SARAH VINE’s My TV Week: Helen Mirren Is Gorgeous But It’s A Travesty Story
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I missed Helen Mirren’s extravagant four-part HBO series Catherine The Great when it first aired pre-Covid; now it’s available to watch on Freeview, writes Sarah Vine
Undoubtedly, it has something to do with the fact that we live in such a dreary and uninspired time that we are so ineffably drawn to stories of nobility and adventure. The Game Of Thrones prequel House Of The Dragon, Amazon’s (disastrous) Lord of the Rings prequel The Rings of Power… they offer a colorful escape from the relentless constraints of modern life.
I missed Helen Mirren‘s extravagant four-part HBO series Catherine The Great when it first aired pre-Covid; now it’s available to watch on Freeview, and while it’s not a patch on her depiction of Elizabeth I, or for that matter Elizabeth II (for which she won an Oscar), it worth a visit, especially if it’s free.
In stark contrast to that other Catherine currently gracing the airwaves (Elle Fanning in the bonkers extravagant The Great), Mirren’s Empress of Russia is a much less playful, and notably more mature, character, both literally and metaphorically.
Mirren is in her 60s here, playing a character who was in her 40s when most of the action took place – not unusual for male actors, but almost unheard of for a female. So something of a quiet triumph for feminists, and beautifully executed by Mirren, who is every bit as alluring as any fresh-faced, firm-fleshed starlet.
Sarah (pictured) says Mirren’s Empress of Russia is a much less playful, and notably more mature character, both literally and metaphorically
She achieves this through simple acting, which she is very good at. Where it all falters is that the action is a little too focused on Catherine’s obsession with sex, and her relationship with the petulant and rather annoying Potemkin (Jason Clarke, above with Mirren).
There’s something borderline predatory about her obsession with him – but maybe that’s the intention, given the real Catherine’s reputation.
And while the costumes and sets are lavish enough to entertain the eye and distract from those minor details, the script is far from inspiring (even though it’s written by Nigel Williams, who penned the brilliant Elizabeth I of Mirren in 2005). And the peripheral characters – Catherine’s bizarre son (played by Joseph Quinn), her confidante Countess Praskovya Bruce (Gina McKee) – could have been so much better.
Sure, Mirren can deliver pulpy clichés such as: “There are unscrupulous people in Russia. Fortunately, I am one of them”, with a certain panache; but she really deserves better.
That said, if you approach it as quality chewing gum as opposed to serious historical drama, there’s plenty of fun to be had here. Jason Clarke in particular is hugely entertaining.
He reminded me of Oliver Reed in his enthusiasm for extravagant nudity and irrepressible masculinity – not to mention the fact that he plays the role as if he were permanently drunk. And he looks gorgeous in drag.
But if you’re serious about your Russian history and looking for an inspiring and intelligent take on one of the most inspiring and intelligent women in the history of this troubled nation, I’m afraid this isn’t the case.
Weird thing, that one. I started watching Stuck (Thursday, BBC2), not quite sure where it was going – and before I knew it I had finished all five episodes (they’re only 15 minutes long). It has no real plot – well, something vague about a man having a midlife crisis – but is packed with emotion.
Kind of style over substance, but in a good way. It is written by and stars Irish comedian Dylan Moran, who is fashionably chipped, funny and hopeless in equal measure; his co-star is the fabulous Morgana Robinson, who could do better but can’t break the spell that unites them. What’s the point of it? I couldn’t tell you. I loved it, however.
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It pissed me off at first, all the melodramatic music and clips of rock-faced military types spouting cliches about pain and suffering contrasted with the goofy-bellied celebrities chirping about personal fulfillment. I mean, fair enough, some celebrities deserve a kick, but it’s one thing to want to instill discipline, it’s another to be a power-mad masochist who clearly enjoys humiliating those he controls . Also, if we’re talking about discipline, Head Instructor Rudy would need a shave and a haircut.
But once I got over my irritation, I have to say I really started enjoying it, thanks in large part to the presence of Fatima Whitbread (left) and a couple of others, including the star of reality show Pete Wicks. Whitbread is especially worth watching. She is simply wonderful, a truly remarkable person.
It wasn’t just her authenticity and quiet humility, or the fact that at 61, she’s twice as fit and focused as those half her age. It was also the way she had the bushy instructors, including the shaggy Rudy, eating out of her hand. Just by being herself, she gaped at them in awe, melting their defenses with her bravery and determination.
At one point, Rudy put his arm around her, confessing that he too grew up in a children’s home. Briefly, we caught a glimpse of the boy inside the man. There was not a dry eye in the house.
I hate that Naked Attraction (Thur, Ch4), hosted by Anna Richardson (above), is entering its tenth season; the worst part is that it has somehow decided to justify its existence by presenting itself as “educational” and “inclusive”.
It’s not. It’s not even the nudity that bothers me – it’s just that so many contestants on this dating show are clearly very vulnerable. Horrible and exploitative television.