Oh good grief, is there anything more frustrating for a blogger than when you spend hours on a blog post, hit ‘save’, only to start up the next day to find an empty screen? Bad form, WordPress. There isn’t even a revision history to choose from.
ANYWAY, Ladies and Gentlemen, shall we talk about Leonardo? I feel I’ve bored a lot of people on Twitter, chat and real life with my love for this show recently, but I’m sure I haven’t mentioned it on blog. Which is a terrible shame, because as far as historical inaccurate British children’s TV dramas go, Leonardo is utterly and completely charming.
This is Leonardo da Vinci. Yes, that Leonardo da Vinci. It’s 1467, which makes him 15, and he’s an apprentice under the artist Andrea del Verrocchio in Florence. He’s a talent artist, as well as an inventor, nature lover and all round polymath. And he’s about to throw himself off a building.
What follows will contain spoilers for the entire show, and the first episode in particular, but it’s a kids show and it plays tropes straight, and you’re all super sophisticated veterans of storytelling, right? You’ll see them coming.
Thanks to Maru, by the way for most of these screencaps. Beyond the cut is bandwidth unfriendly.
Leonardo is the hero of the show, and as such should be completely boring and uninteresting and full of manpain and make me yawn everytime he’s on screen. However it appears the creators of the show failed to get that memo about how to write TV protagonists, or maybe the actor Jonathan Bailey decided he just wasn’t having it, because he’s chosen to play Leonardo as a charming, easily distracted utter dorkface who may well probably become the greatest painter in all of history, if he’d only apply himself… ooh look a shiny clock I wonder how it works I must take it apart oh and did I mention I invented the bicycle?
Just like the historical figure, Leonardo is vegetarian, has the expensive habit of buying caged birds in the marketplace just to set them free, and spends nearly the entire show bouncing from distraction to distraction as he tries to understand the entire world, and to realise every single one of his inventions and occasionally mentioning his parental issues in a non-angsty way but hey, absent parents mean more time to stargaze, right?
The major plot of the show revolves around the theft of his notebook by a SHADY AND SINISTER organisation, and his attempts to get it back, although it doesn’t occur to him until late in the show that they might want to use his inventions for nefarious purposes, because why would anyone use any of his inventions to hurt people?
This couldn’t possibly have MILITARY application!
This is just one of the ways in which the show betrays its heavily Terry Pratchett-influenced roots, along with the shades of Guards! Guards! (or is that Hot Fuzz) noted in the Secret Society, and the shameless reimagining of the historical setting. In case you were worried that this show might try too hard to be historically accurate, I present exhibit a: Leonardo da Vinci’s Converse sneakers.
The costume design on this show is a work of MAD GENIUS, I tell you.
The guy in the crushed velvet coat is Niccolo Machiavelli. Yes, that Machiavelli. So what is Wikipedia tells us Machiavelli was some white Italian dude who was born in Florence two years after the events of this show took place. Who are you going to believe? Recorded history or this face?
His actor, Akemnji Ndifernyan is a scholar of the Roger Moore school of eyebrow acting. (Which is hard to screencap!) I could watch this guy’s eyebrows all day.
Machiavelli – Mac to his friends – may one day engineer his own legacy to make him look extra specially awesome, but in the series, he is a MAN OF MYSTERY who may be from Rome, and may be from Milan, but he never talks about himself, so we’re left to piece it together with flashbacks and the sudden appearance of old friends and rivals. So maybe it’s not that hard for us to piece it together, but his friends never find out. Mac is apparently the crime lord of Florence, knowing everybody and running the city streets like some sort of amazing cross between Mickey Bricks and Fagin, which y’know, isn’t the most realistic and unproblemmatic of traditional tropes, but if you want historically accurate portrayals of poverty in 15th century Florence, may I suggest Children’s BBC dramas are not the place to look?
Although then you’d miss out on Mac’s loveable army of tiny urchins.
His friends think this is weird.
The magnificent boy in yellow, by the way, is Lorenzo de’ Medici. Yes, that Lorenzo de’ Medici. Hush, I’ll get to him later, because I’m not done with Mac, yet.
Mac hangs out with Leo for the same reason all Leo’s friends hang out with him – it’s just awesome to watch the mad teenage genius get his brain hooked on something and follow it through, even if that involves throwing himself off a roof. Leo hangs out with Mac because Mac’s wide web of black market connections mean he’s an expert on obtaining hard to find components for Leo’s inventions. Like, for example, bells for bicycles that haven’t been invented yet. These two are true Best Friends Forever. They even have a secret handshake.
Mac and Leo’s adventures at their best involve getting into scrapes and difficult situations because Leo just had to try sommething out and Mac knows the best way to get it. Like, say, obtaining high quality gunpowder for Leonardo’s boom bike.
Yes, a boom bike.
If Mac provides the crime and manipulation skills for Leo’s escapades, then much of the financiering and political weight comes from his other best friend – Lorenzo de’ Medici, son of the richest and most powerful family in Florence . Although not the rulers, because Florence also has a duke, Lorenzo’s cousin once removed, even though historically the city wasn’t a duchy until… OK, shall we just assume that it might not be a good idea to have Wikipedia open while watching the show? Good.
Lorenzo has a DIFFICULT and TRAUMATIC life – it’s so hard to be a Medici in a time when your mother expects you to eat all six courses at breakfast and your private tutors set you homework and you can’t find a decent valet and it’s nearly IMPOSSIBLE to sneak out of your family palace to go hang with your BFF. And to top it all off, for some reason Mac treats him like he’s some sort of overprivileged untrustworthy snob, except when it might be useful to know someone as connected and rich as Lorenzo. Leo, of course, loves having Lorenzo around, because Lorenzo likes to dangle enigmas and puzzles in front of his friend and watch him “go a bit Leo” while he figures out how it works.
Lorenzo’s plotlines largely involve his relationship with his father, Piero de’ Medici, who is played with surprising aplomb by the stand-up comedian and impressionist Alistair Macgowan, wh0 sweeps around the screen in the desperate hope that someone will see him and promote him to the League of Token British Bad Guys before Three Musketeers comes out and Orlando Bloom steals his spot.
Lorenzo spends the whole show basically torn between wanting to fit in his his fun and energetic genius bohemian friends, and just really wanting Daddy to love him. And it is a great father-son dynamic, complete with divided loyalties, conflciting priorities and things that come up right before your son’s under 18 fencing competition.
It’s worth noting at this point just how fitting it is that a great deal of the inspiration for this fictionalised version of Piero de’ Medici appears to have been come directly from this character:
Obvious reasons for this similarity aside, I’m pretty convinced the writers are Pterry fans. I don’t know if this makes Lorenzo Wuffles, but I wouldn’t be against that analogy.
Piero de’ Medici is also [SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER] and the end of the first episode it’s revealed that he’s [SPOILER]. Which is awesome, because he’s really smart. Like, really smart. Smarter than you’d expect for a [SPOILER] on a kids TV show. And the whole rest of the show is spent showing how much smarter he is than the teenagers. Which is just one of the many things that makes Leonardo great.
The fourth member of the group of ragtag teenagers is Leonardo’s fellow aquaintance Tomaso Gherardini. He is an opinionated and headstrong young man who came to Florence as a runaway with the sole intention of becoming apprenticed to an artist and learning to paint. The only problem being that he doesn’t have a letter of recommendation.
Enter The Illucidated Brethren of the Ebon Night the aforementioned SHADY AND SINISTER group of bad guys, who offer Tomaso the elusive letter in exchange for furthering their nefarious schemes. It’s not a major spoiler to tell you that Tomaso soon has a change of heart and joins the gang. Although it’s not obvious how much joining the gang benefits him because all Tomaso wants to do is learn to paint.
In fact, many of Tomaso’s storylines involve staying well out of Leonardo’s hijinks and scrapes because he ONLY WANTS TO PAINT and he’d make a lot more progress in learning how to pain if all these ‘friends’ of his didn’t keep distracting him with boom bikes and wings that fly and nearly getting themselves killed. GOSH, people.
There’s another obstacle in the way of Tomaso’s dream of becoming a painter. Something I’m sure you couldn’t possibly have guessed, which I’m going to need to tell you in order to talk more about the show, and yet is a BIG REVEAL near the end of the first episode and so before you go on I’m going to need to give you SPOILER WARNING.
Scroll down only if you’re willing to learn Tomaso’s DEEP SECRET.
You will be SHOCKED, I’m telling you.
Are you sure you want to be spoiled?
OK, you asked for it!
GASP. Tomaso is actually a girl! Lisa Gherardini. Yes that… OK, shall we establish that everyone who has a name in this series appears to share that name with an historical personage? In this case, the model for that painting of a woman Leonardo da Vinci is quite well known for. ARE YOU AWESTRUCK? You should be.
While being played magnificently by the amazingly talented Flora Spencer-Longhurst, Lisa is, unfortunately, a terrible terrible cross dresser who wears figure hugging clothes and refuses to cut her hair and so spends most of the show running around in an unconvincing wig or an unconvincing hat, which she whips off at the… well, the drop of a hat, in the street and in public, when she’s not running around in a dress into which she changes in a well lit alleyway. This is unfortunate for her, because she spends a lot of time bemoaning the consequences if she were found out.
You will be pleased to know that although Lisa is the only female main character, and although she never shares any screen time with the other recurring femle character, every single time there is a female guest star, she talks to that female guest star about art or clothes or crossdressing or her plans in life, and very rarely about any of her male co-stars.
