The Great… what? The Great Soprendo? No, it’s Catherine The Great, but they couldn’t call it that because of the 2019 drama with Helen Mirren.
Beginning in 1761 and billed as “an occasionally true story”, Catherine (Elle Fanning – How To Talk To Girls At Parties) thinks that marrying into royalty is going to be an easy way to be upwardly mobile, so if she marries Peter III (Nicholas Hoult – X-Men: Dark Phoenix), Emperor of Russia, she’ll be Emperess of Russia. And she wants a bear, because she thinks they’re cute.
At first, it’s like another Channel 4 series, Married At First Sight, since after she arrives in Russia and meets Peter, their wedding is at 7pm. Meanwhile, he tells her, “I have to get back to my whores… er… horses… I’m going riding”. Full of optimism, she has an over-romanticised notion of her first time between the sheets, but this will be with a man who keeps his dead mother out of a grave by keeping her propped up in the main corridor of the palace.
Beyond that, he’s over-demanding, leading them to being at odds with each other, and when she wants to expand her horizons by teach her new, all illiterate, female friends to read, he retorts, “Women are for seeding, not reading(!)”, and pretty much the only person in her corner is her lady-in-waiting, with whom she develops a strong bond, Marial (Phoebe Fox – Blue Iguana).
However, after the first half of the episode with its introductions and great humour, events slow down as talk moves towards the war with Sweden, the plot direction meanders, and the entertainment level rather flatlines.
On the plus side, at least no-one attempts cod-Russian accents, as everyone speaks in posh English, but it’s clear that with 10 episodes to its run, it could easily have been cut down to five, since I’ve seen two of them so far, and they both run on for twice as long as they need to.
As an aside, technically, Elle Fanning is too young for the role, as she’s 22 now, and Catherine was 33 at the time she was married.
Also, each episode ends with more modern music over the end credits, with the first two being Patti Smith’s cover for Tears For Fears’ Everybody Wants To Rule The World, and Primal Scream’s Movin’ On Up. I can see from the plots that unfold how these songs tie-in very well. I don’t think I’ve come across such attention to detail since BBC1’s late ’90s drama The Lakes, when series 2 did the same thing (and which were similarly talked over by continuity announcers… but surely, the DVDs will solve that? No, those were cropped to 4:3 from a 16:9 original. Sigh)
The Great begins on Sunday January 3rd 2021 on Channel 4 9pm. The series isn’t yet available to pre-order on Blu-ray or DVD. If you’re in the US and is a bit confused, that’s because it was shown there a few months back on Hulu.
After broadcast, each episode will be on All4.
Episodes 1 and 2 Score: 5/10
Series Directors: Colin Bucksey, Ben Chessell, Geeta V Patel, Matt Shakman
Producers: Dean O’Toole, Nick O’Hagan
Creator: Tony McNamara
Writers: Vanessa Alexander, Gretel Vella, Tess Morris, Amelia Roper, James Wood
Music: Nathan Barr
Catherine: Elle Fanning
Peter: Nicholas Hoult
Marial: Phoebe Fox
Orlo: Sacha Dhawan
Georgina: Charity Wakefield
Grigor: Gwilym Lee
Archbishop: Adam Godley
Velementov: Douglas Hodge
Aunt Elizabeth: Belinda Bromilow
Arkady: Bayo Gbadamosi
Tatyana: Florence Keith-Roach
Lady Antonia Svenska: Danusia Samal
Leo: Sebastian De Souza
Vlad: Louis Hynes
Marina: Kemi-Bo Jacobs
Doctor Chekhov: Jamie Demetriou
Tartar Nick: Christophe Tek
Tolsten: Stewart Scudamore
Count Smolny: Alistair Green
Reviewer of movies, videogames and music since 1994. Aortic valve operation survivor from the same year. Running DVDfever.co.uk since 2000. Nobel Peace Prize winner 2021.