The Borgias (Sky Atlantic)

Rachel Cooke winces at Jeremy Irons’s hammy performance as a pope.

Crikey. What fun it is that Jeremy Irons is playing the 15th-century pope Alexander VI in Showtime's The Borgias (Saturdays, 9pm). Apart from anything else, he has marked the occasion of its British launch by giving an interview to the Radio Times, an encounter that could not be more hilarious if it tried. (Sample sentence: "I have a fantastic priest in Ireland, although I'm not a Catholic . . . I go to church if I want to say hello to the community.")

Not only do we learn that the castle-owning Irons, who considers himself a perennial outsider, toyed with the idea of becoming a gypsy after leaving Sherborne public school. We also discover just how seriously he is taking this particular role.

“A danger with television is that viewers always want outrageous licentiousness," he says, as though The Borgias would be entirely about frescos, Vatican politics and canon law, were it not for us pesky box-watchers.

On screen, Irons is even more pompous, if anything, by which I mean so thoroughly hammy that he deserves to be tossed straight on to the nearest barbecue.

It's not just the fluttering of his hands, a tic that enables him to flaunt his giant papal rings (they look a bit Accessorize to me, but he obviously loves them), or the loopy, ecstatic look that he flashes the swooning crowd as the papal tiara is lowered on to his head. No, what really drives you mad after a while is how he seems always to be on the verge of tears. As I understand it, Pope Alexander VI was an enormously fat good-time boy with a nasty sideline in wanton poisoning - "a mitred ape", according to the cardinals whom he beat to the job - not some rake-thin, world-weary, trembling milksop. Irons, however, will emote. I guess it makes him feel like he's doing Shakespeare, not panto - but panto this most definitely is.

Neil Jordan, its writer and director, should be ashamed of himself. My dear, the dialogue: coy, cheesy, replete with anachronisms. It's as
if Dan Brown had watched The Tudors and thought, I can do this kind of thing.

“There was nothing ecclesiastical about you last night," says a nameless naked female to Cesare Borgia (François Arnaud) as he pulls back on his bishop's robes. "My kind? I don't have a kind and nor, I suspect, do you," says Michel­etto Corella (Sean Harris), a baddie, if you hadn't guessed, to his new master (Cesare again; he does get about).

There is much talk of flagellation, be it with leather whips (Cesare to Micheletto) or silk rope (Giulia Farnese to herself; she has aborted her child and this is her penance). In panto, characters shout: "He's behind you!" In The Borgias, Derek Jacobi, who plays - until he is poisoned - another cardinal, shouts: "Simony!" (Frankie Howerd, how we miss you.)

Most of the action seems to take place in semi-darkness, possibly to compensate for the sets that, although they don't wobble, feel strangely old-fashioned (think Liz Taylor in Cleopatra on a budget).

As a result, it took me a while to work out whether there was a single performance worth praising. There is one. Simon McBurney's turn as Johannes Burchart, a priest whose expertise in canon law is extensive enough to provide more or less any precedent the new pope should require - believe me, the boundary commission ain't got nothing on Alexander's plans for the college of cardinals - isn't bad.

What's more, I detect about the corners of his mouth the beginnings of a smile whenever he appears in a scene with Irons. Is McBurney fighting the temptation to giggle? I hope so. Even if this is not the case, it will be true soon, surely. For it gets ever more ridiculous from here. The murderous Cesare, desperate to protect his father's interests, will grow ever more nasty. His sister, the sweet and almost albino Lucrezia (Holliday Grainger), will grow ever more creepy. And his daddy-o, the Holy Father, will grow ever more randy.

So far, we have not glimpsed Jeremy's bobbing naked backside. It can't be long, can it? The Borgias' beds, I have noticed, are amply supplied with gauzy drapes. I fancy his silhouetted botty will take a starring role yet.

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.

This article first appeared in the 22 August 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The answer to the riots?

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For the last time, please, bring back the plate

The slight lip around the edge is no mere bourgeois affectation; it keeps the food contained in its proper place.

The much-vaunted tech revolution is not without its casualties, as I discovered first hand last weekend. The album format, creative boredom and now my favourite skirt: all collateral damage in the vicious battle for our waning attention span.

The last met its end in a pub, when it found itself on the wrong side of a slate slab full of Sunday roast. Once gravy got involved, things turned pretty ugly; and when reinforcements arrived in the form of a red-hot jar of plum crumble, I abandoned all hope of making it out with my dignity intact and began pondering the best way of getting a dry-cleaning bill to Tim Berners-Lee.

I lay the blame for such crimes against food entirely at the feet of the internet. Serving calamari in a wooden clog, or floury baps in a flat cap, is guaranteed to make people whip out their cameraphones to give the restaurant a free plug online.

Sadly for the establishments involved, these diners are increasingly likely to be sending their artistic endeavours to We Want Plates, a campaign group dedicated to giving offenders the kind of publicity they’re probably not seeking. (Highlights from the wall of shame on the campaign’s website include a dog’s bowl of sausage, beans and chips, pork medallions in a miniature urinal, and an amuse-bouche perched on top of an animal skull – “Good luck putting those in the dishwasher”.) Such madness is enough to make you nostalgic for an era when western tableware was so uniform that it moved an astonished Japanese visitor to compose the haiku: “A European meal/Every blessed plate and dish/Is round.”

The ordinary plate has its limitations, naturally: as every Briton knows, fish and chips tastes better when eaten from greasy paper, while a bit of novelty can tickle even the jaded palate at the end of a meal. Watching Jesse Dunford Wood create dessert on the tabletop at his restaurant Parlour is definitely the most fun I’ve ever had with an arctic roll (there’s a great video on YouTube, complete with Pulp Fiction soundtrack).

Yet the humble plate endures by simple dint of sheer practicality. The slight lip around the edge is no mere bourgeois affectation; it keeps the food contained in its proper place, rather than slipping on to the tablecloth, while the flat centre is an ideal surface for cutting – as anyone who has ever tackled sausages and mash in an old army mess tin (“perfect for authentic food presentation”, according to one manufacturer) will attest.

Given these facts, I hope Tom Aikens has invested in good napkins for his latest venture, Pots Pans and Boards in Dubai. According to a local newspaper, “Aikens’s Dubai concept is all in the name”: in other words, everything on the menu will be presented on a pot, pan or board. So the youngest British chef ever to be awarded two Michelin stars is now serving up salade niçoise in an enamel pie dish rightly intended for steak and kidney.

Truly, these are the last days of Rome – except that those civilised Romans would never have dreamed of eating oysters from a rock, or putting peas in an old flowerpot. Indeed, the ancient concept of the stale bread trencher – to be given to the poor, or thrown to the dogs after use – seems positively sophisticated in comparison, although I can’t help seeing the widespread adoption of the modern plate in the 17th century as a great leap forward for mankind, on a par with the internal combustion engine and space travel.

Which is why I have every faith that all those tiny trollies of chips and rough-hewn planks of charcuterie will eventually seem as absurd as surrealist gazelle-skin crockery, or futurist musical boxes full of salad.

In the meantime, may I recommend the adult bib?

Felicity Cloake write the food column for the New Statesman. She also writes for the Guardian and is the author of  Perfect: 68 Essential Recipes for Every Cook's Repertoire (Fig Tree, 2011) and Perfect Host: 162 easy recipes for feeding people & having fun (Fig Tree, 2013). She is on Twitter as @FelicityCloake.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide