‘Leonardo’: Episodes 1 & 2 review

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With a heralding cry of ‘Fantastico!’, CBBC presents a fast-paced and action-packed new drama series following the adventures of the young Leonardo Da Vinci and his friends in fifteenth century Florence.

Along with ‘Mack’ Machiavelli, Lorenzo de’ Medici and Lisa (think of paintings, art historians…), the young Leo invents things, paints and gives dazzling explanations of maths and science whilst doing his best to thwart the machinations of an evil secret society called the Luminari.

In this opening double-header, Leonardo meets Lisa, a runaway who has come to Florence to study art, disguised as a boy because ‘a girl can paint for a hobby but not for a living – which is fair, how?’ Initially sequestered by the Luminari to steal Da Vinci’s notebook, Lisa soon realises upon which side of the canvas her pictures are painted, and instead helps the youthful artist and inventor to foil the plots of the Luminari and their mysterious leader.

Leonardo, played by Jonathan Bailey (Campus), is a boy genius whose bizarre creations (in Episode 1, he invents the bicycle), energetic plunges into adventure and breathless explanations of the higher realms of mathematics are highly reminiscent of Matt Smith in Doctor Who. The dynamics of his friendship group – Mack (Akemnji Ndifornyen) is the street-smart snarky one, Lorenzo (Colin Ryan) is the comedy-fodder rich buffoon, Lisa (Flora Spencer-Longhurst) is the clever, resourceful one – are drawn from decades of similarly entertaining children’s television: a pinch of The Sarah Jane Adventures here, a spattering of M.I. High there even a touch of Maid Marian And Her Merry Men in some of the funnier bits.

However, the show isn’t played for laughs. Yes, there’s light relief from Mack and Lorenzo, but the presence of the mysterious Luminari – forerunners or perhaps even rivals of The Da Vinci Code’s Illuminati; ‘luminari’ is Latin for ‘moon’ whilst ‘illuminati’ translates as ‘sun’ – gives the show a paradoxical darkness and gravity all of its own.

The society, who aim to bring down the Duke of Florence and take over the ruling of the city themselves, are ruthless enough to kidnap and threaten children without compunction; and the penalty for those who fail them is death. There’s a scene – subtly and appropriately played, but frighteningly effective – with a straight-razor at the end of Episode 2 which is genuinely chilling.

Although the lavishly-decorated sets, interior and exterior, are heavily evocative of fifteenth century Florence (despite the show actually being filmed in South Africa), the overall look and feel of Leonardo is much more contemporary. Unlike his period-costumed friends, Leonardo dresses like a young Julian Casablancas playing Indiana Jones, and the music – listen out for songs by Radiohead and The Zutons – is very firmly rooted five hundred years in the future. However, it’s a combination rather than a clash of cultures, and the effect is spectacular. Historical television drama has rarely looked so fashionable; or been as thrilling to watch.

Airs at 5.15pm on Monday 11th April 2011 on CBBC.