The Great (Channel 4) is “an occasionally true story”, as it tells us at the beginning, which sounds cute but is par for the course these days. It is the story of Catherine the Great before she acquired Greatness, as a 19-year-old newly married to Peter, Emperor of Russia. The writer is Tony McNamara, who co-wrote The Favourite (starring Olivia Colman as England’s Queen Anne), and the tone is similar: a bawdy comedy shot through with a streak of cruelty.
Elle Fanning stars as Catherine, a sweet little thing who goes into marriage believing it will be a romantic fairytale. She has a rude awakening when she meets Peter, played with a glorious sense of absurdity by Nicholas Hoult as an overgrown schoolboy whose temper tantrums can have very dangerous consequences, what with him being the most powerful man in the land.
It’s a great comic turn and the one thing that will keep you watching. Capricious rulers do make great TV – Miranda Richardson in Blackadder remains the performance to beat – and Hoult’s emperor is by turns sly, selfish and thick as a brick. “She gave me a twig – she’s not another in-bred, is she?” he asks his aides in a panic, after Catherine presents him with a symbolic piece of spruce.
The Great would have worked well in tart half-hour bites but its hour-long episodes feel a bit much, packed as they are with intrigue, indulgence and sleaze. The tone switches in a second from gleeful farce to unpleasant, as when Peter all but drowns his wife to teach her a lesson, or shoots the bear he gave her as a gift.
Peter, of course, didn’t last long; Catherine went on to greatness. Fanning shows Catherine developing – or discovering – an inner steeliness and there is plenty of discourse here about gender, and the subservient role that women are required to play. The ladies at court spend their days in pointless games and gossip, and when Catherine tries to establish a school to teach them to read, her husband promptly burns it down. “Take the empress to the other ladies and speak of hats,” Peter says dismissively at the beginning of the episode. But you under-estimate a great woman at your peril.