The Great had me under its spell immediately, the cheeky footnote to the title promising an “occasionally true story”. It’s a playful comedic satire of power, gender roles and royalty set in 18th century Russia, from Tony Mcnamara the co-writer of Oscar-winning The Favourite and reminded me in equal parts of The Personal History of David Copperfield and Channel 4’s rip-roaring The Windsors. Which is certainly no bad thing.
Nicholas Hoult embodies the young Emperor Peter III, who has found the right kind of woman to marry. She’s from a French aristocratic pedigree but her family is out of favour, languishing in financial dire straits. Elle Fanning is Catherine, who looks beautiful, which is really all an Empress needs to be, but she’s intelligent and cultured too, keen to be a good wife and to share in the ruling of Russia.
Catherine has barely set foot in the palace before she meets Adam Godley revelling in his role as the revolting ArchBishop. In a shocking scene, he accompanies her into her bedroom and licks his fingers as he talks about checking her “interior wall”. With the comforts of a gilded palace life comes a number of dreadful indignities.
Peter’s court is chock-full of vile eccentrics, entirely cut off from the country they are supposed to be ruling. There’s a war on and soldiers are dying in their thousands, but the only decision Peter has made recently is banning beards on men, he says because it makes them look like they’re “eating an entire beaver.” Despite the Empresses’ welcome being less than warm, she’s optimistic, plucky and not easily cowed. She puts all her troubles down to “cultural differences” which she says she’s sure to get used to. Resolved to make the best of things, despite disappointments, she’s a good sensible Jane Austen heroine with a “sunny disposition and fearless heart”.
As is the job of all Queens throughout history, she’s here to produce an heir and a spare. Her first time with the Emperor is far less romantic and awe-inspiring than her Mum told her sex would be. Peter shags her dutifully, and very quickly while maintaining a conversation with his pal Gregor about duck hunting. Peter is a stupid willful child, busy drinking, shooting or shagging. The way his lackeys pander to him is hilarious, and Hoults’ performance particularly is top-notch, making me laugh out loud almost every time he’s on-screen. One of his annoying habits, and he has plenty, is shouting “huzzah!” at the top of his voice and breaking glasses on the floor like plates in a Greek tourist-trap restaurant. Peter guilt-trips Catherine into having a threesome – “Don’t have a peasant’s morality!”. He can do whatever he likes, break any rules, with no consequences. He’s bedding his courtier’s wives right in front of them. You can’t help but think that if only he wasn’t quite so powerful he’d have very many enemies ready and willing to act against him.
Peter is obsessed with how happy his parents’ relationship was, and by his saintly mother. She is long dead but on show in a glass case, so he goes to introduce Catherine to her and she has to curtsey to a corpse. Speaking of women, Catherine notices the terrible wigs worn as hats by the women of the court, but she’s far too polite to mention they’re doing it all wrong, initially at least. The women, who are supposed to be her ready-made social circle, want to talk about fashion and gossip about affairs. Catherine is out of step immediately – she’s brought trunks full of books with her and wants to talk about new and emerging French philosophy.
Marial (Phoebe Fox) is another woman out of place – she’s the Empresses’ personal maid, demoted from court to teach her and her family a lesson. She’s empathic and bright, with real spunk. She’s angry and insolent, and very sarcastic about learning her place. Catherine is on the same journey but just doesn’t know it yet. The women are immediate allies against the ignorant royal patriarchy. Count Orlo (Sacha Dhawan) looks like another ally, the only man in the whole palace who can be described as intelligent and bookish.
Realising the women of the court can’t read, Catherine wants to start a school. Peter says yes just to shut her up, but when it’s revealed to him the pupils will be women he orders it burnt down. This idiot child is actually mercilessly cruel and Catherine is stuck. It’s a horrific reality check.
Her inevitable escape attempt inside a large wooden trunk fails spectacularly and, trapped inside, Peter tries to drown her in a river to teach her a lesson. This is the last straw, and she’s ready with a knife to her wrists, but talked out of suicide by Marial. This dark scene is mined for laughs as Marial calls for a bucket and then towels so the blood doesn’t make a mess. Catherine says she feels God has given her a great purpose in life; quick as a whip Marial asks “Why did he make you a woman then?”. But all is not lost; Marial gives her some life-changing information about how the Russian royal lineage works – if Peter dies before there’s an heir, Catherine becomes Empress in her own right. Marial says that’s her big destiny and suicide is quickly scrapped off for a much better plan. Huzzah indeed!
The Great is a joyous balls-to-the-wall satirical comedy that looks exactly like a ‘proper’ period drama. The sets and costumes are all gorgeous; every detail has been considered and no expense spared. I envy people who stumble on it thinking it’s a serious piece about Russian history. The first few minutes will set them straight. There’s so much in this first episode to love, and so much crammed in; the pace is a gallop. I hope, for the writer’s sanity, things slow down a little, as they have a 10 episode run to fill. Either way, I’m a fan. This is a wickedly funny show that handles some very dark themes with the elegance and intelligence of the seriously Great.
The Great Continues Sunday at 9.00pm on Channel 4