at my signal, unleash keir

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Can you believe Ridley Scott’s epic, Gladiator, is twenty years old this month? At that time swashbuckling sword-and-sandals movies had become an outdated homoerotic joke, ironically with the NRA’s Charging Charlton’s Ben Hur leading the fray. But then came Russell’s Roman renaissance and the joke was on us: Chariots! Colossus Colosseum calamities! Rippling man-flesh! Tigers! Tridents! Why, it even had the obligatory real-life death on-set when perennial bad-boy, Oliver Reed, playing gladiator trainer Proximo, pegged-it of a heart attack after challenging a group of sailors to a drinking contest. He won and, er… lost.

A pound to a penny says that Boris Johnson, a man richly schooled in the classics, enjoyed the film as much as the next man, which is just as well as the closest parallel to the gladiatorial contest today can be seen in Wednesday’s weekly Prime Minister’s Questions. And the early signs are that one particular combatant is heading for the dreaded thumbs-down.

The newly-anointed Labour leader, Keir Starmer, will have had tougher days defending poll-tax protestors as a junior barrister than questioning the prime minister about his handling of the coronavirus crisis. Without the presence of 364 boisterous Tory MPs behind him, BoJo has been humiliatingly exposed at PMQs by the forensic courtroom atmosphere, which the former Director of Public Prosecutions looks so at ease with. As it transpires, years of entitlement, delegation, speaking off-cuff and operating on the fly aren’t such great practice for dealing with the most serious health crisis for over a hundred years. Even Torygraph journalist Michael Deacon declared that Johnson had been taken apart “like a Duplo train set”.

In a week where there was neither refrigerator to hide in nor questioner’s phone to confiscate, it fell to the newly-found voice of the people, and Gordon T Gopher’s BFF, Phillip Schofield, to articulate the national frustration and disbelief, live on This Morning: “You literally couldn’t write this, if it was in a farce on the telly, I would go: ‘That is a bit far-fetched, no government would a*se it up that much.’”

Today, even Gladiator is ancient history itself but, in many ways, its story remains relevant: a scheming undeserving despot who hijacks a once mighty empire and further betrays its principles, who silences the wise and deflects criticism with increasingly violent, populist spectacle. “Fear and wonder, a powerful combination,” Senator Gracchus explained and Gladiator both served it up and warned us against it.