Last Night's TV - Spartacus, Bravo; Stephen Fry on Wagner, BBC4

A gush of blood from their heads
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The Independent Culture

Anybody very worried about the violence in Spartacus – Bravo's blood-drenched sword-and-sandals series – might want to take a look at the Iliad before they dismiss an appetite for the gory bits as a modern debasement. Homer, after all, was no slouch when it came to the stomach-churning close-up. There's the death of Alcathous, for example, when he points out that "the spear stuck in his heart, which still beat, and made the butt-end of the spear quiver". Or a wildly X-rated moment when Menelaus, already wounded, whacks Pisander on the bridge of the nose so forcefully that "the bones cracked and his two gore-bedrabbled eyes fell by his feet in the dust". You could probably trace an unbroken line between the groans of appalled relish such details must have provoked then and the kind of noises teenagers will make now in front of Spartacus, reacting to a double amputation or a full-frontal throat-slitting.

The difference with the Iliad, of course, is that there's a lot besides violence. Cut the grisly bits out and you'd still be left with a great work of literature. Cut the violence out of Spartacus, by contrast, and you'd be left with a 30-second commercial for an unusually brutish male cologne called Gladiator. Just as pornography gives you sex without foreplay or pregnancies, Spartacus gives you violence without preamble or remorse – and its money shot is the scarlet ejaculation of digital blood, sometimes so copious that it floods the screen entirely. First you get a lot of thrusting and then someone gets a faceful of bodily fluids. Accompanied by the kind of language that would make Malcolm Tucker feel immediately at home.

The bloody excess is stylistic gesture, because Spartacus takes its lead from films like 300 and Sin City, which can't quite decide whether they want to be movies or graphic novels, so split the difference. The backdrops – conspicuously and gleefully two-dimensional – are generated not by the need for realism but for visual impact, so that Spartacus himself was seen at one moment plucking fruit in a snowscape and immediately afterwards having relaxed al fresco sex with his wife. The dialogue – conspicuously and inadvertently two-dimensional – enables you to fill the gaps between queasy groans with snorts of derision.

It's possible there are performances in there somewhere, though it isn't always easy to tell, since some characters are enfranchised from language entirely, reduced to a kind of bleary grunting, as if they've come to the wrong end of a rugby-club night out. But John Hannah is probably your best bet if you're sifting through for something other than hacking and slashing – playing Batiatus, a waspish Frank Warren of the gladiator world who recognises that Spartacus could be a contender and steps in to save him from a fatal thumbs-down. "That man has fingers in all the proper assholes," he says of a hated rival. "He wriggles them and everyone shits gold." It is, as my sons occasionally say, "sick", which you can take as warning or recommendation depending on your age group.

The "sickness" of Wagner is a considerably more complicated affair, explored by Stephen Fry in another of the BBC's extended season of programmes about opera. His ambition in Stephen Fry on Wagner, he said, was to salvage the composer's music "from its dark and troubled history", a knightly quest that he embarked on armed with little more than a giddy passion for his subject and that trademark fluency on air. It was not a dispassionate study. "This place is Stratford-upon-Avon, Mecca and Graceland rolled into one," he said, arriving wide-eyed at Bayreuth, where he was allowed to wander around backstage. Later he visited Wagner's house ("I'm playing the Tristan chord on Wagner's own piano!"), chatted briefly to the latest relative to inherit the poisoned chalice of the festival ("Flesh on flesh I touched a Wagner!... It's rather pathetic of me, but it's wonderful") and poked his nose into Wagner's revolutionary auditorium ("Here it is, my hand on the door!"). I haven't seen him so excited since he got a sneak preview of the iPad.

And somehow it worked. Presenters often rave about high art as if it was a given that we should all like it, but Fry's encomia all had a confessional air to them. His admiration of Wagner was not a badge of intellectual superiority but a revealed compulsion; not a pompously dignified thing but a potentially undignified one. Because of that you believed him, and sensed the gloom when he visited the Nazi rally grounds in Nuremberg and grasped how hard it would be to disentangle the music from its most notoriously demented admirers. It concluded with a terrific scene in which he visited the Jewish musician Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, who only survived Auschwitz because the Germans had killed the other cellist and couldn't dispense with her services. Without unseemly begging you sensed Fry wanted her to let him off the hook, but instead, very courteously, she hung on his feet and drove it a little deeper: "Why do you have to listen to Wagner in Bayreuth?" she asked simply. He didn't really have a satisfactory answer, but he went anyway. I don't know whether he salvaged the music – a faintly vainglorious ambition in the first place given its standing in the world – but he made you want to listen again to something that had so troubled his better judgement, which found for it and against it simultaneously.