Versailles: a Disneyland version of history

I counted four separate sex acts in the first 23 minutes of an episode of Versailles (BBC Two, Wednesdays, 9.30). That works out at roughly one fumble every five minutes. In addition, a tax collector had his hand cut off and a spy was chopped to pieces with an axe.

A doctor casually dissected a corpse on her kitchen table. And the episode closed with the Queen of France giving birth, we are led to think, to the child of her midget jester. This is why I’m voting to leave the EU. They’re just not right in the head over there.

Was life really this gay in the court of Louis XIV? Probably not. The writers take innuendo-laden sources and translate them into pornographic fact. It is true that the king’s brother, Philippe d’Orléans, was sometimes spotted around Versailles wearing a dress. But so much else is exaggerated to such extremes that after a while it becomes banal. A few viewers have complained about the sex. I can’t imagine why: the scenes are generally fully clothed and rendered totally unerotic by the king’s pencil moustache.

No, much more troubling is the violence. Given that his majesty’s secret police probably didn’t go around slicing people’s limbs off, one suspects that the writers are aiming for cheap thrills here rather than historical education. And then, as we’re dealing with a Catholic country, there’s the almost obligatory scene of a woman lacerating her back with a flagellant’s whip.

So much of popular history is a Disneyland. It’s no more an authentic vision of the past than Space Mountain is an authentic experience of intergalactic travel. We dip into Downton Abbey to see what it was really like to be a posh snob with oodles of money – and the occasional TV aerial caught in shot reminds us that we’re only playing. As Camille Paglia has written, Mad Men is too inaccurate to be called cultural history and reflects, instead, our own contemporary need to be horrid to women and drink booze in the office. Versailles speaks … to what? A need for decadence, a lust for blood? Those things never seem to age.

This article first appeared in the June 17 2016 issue of The Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here.