I’m quite sure it says nothing good at all about me that I’m really into The Great (Sunday 3 January, 9pm), in which Elle Fanning plays Catherine, Empress of Russia, and Nicholas Hoult her ill-fated husband Peter III. Sure, you’re all very welcome to pretend that this pert new series is ever-so-sophisticated; I’m half-tempted to myself. But it’s not, really – and even if it were, its brittle, clever-clever tone would still feel a touch second-hand to anyone who has seen the Oscar-nominated The Favourite, a film that deployed pretty much all the same verbal and visual effects (the link between the two is the Australian writer, Tony McNamara).
All the same, I am seriously into it. Slowly and inexorably, the lockdown has, it seems, brought me to this: a revived appetite for childish smut. (One shared by many others, too, judging by the popularity of Netflix’s raunchy Regency-set series Bridgerton.) It reminds me, very slightly, of the outlandish rags-to-riches tales in Bunty that I used to devour as a child: stories in which, say, snub-nosed Victorian urchins would turn out to be beautiful European princesses. The Great, brutish and scabrous, is a bit more… fresh than anything Bunty delivered. But it is exceedingly cartoony, and everyone talks, just as they used to in girls’ comics, in a way that combines Ye Olde Englishe with the voice of a late 20th-century teenager, at once innocent and sassy (if someone mentioned Topshop, you’d hardly be surprised). Basically, it’s kind of weird: stunted, somehow, and deeply trivial, but also funny, escapist and addictive.
It’s vaguely feminist, too – something else it has in common with those comics. Catherine arrives in Russia from Prussia an innocent, full of deludedly romantic ideas about love. But she’s also clever, cultured and book-learned, and – having discovered that her new husband is a spoilt baby whose chief interests are duck hunting, fighting and threesomes, and whose approach to sex with her is a bit like squeezing a spot – she shakes off her naivety faster than you can say “The Female Eunuch”. Encouraged by her droll, Germaine Greer of a servant Marial (Phoebe Fox), she duly decides it’s her destiny to replace Peter as ruler of Russia. Without such a dastardly plan, after all, she will either have to kill herself – “I will get coins to place on your eyes,” says Marial, calling her bluff – or spend her days blowing soap bubbles and throwing coloured balls across the lawn like the other women of the court, who are all illiterate and proud of it.
The best thing about The Great, apart from its puerile naughtiness, is the acting. It is just delicious. Douglas Hodge plays an inadequate and sycophantic old general called Velemontov; Adam Godley plays a creepy Orthodox priest known to us only as Archie (short for archbishop); Sacha Dhawan is Count Orlo, a Descartes fanboy who is prone to tears. Fanning, Fox and Hoult are all wonderful, entirely natural in a show that could not be more artificial if it tried – a quality that perhaps has to do with a certain kind of freedom. When Hoult grabs Catherine’s breasts, jiggling them like billiard balls on the baize the better to illustrate the animal advantages of having a wife, he looks delightfully mischievous. It’s as though he, and all the series’ stars, have been let off the leash; given licence to be a bit Benny Hill (albeit ironically) about everything.
[See also: A grand unified theory of Gregg Wallace]
There is something wearing about the attention-stealing sideshows that occur in almost every scene: the nobles randomly fighting in a corridor as Catherine walks through it; the heads of Swedish soldiers on pikes she sees as she strolls in the palace garden. And I think you can probably have too many dick jokes over the course of 52 minutes, though I have to admit to having laughed out loud when Hoult announced sombrely: “I am of gentle heart, and massive cock.” But in the end, The Great is a tonic. It is a relief, just now, not to have to care too much about a TV show. For the viewer, it involves no jeopardy; it cannot be taken seriously. In this sense, if no other, it’s a safe watch. It will not make you cry. It will not break your heart. The only plague in sight is syphilis, played for laughs.
This article appears in the 06 Jan 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Out of control