Catherine the Great is actually only Catherine the okay

The ruler of Russia faces her steepest challenge yet: filling the void left by Game of Thrones

Catherine the Great (Sky Atlantic, Thursday, 9pm) who ruled over the Golden Age of Russia, had to overcome many obstacles in her eventful lifetime.

She deposed her unpopular, ruinously eccentric husband Peter III in a risky but violently effective coup d’etat. As empress, she restored and expanded the fortunes of her nation. She beat back enemies as large as the Ottoman Empire and as microscopic as the smallpox virus, for which she was an early advocate (and guinea pig) of vaccination.

And then there is her fine work for the Enlightenment, championing the causes of serfs, the arts and a vigorous roster of lovers. Now she faces her steepest challenge: filling the void left by Game of Thrones.

In fairness, to judge from this lavish four-part mini-series from Sky Atlantic and HBO, she has everything necessary but the dragons.


Starring Helen Mirren as Russia's longest-ruling female leader, and seemingly every high-calibre British actor in a supporting role, this drama comes across as a gilded, plush velvet study in court intrigue, in which conspirators whisper in powdered wigs, power is brokered in powder rooms, and rivalries, jealousies and passions flare like blazing candles over infinite arrangements of silverware.

Filmed in Russia and Latvia, the programme revels in both period detail and frame-filling vastness: director Philip Martin often presents Mirren as a small figure addressing crowds as wide as the sea, or a dining table longer than history.

Like Game of Thrones, the programme finds gratuitous joy in “sexposition”, sharing plot details over coitus more for visual impact than necessity. “Where do I come in?” asks Jason Clarke’s besotted Grigory Potemkin of Gina McKee’s Countess Bruce, who, smiling and astride him, puts the matter indelicately: “You come in right here.”

If that thickens the sensation that this historical account will be a breathless affair, there’s an argument to be made that much of Catherine’s Enlightenment zeal came with an erotic charge, not to mention wild rumours.

If only Nigel Williams’s dialogue was quite as nuanced as the performances, though. “Do you know what I hold in my hand?” Mirren must ask, closing her fist tight. “Absolute power.” And later: “There are unscrupulous people in Russia. Fortunately I’m one of them.”

For the speed and sumptuousness of depiction, you couldn’t do better. For the insight of the telling, though, this is Catherine the okay.