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The Scandalous Adventures of Lord Byron

Are we really only capable of viewing history through the prism of “celebrity”

Poor Rupert Everett. Such a beautiful specimen of a man, and yet there he was, reduced to slumming it on Channel 4 (The Scandalous Adventures of Lord Byron, 27 July, 9pm). Dressed in a tight, white vest, Everett gazed coolly at the camera and told us that Lord Byron was "the first international celebrity", and one of the "earliest practitioners of modern PR". So, he managed not to snigger. Nevertheless, you could tell by the delicate curl of his lip that what he was really thinking was: "Sweetheart, where on earth did you get this script? Do I have to say this stuff?"

Unfortunately he did. After all, he could hardly have tweaked his lines himself. Everett has no special passion for, or knowledge of, Byron. He is just a hired hand, albeit an inordinately sculpted one. "I thought it would be a challenge to see if you could bring poetry alive," he announced, in an interview to promote this biography-cum-travelogue. "I'm not a great poetry fan."

Oh, how tedious it is, earning a living! Still, never mind. By way of compensation, he was allowed to wear his vest (his shoulders, which slope like the Matterhorn, are an endless source of fascination) whenever he liked, the only exception being when he was required to put on some ghastly felt version of Albanian national costume.

He was also allowed to insult everyone in sight when he attended a party at the British embassy in Istanbul. He had some amusing line of Byron's about the Turks and sodomy that it pleased him to repeat over and over, like a small boy who has just learned a rude word. At tea with a Portuguese call girl, whom he met on the spurious grounds that the traveller Byron particularly relished sex with Spanish prostitutes, he asked: "Who [which nationality] has the biggest penises?" Good question, Rupert! This is exactly the kind of thing that, throwing down my hastily annotated copy of Don Juan, I liked to ask my tutor at college.

Of course, we are used, by now, to the way that everything - everything - must be observed through the filter of celebrity; I have just put down a newspaper review of a new book that apparently draws some mighty tedious comparisons between our celebrity culture and the ancient civilisations of Greece and Rome. So, it is hardly surprising that Channel 4 is determined to turn Byron into a prototype Britney, and Everett into a traveller-scholar manqué. But the fact is that old club-foot Byron, who slept with everyone from (just possibly) Ali Pasha, "Lion of Ioannina", to his own darling half-sister, and yet still found time to struggle out of bed to write some rather good poems, is interesting in his own right, and a good deal more interesting than either Britney (or whoever) or Rupert Everett. But while I know this will come as a shock to some - step forward the unimaginative moron who commissioned this - my hunch is that Everett agrees with me.

I'd be willing to bet good money that the ennui he exuded here so deliberately was a smokescreen not only for his embarrassment at the feebleness of the script, but for the knowledge that Byron - so brave, so dangerous and so dashing - was worth ten of him, whether we're talking artistic talent or prowess in the bedroom. How could he not? In Albania, Everett "retraced" Byron's journey through bandit country on a donkey, but the lack of, well, bandits, not to mention luggage, was so glaringly obvious, it was laughable. He might as well have been on Clacton Beach. Perhaps having noticed this, someone had obviously suggested that Everett wrap himself in an animal skin as he rode, but the sun was patently warm, and he just looked like a very sweaty yeti.

Oh, well. One thing Everett and his subject do have in common is a certain . . . attitude to women. On an Iberian dock, Everett said, with an unpleasant snigger, that "only two things smell of fish . . . and one of those is fish". Would the makers of the film have resisted editing such a comment, had it been made by a straight man? I doubt it. But, hey! What's a little misogyny between friends? Rupert's so outrageous. Give him a rule and, just like Lord B, he'll break it.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.