LONDON -- The BBC is about to premiere one of the most expensive television productions in its history, but there is a question hanging over 'The Borgias:' How will modern viewers react to a custom fairly commonplace in the rugged and earthy 15th century?
The $5 million series cost more than 10 times the budget of 'The Six Wives of Henry VIII,' an internationally successful TV epic by the same producer, Mark Shivas.
Times have changed since the 'embroidery' on the costumes in Henry VIII was painted on the cloth and glittering 'jewels' fashioned from nuts and screws and bolts.
'The Borgias' is as close to big screen film-making as television can get. There are l42 speaking parts in the 10 one-hour programs. Costumes are realistic. A small army of actors and technicians went on expensive locations in the timeless back streets of Spoleto, Viterbo and Urbino in Italy.
But there were many problems, too. In London, for example, a studio dispute over which union had the right to open a door on a set, held up its recording sessions and put back transmission by six months.
There are three stars in 'The Borgias.' Adolfo Celi, who played the ruthless, Mafia-like villain in the James Bond film, 'Thunderball,' is Rodrigo Borgia, who presided not only over Renaissance Italy's most notorious family but over the entire Catholic world as Pope Alexander VI.
History records that while he was plotting murders, marriages, seductions and insurrections as godfather of the Borgia clan he was also watching over Europe's spiritual welfare, and not doing badly for his flock.
Britain's Oliver Cotton, whose career includes seasons with the National Theater and the Royal Shakespeare Company, is his son, Cesare Borgia, the most infamous of the clan, a cardinal and a killer with dozens of murders on his conscience, not that conscience meant all that much in the l5th century.
The role of his daughter, Lucrezia Borgia, mistress of poison and poniard, was entrusted to lovely Anne Louise Lambert, 26, who made her name in Australian films.
Australia's Channel 7 and America's Time-Life were involved in the financing of the show.
'The Borgias' opens its coverage of 15 years in the career of the family with Rodrigo adding the papacy to the family business in order to tighten his hold on power. One of his weapons in spreading the family tentacles was the beautiful Lucrezia, married off from time to time to useful allies who tended to die suddenly when a more advantageous husband appeared on the horizon.
A good murder or two never hurt a TV show. But Rodrigo and Cesare were also much fonder of their daughter and sister than is considered proper in modern families. Togetherness that would be prohibited now by law was apparently unremarkable in an era when relatives had to be closer than they are today because of violent enemies everywhere.
So she bore her father a son. The BBC recognizes that incest, even when it's historically accurate, may not be every Briton's cup of tea. But it felt it was dramatically important to portray it.
As director Brian Farnham put it:
''The Borgias' is like a western. Plenty of action. There's incest and nudity. There's beheading and garroting. There's blood. We've had to be harsh. It was a harsh time. But we've also remained true to the subject.'
adv for pms wed oct.