Magazine article The Spectator

The Trojan War, as Seen on TV

Magazine article The Spectator

The Trojan War, as Seen on TV

Article excerpt

Did the Trojan War really take place? The Foreign Secretary certainly thinks so. 'The Iliad must have happened,' Boris Johnson once told me. 'That description of the Trojans attacking like birds is so chilling, it must be true.'

Boris was referring to the beginning of Book 3 of the Iliad, where the Trojans 'advanced with cries and clamour, a clamour like birds, cranes in the sky, flying from the winter's storm and unending rain, flowing towards the streams of the ocean, bringing the clamour of death and destruction to Pygmy tribes, bringing evil and strife at the break of day'.

You only have to stand on top of the ruined towers of ancient Troy, on the western shores of Turkey, to agree with Boris.

There, below your feet, stand the city's mighty cyclopean walls, around which Achilles chased poor Hector three times. Those walls slope, just as Homer said. And, on their western side, the walls fall away -- at the same weak spot where Athena told the Greeks to attack. Archaeologists have even found a thrilling subterranean layer of scorched objects, arrowheads, skulls and butchered skeletons, suggesting the city was sacked in around 1200 BC. And, beyond the walls, the River Scamander meanders down to the wine-dark sea, as it does in the Iliad.

Whether the Trojan War happened or not, it richly deserves its lavish, new, eight-part BBC/Netflix adaptation, Troy: Fall of a City (which starts on BBC One on Saturday). Created and co-written by David Farr, scriptwriter for John le Carré's The Night Manager, it's the most expensive drama in BBC history, costing £16 million.

Farr has played fast and loose with Homer's text, injecting anachronistic echoes of Shakespeare and Chaucer. The dialogue is faux-historical clunky, in true sword-and-sandal fashion: 'Your quarters are in the south of the palace and afford the finest views of the region.' The Trojan War without Homer's verse is Hamlet without the prince.

David Farr has also recreated Troy, not by the Aegean, but in Cape Town. And he concentrates on the story of Helen of Troy and Paris, the spoilt son of Priam, King of Troy. Helen's elopement with Paris may have sparked the Trojan War; but the lovers often take a back seat in the Iliad. Surprise, surprise, the most beautiful woman in the world, dressed in a flimsy, low-cut peplos, takes centre stage on telly. …

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