Catherine the Great – Sky Atlantic

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At least the naked men in Sanditon weren’t running around brandishing scimitars.  What on earth are the people who wrote the scripts for this on?  Oh dear!  Back in 1986, there was a superb TV mini-series about Peter the Great.  I’ve been reading about 18th century Russia ever since.  The first holiday I paid for with my own money was a trip to Russia. I went for every Russian history module available at university. I picked the winner in the 1997 Grand National because of Catherine the Great (seriously)*.  My friend at university had a teddy bear called Pugachev.  So I was really looking forward to this,  But, sadly, it was more akin to Versailles, The Borgias and The Tudors, although admittedly without the wild historical inaccuracies, than to the brilliant series that got me hooked on 18th century Russia when I was 11.  It’s one of those series that’s mesmerising because it’s just so bad, but I was so much hoping it was going to be … well, good.  And it isn’t.

Ballrooms and bedrooms are fine up to an extent, but could they not have got a bit more history in?!  And, whilst Helen Mirren looks absolutely wonderful for 74, she was playing a woman who was only 33 at the start of the series!  Everyone else had been aged up to match (apart from Nikita Panin, who’d bizarrely been aged down), so, instead of an array of handsome, dashing young Orlovs, we got a group of blokes who’d been made to look like the cast of Last of the Summer Wine in colourful costumes.  Still at least they wore costumes.  Potemkin ran around stark naked (what is this obsession with bare backsides on TV this year?) whilst wielding a scimitar.  I wouldn’t have thought that was a very sensible idea, TBH.

And could they not even have checked basic facts?  They called the Empress Elizabeth Catherine’s mother-in-law.  No!!  She was Catherine’s husband’s auntie.  Or basic terminology?  “Serfdom” and “slavery” are not interchangeable terms.  I knew it was bad news when the programme started by helpfully informing us that we were in “St Petersburg, Russia”.  Did they expect that viewers might think we were in St Petersburg, Florida?!   Mind you, if we were, it would at least explain why not one person has addressed anyone else by their first name plus patronymic.  It’s Russia, OK.  Patronymics.  We need patronymics.

I want to write a long essay about all sorts of aspects of Catherine’s reign, but they’ve hardly even been mentioned.  We got a rather odd version of … well, I’m not actually sure if it was meant to be the Nakhaz or not, because it seemed to be too early for it, but I think it was.  Anyway, it only mentioned serfs, and completely ignored all Catherine’s plans for the other social estates.  The First Polish Partition’s been ignored completely.  The Russo-Turkish war has been mentioned, but only really in relation to various blokes arguing over who’s better than whom.  There has, to be fair, been quite a lot of talk about the Pugachevschina, but it annoyed me because Catherine just seemed to be going “Oh dear, this seems to be quite serious,” and asking Potemkin what to do.  And it’s failed to make the point that it put Catherine off making further reforms.

On the positive side, at least it hasn’t gone for the popular, prurient image of Catherine as someone who spent all her time chasing one man after another, and it’s made it clear that she was genuinely in love with her “main” lovers.  It hasn’t even suggested that Peter might not have been Paul’s father.  And I assume that they are not going to include the ridiculous horse story.  But it has shown an awful lot of scenes of Catherine gossiping with Praskovia Bruce, balls with men wearing dresses and women wearing breeches (which was actually more Elizabeth’s thing than Catherine’s, apparently because Elizabeth looked good in breeches and knew it), and men having playground “I’m more important than you so ner” arguments, rather than anything serious.  OK, I know it’s not supposed to be a documentary, but I did expect there to be a bit more about the actual events.

And, strangely, seeing as it quite clearly isn’t aimed at serious historians, there hasn’t been much explanation of what’s going on.  Much as I dislike programmes which treat you as if you’re stupid, this is not a part of history with which most Anglophone viewers are going to be familiar, and it jumped right in with Catherine visiting the former Ivan VI in prison without even giving his name, never mind explaining that Elizabeth had deposed him and Peter had been (his aunt) Elizabeth’s heir.  Also, putting the R or the N in “Catherine” backwards might work for a meerkat advert or a sign at a football match, but it just looks silly in a period drama.

The costumes are great.  The sets are great.  But precious little else about this is great.  I quite like the way they’ve shown Catherine’s sense of humour, and her comments about women in power, but the lines are written for an older woman with a lot of life experience, and that just wasn’t Catherine in the 1760s and early 1770s.  It feels as if they wanted Helen Mirren and wrote the part for her, instead of writing about Catherine.  And I appreciate that royal period dramas are going to focus on the court and the personal life of the monarch, rather than on what was going on in the country at the time, but there needs to be a balance and this was skewed way too far in favour of ballrooms and bedrooms.  Bleurgh.  I’ve been waiting 33 years for another mini-series based in 18th century Russia, and the wait really hasn’t been worth it!

 

*Just in case anyone is actually reading this, and wondered, when teenage Sophie/Catherine first went to Russia, she became pally with Count Gyllenborg, the Swedish ambassador.  I picked Lord Gyllene for the 1997 Grand National because the name sounded a bit like Gyllenborg.  All right, I’m weird.  But he won!