The show, incidentally, seems to want to ship Leonardo/Lisa, which in my opinion hardly works because the two actors have chemistry that only works as a fraternal relationship. Lisa has a crush on Leo that’s rooted very firmly in being awestruck by his talent and genius, but it’s made pretty clear that he sees her as one of the boys, although it does lead to a brilliant scene in which she attempts to flirt.
Besides, this is Leonardo da Vinci, we’re talking about here, and we all know where his proclivities lie.
Um. OK, show, I will admit that it was hilarious to watch him try to use “do you like my bicycle?” as a pick-up line, I’m going to have to ask you not to do that again.
ANYWAY, back to the real ship of the show, and my ‘real’, I mean MY ship, this:
Mac has an quiet, one sided, unspoken adoration for Tomaso|Lisa, and it’s not obvious whather it’s Tomaso OR Lisa he likes, because being Mac and a MAN OF MYSTERY with a SECRET PAST, he never says anything out loud, just shoots her heart meltingly sweet looks whenever she’s not looking. It’s not even creepy, I swear! If you were a fan of Leslie Howard’s silent and utter devotion to Merle Oberon in The Scarlet Pimpernel, you might be as blown away as me by Ndifernyan’s acting skills.
Of course, Leonardo is blissfully ignorant of any love triangle he’s involved in, otherwise you’d think he was being a bit of huge dick. But he’s just too clueless for that.
There’s problem inherent in this love triangle business, though, and it’s not the boys’ treatment of Lisa. Worringly, it comes in Lisa’s constant, unneccessary pre-emptive rejection of Mac. I mean, yes writers, we get it. You want to play into the unrequited affection in an antognistic friendship trope, possibly you’re building up to Lisa finally chosing one in a later season, but did it never occur to you that if your white female character gave your only black main character a disdinful look up and down and say “you’re not my type, never in a million years,” there might be somewhat of an ISSUE there?
I love Lisa|Tomaso, I really do. And I ship Mac/Lisa like a crazy shipping thing. (He’s the only person who CONSISTENTLY respects her wishes and remembers to use the correct pronouns!) But… yeah.
It’s not the only problem the show hs with race, either, which is a shame ’cause you can almost see where they were trying not to fuck up in a drama set in 15th century Florence. The other problem involves the show’s other recurring character of colour.
This is Cosimo, Verrocchio’s servant (“I can’t draw”), played by the remarkable Thembalethu Ntuli – a twenty year old actor with the perfect body proportions for playing a child with animation and humour. Cosimo is great as supporting character; he has great comic timing and enlivens every scene he’s in, but a lot of the scenes he’s in he’s in to get yelled at by Verrocchio, who yes, yells at a lot of people, but especially Cosimo and yes, you guessed it, Machiavelli.
It’s a problem. I get what the show’s doing, of course. Someone in its creation decided that while it was A-OK to have many people of colour in the show (There are plenty of extras and a guest star other than Cosimo and Mac. Every person of colour on the show is black African, which suggests to me that some thought was put into the casting), they were to be on the lowest rungs of the socieconomic ladder. Which – well.
On the one hand, set in a real place at a real time period. On the other: Converse sneakers in 15th century.
And yes, it’s pretty obvious that Verrocchio is a) very very fond of Cosimo in a paternal way but has a shitty way of showing it and b) being used to show – not uncritically – attitudes to class in his differential treatment of Machiavelli and Lorenzo, but this is the way it’s presented.
Um, what else?
OH YES. Surprise guest star Michelangelo!
Really, that outfit should speak for itself, but Mike also provides the perfect segue to one of the greatest things of the show the soundtrack. Because while this was made for broadcast in 2011,, someone thought what it really needed was a soundstrack straight out of the 1990s. Because your life isn’t complete if you haven’t seen Leonardo da Vinci flying with homemade wings to the tune of Blur’s Song 2. The exception to this rule, however, is Leo’s rival Michelangelo, who struts on screen to the strains of Adam and the Ants’ Prince Charming.
ETA OF I CAN’T BELIEVE I FORGOT THIS
The Italian. Because it’s set in Florence, right? So the characters are Italian, despite speaking English with English accents (except for the Irishman, who was from Pisa). And what better way to show that your characters are Italian then to insert random Italian words into their dialogue?
“I’ve seen his work, Meistro. It’s fantastico.”
“This boy’s work is magnifico.”
(Best Eddie Izzard voice) “Ciao!”
“My little Tortellini.”
It’s entirely appropriate and not in the least bit jarring. Honest.
– mad genius easily distractible teenage genius polymath!
– awesome male-male friendship built on absolute loyalty and secret handshakes!
– conflict of interests between family and friends, portrayed with sense and with real affection.
– unconvincing cross-dressing!
– An unresolved love triangle that never gets resolved because everyone has better things to do.
– Secret societies that meet in the catacombs!
– Michelangelo in red and purple!
– Historically accurate sneakers!
– Renaissance Iron Man!
– Random inexplicable Italian phrases!
– And 1,000 elephants!
Actually, there aren’t any elephants. But there should be.