The Great, series 2, review: X-rated Horrible Histories sticks its middle finger up at history
For some reason, I couldn’t get Liz Truss out of my head when watching The Great (Channel 4). I think it’s because this second series begins with a ruthless power struggle for the top job – Catherine the Great and her husband, Peter III, at war with one another for control of Russia. But perhaps it’s also because just before watching it I’d been reading a profile of Truss, in which a former colleague described her as “chaotic and eccentric, with a manic energy” and that is this show in a nutshell.
The Great comes with the disclaimer that it is “an occasionally true story” and is absolutely not the drama to watch if you’re looking for factual accuracy. But the show is upfront about what it’s doing. This is a bawdy romp that revels in its own absurdity, an X-rated Horrible Histories filled with dialogue that feels made for TikTok.
In episode one, Catherine (Elle Fanning) encounters two children playing football with a severed head. When Catherine confiscates the head, one of the kids calls her a “b---h”. “Empress B---h,” corrects the monarch. We pick up the story with Peter under siege after Catherine launched a coup at the end of series one. Things aren’t going well for him. She has secured the services of the royal chef, while Peter is reduced to eating rats.
The producers have gone for youth – Fanning is a fresh-faced 24 – and it’s certainly more fun than the turgid series from a few years back starring Helen Mirren. The star of the show is Nicholas Hoult as the capricious Peter, in an outrageous performance that simultaneously channels two Blackadder monarchs: Hugh Laurie’s Prince George and Miranda Richardson’s Queen Elizabeth. Peter is a sex-obsessed sociopath with the attention span of a toddler, and Hoult is very funny at portraying these things at once, although – rather like a toddler – his behaviour can become wearing. Writer Tony McNamara falls back on sexual references and swearing a bit too often.
Catherine’s character, though, is a bit of a void. Fanning looks very lovely in a succession of fabulous costumes, but it’s hard to discern what is going on inside her head. Why does she want to rule Russia? How does she truly feel about her husband? McNamara doesn’t make it clear.
Nor does he throw many bones in the direction of supporting characters. Douglas Hodge is an old pro, so makes the most of his lines as General Velementov, but Sacha Dhawan’s Orlo is dull. Things may perk up on that front, though, when Gillian Anderson joins the series as Catherine’s mother.