Mrs Thatcher, which compared the fashionable 19th-century British vices of "whoring and drinking" to Turkey's "sodomy and sherbert". Neither the ambassador, nor the rector of the local Bosphorus University, were especially amused.
The thrust of the documentary (which continues next week) was that Byron had "the vanity and sexual appetites of a modern rock star". Comparing a historical figure to a present-day celebrity is a cliché, but in this case it was an effective one, though not necessarily in the way Everett intended. Instead of maintaining his poetic hero's mystique, he exposed the rock-star Romantic as an artfully constructed image.
Byron commissioned portraits of himself looking dashing and adventurous, wore ridiculous outfits to the theatre, cultivated a harem of groupies, and then complained about all the public attention to his publisher. If not for his poetic greatness, he'd be just another tedious git torn from the pages of some Georgian celebrity magazine. Everett, while he seemed to relish being papped at a film premiere, proved himself to be rather more than that, too.
Bang Goes the Theory is billed as "the new Tomorrow's World", though its creators have obviously been watching a lot of Top Gear and Blue Peter, too. Between VTs, the fresh-faced, hipster-scientist presenters sit around their warehouse on battered leather furniture. There's Liz, a comely Irish biologist; Jem, an earnest engineer in ripped jeans, who got excited about vortex cannons; and Dallas, the spiky haired comic relief, who told a Pink Floyd joke that will have gone straight over the heads of half his target demographic. Dr Yan Wong performs the show's on-the-street experiments, and is mocked by his fellow presenters for having a huge brain – which is a bit like the Mathletics team bullying the Chemistry champ. Experiments on eggs rub shoulders with discussions about the ethics of genetic research, so someone should probably decide whether the show is for kids or grown- ups, but it's still great to see pop science back in the 7.30pm slot.
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