The importance of location to great fiction has been emphasised again and again throughout the current golden age of television. HBO’s run of seminal shows prove the rule. Whether it’s mobster New Jersey in The Sopranos or The West Wing’s corridors of power, a sound choice of location provides a platform from which complex and compelling human dramas can play out.

The struggle to find similar worlds to base new series on must be one that keeps HBO executives wide-awake at night. It’s a wonder, then, that it’s taken so long for them to get round to making a programme based in the Vatican. The behind the scenes political machinations at play in the White House, both the real and televisual one, surely have nothing on the infighting and intrigue that has gone on for centuries in the heart of the Church.

The phenomenal success of The Da Vinci Code should have pointed the way. Dan Brown’s idiotic book came out in 2003, but it’s taken until now for HBO, or any other television network, to make the most of the Vatican’s dramatic potential: The Young Pope, starring Jude Law as a relatively youthful, newly elected American pontiff, starts on Sky Atlantic later this month.

As the critic Mark Lawson pointed out recently in The Guardian, papal fiction is nothing new, but since The Da Vinci Code there has been an upsurge in art inspired by the Vatican and the Church at large. Brown’s novel must have had something to do with it, but I suspect also that the election of Pope Francis, and his subsequent media-friendly approach, has reminded artists – and perhaps more importantly, producers – of the Church’s potential as a dramatic world.

Robert Harris’s new novel (reviewed overleaf) takes the election of a pope as the structure for a thriller, and in 2011 Italian filmmaker Nanni Moretti released We Have a Pope, about a reluctant cardinal elected as Holy Father. With its mix of wry comedy and melancholic drama, that film is of a piece with the rest of Moretti’s oeuvre, just as The Young Pope is exactly the kind of operatic spectacle you’d expect from Moretti’s compatriot and peer Paolo Sorrentino, who has directed and co-written the 10-part series.

Sorrentino’s love of the spectacular is most obvious in his Oscar-winner, The Great Beauty, a Felliniesque love letter to Rome. No surprise then that he should now be drawn to the grand environs of the Vatican, and he makes the most of the visual potential of his location with sweeping shots of St Peter’s Square and Michelangelo’s Pietà.

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