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Dangerous Kings and butchered barbers

Royals are psychopaths. And they’re as vain as a Kardashian. It’s said that the Emperor Sha Jahan ordered his guards to cut off the hands and gouge out the eyes of the architect of the Taj Mahal.

Royals are psychopaths. And they’re as vain as a Kardashian. It’s said that the Emperor Sha Jahan ordered his guards to cut off the hands and gouge out the eyes of the architect of the Taj Mahal. His mausoleum would then be unique. And myth has it that a Castilian Spanish king, with a speech impediment ordered all his courtiers to lisp so he’d never be the odd one out – which is why Barcelona is ‘Barthelona’ to this day.

In Metkovic – under the rule of a Roman puppet king, royal barbers had their heads cut off after shaving and pampering their king. Thus the hoy poloy could never learn of their monarch’s extraordinary ugliness.

Villages and towns were emptied of young men, until one final boy barber asked for a final pre-execution wish – to share a loaf with the king. The bread had been blessed with mother’s milk. According to local lore the boy and the king were therefore brothers – they had shared milk from the same teat – and unlike most of his European counterparts, the Croatian king was loathe to decapitate a sibling.

It was a close shave, but the boy was saved, and freed on the promise of never spilling the beans about his ruler’s unspeakable appearance. But the truth will out, and soon the whole kingdom knew.

We filmed the story on what has been the only ugly day in Croatia so far. The sky was heavy with black clouds and bursting with sporadic thunder. Rain forced us indoors – around a smoky little fire in a forgotten village hut where the stone houses were built with blocks of masonry from ruined Roman temples. And inside the magnificent Mektkovic museum, built over the site of such a temple. You can still see the original mosaics, and a parade of Roman statues, all of them fittingly decapitated. The British we learnt stole one of the heads, and have it hidden in a box in a dusty museum in Oxford.

It was on the mosaic floor, surrounded by headless statues and bits of column and pediment that we shot the story’s principal scene – the shaving of the king’s beard. And ugly he sure was – dressed in a shocking pink papier mache pig mask, wispy with horsehair.

Thankfully times have moved on. There wasn’t even a threat of monarchical violence and the only decapitation was the removal of the pig mask, to reveal a handsome, bashfully grinning local after which the motley crew and company (dressed as Roman courtiers in togas and sandals) left the museum for a local restaurant not to break bread blessed in mother’s milk but to eat the current local dish a la mode – zablji batci – frog’s legs.

Alex

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