Why Helen Mirren’s sexy Catherine the Great is game-changing television

A female leader and sex symbol, played by a 74-year-old woman? Has this happened before?

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Beetroot! Icons! Astrakhan! Crikey, but Sky’s Catherine the Great (3 October, 9pm) is lavish-looking. Should interior light be necessary, at least a thousand beeswax candles will flicker away obligingly. Should a crowd be required, the fractious mass of stern-faced Russians will extend into every corner of this cathedral, that town square. And then, of course, there is Catherine herself, played by Helen Mirren with gusto and a somewhat clownish dusting of magenta blusher. In fur, she looks like she’s gone mad with her Amex in Fendi. In brocade, she resembles a hotel room as designed by Nicky Haslam. We gather that she is irresistible to men. But whether her appeal lies in her absolute power, or in her voluminous swags and over-etched eyebrows, it is at this point quite hard to say.

The series begins in 1762, shortly after she has become Empress, her husband Peter III having been bumped off by her lover, Count Orlov (Richard Roxburgh) and his naughty brother, Alexei (Kevin McNally). Her position is vulnerable, for whom can she really trust? Not Orlov, who is frustrated at her refusal to marry him; not her son, Paul (Joseph Quinn), a conniving milksop; and perhaps not even her adviser, Minister Panin (Rory Kinnear). But… who’s this, striding into view in boots and breeches? Ah, this would be Grigory Potemkin (Jason Clarke), a soldier who was crucial during the coup that brought her to the throne, and is also reputed to be charming and clever, though we only have other people’s word for this. Personally, I don’t really understand why Catherine’s friend, Countess Bruce (Gina McKee), finds it so funny when he tells her, during their seriously vigorous sex, that he’s thinking all the while of “gherkins”.

But then, this is the problem with Catherine the Great. The script, by Nigel Williams, is desperately underpowered. Courtiers helpfully describe themselves as “liberal” – the better, you understand, to distinguish their politics from those of just about everyone else – and talk of “colossal understatements”, as if they were not trying to wrangle the Russian state, but doing a particularly boring outside broadcast for CNN in Red Square. Catherine is insistent that the only things that count at her dinner table are cleverness and wit. But where is this cleverness and wit, exactly? I can’t find it anywhere. It’s not enough simply to have her delightedly yelping “St Augustine!” on recognising a quotation. Is she always merciful, this ruler who believes she would like to abolish serfdom? No, not at all. “Just ask the girl who does my hair,” she replies. Not exactly the gag of the year. The conversations she has with Potemkin, foreheads close, are like their dancing: jerky, not entirely convincing, a touch embarrassing.

But there is a major plus here, too: the fact that the character around which the entire drama revolves – she is the sun, and everyone else a tiddly planet – is played by a 74-year-old woman. What makes this even more remarkable is not only that the character in question has such a busy sex life, and with men played by actors decades younger than her, but that the real Catherine the Great was in her early thirties when her reign began (she was only 67 when she died in 1796.). In other words, the producers and commissioning editors made a decision that their heroine would be older – much older – on screen than she was in real life.

Has this happened before? I can’t think that it has, not like this, on TV – and really, it is quite fantastic: game-changing, almost. “Coming from the most beautiful woman in Russia, that is a compliment,” grunts a mesmerised Potemkin, when the Empress offers him some small scrap of praise. Yes, I know I queried the nature of her attractiveness to these chaps earlier. But I was only being mischievous. Mirren, fierce-eyed and flirty, looks magnificent, and in the moment, nothing feels the slightest bit wrong with the scene. We accept it, just as, for decades, we hardly questioned the blind propensity of film-makers to make romantic heroes of old men, and their lovers young enough to be their granddaughters. This is equality, in chandelier earrings and green velvet – and to be frank, I rather adore it. 

Catherine the Great
Sky Atlantic

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article appears in the 02 October 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit revolutionaries