SARAH VINE’S MY TV WEEK: I shouldn’t be enjoying this bawdy romp, but I can’t help it

SARAH VINE’S MY TV WEEK: I shouldn’t be enjoying this bawdy romp, but I can’t help it

THE GREAT, WEDNESDAY, CHANNEL 4 

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There is something about this wicked, witty, extremely sweary (and I do mean extremely – do not watch this if you dislike casual and gratuitous profanity) historical black comedy that reminds me of the old Blackadder series. There are flashes of Miranda Richardson’s psychotic Queenie in Nicholas Hoult’s portrayal of Peter III of Russia, half-child, half-homicidal maniac, an entire kingdom at the mercy of his whim.

And there is something of Blackadder himself about Elle Fanning’s Catherine the Great, who starts off relatively sane and ends up madder than all of them put together. Like all dark humour, there is a cheerful anarchy to it that engages as well as repels. 

You feel guilty for enjoying it, because you know you really shouldn’t – but you just can’t stop yourself. Or at least I can’t.

Sarah says there is something about historical black comedy The Great that reminds her of the old Blackadder series

Sarah says there is something about historical black comedy The Great that reminds her of the old Blackadder series 

It helps that it’s visually stunning: the sets and costumes are as opulent as any in the genre. If you’re a bit of a one for watching men in breeches striding manfully through courtyards, or breathless maidens in ruffled crinolines, then this never disappoints.

But it could never be mainstream in the same way as a Bridgerton or a Poldark, for the simple reason that it’s too outrageous, too uncensored. There is no filter, and I really do mean that.

Sarah Vine, pictured, says The Great is visually stunning

Sarah Vine, pictured, says The Great is visually stunning 

If you have the stomach for it, though, this is a show worth watching. There are flashes of brilliance in the script, and there’s a lot more to the psychology of the characters than merely a bunch of aristocrats bonking and bumping each other off.

 Hoult’s Peter is a study in psychopathic charm, a terrifying vision of what an ego unchecked or unchallenged and with access to total power looks like, somewhat eerie in the context of events in modern Russia. He could just as easily stab you as offer you a nice cup of tea, and you never quite know which way the wind’s going to blow.

Fanning’s Catherine is the foil to his cheerful amorality, a woman struggling to restore sanity yet at serious risk of becoming unhinged in the process. She is both vulnerable and invincible, ruthless yet fragile.

Peter could just as easily stab you as offer you a cup of tea 

 It’s a compelling conundrum. The supporting cast is brilliant too: Phoebe Fox as Catherine’s erstwhile maid, an aristocrat fallen on hard times and herself no stranger to the odd homicidal urge; Sacha Dhawan as Count Orlo, the revolutionary intellectual; Charity Wakefield and Gwilym Lee as Georgina and Grigor, Peter’s sidekicks (with emphasis on the kicks); Douglas Hodge as General Velementov, a battle-hardened drunk with a heart of gold; Gillian Anderson as Catherine’s manipulative mother Joanna; and Belinda Bromilow, who plays Elizabeth, the show’s batty conscience.

She says that Nicholas Hoult's Peter, pictured, is a study in psychopathic charm and a vision in what an ego unchecked and with access to total power looks like

She says that Nicholas Hoult’s Peter, pictured, is a study in psychopathic charm and a vision in what an ego unchecked and with access to total power looks like 

This second series (series one is available on StarzPlay via Amazon Prime) opens as the all-out war between Catherine and Peter reaches a climax. The Imperial Palace is divided by barricades, on the one side Peter and his loyalists, on the other Catherine and her consiglieri, plotting their next move.

Voltaire (yes, that Voltaire), purchased by Peter as a present for Catherine in series one, is mooching around, philosophising. After much to-ing and fro-ing, and a good deal of death and destruction, Peter surrenders to Catherine, and returns the head of her lover, Leo, to her, as proof of his undying love. 

As romantic gestures go, it doesn’t get much more psychotic than that.

JOYOUS ESCAPISM THAT RESONATES WITH ME 

HELP! WE BOUGHT A VILLAGE MON-FRI, CHANNEL 4 

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Sarah loves shows like Help! We bought a village as they resonate with her experience of taking a huge leap of faith. Pictured, Paul and Yip in episode one

Sarah loves shows like Help! We bought a village as they resonate with her experience of taking a huge leap of faith. Pictured, Paul and Yip in episode one

Half a century ago, my parents packed up their semi in Stourbridge, loaded me and my baby brother onto an airplane, and set off for a new life in Italy. They had very little money, spoke no Italian and had even less of a plan. 

But they were young, full of enthusiasm and had a vision of something more. They’ve never looked back.

I think this is why I’ve always loved shows like this one, which involve people taking huge leaps of faith. They resonate with my experience, but they also provide a soothing, safe form of escapism, living vicariously through the dreams and adventures of others.

In recent years, there’s been an explosion of articles about cheap real estate opportunities in places like Italy and France, half-derelict rural villages deserted by the exodus to cities. You can buy whole settlements for the price of a garage in central London.

That’s the premise here: what happens when Brits take up the challenge and try to live the dream. It owes a lot to shows like Escape To The Country and Escape To The Chateau – and the format is very similar, right down to the excitable voiceover and soaring strings.

But it’s hard to resist the lure of the ancient stone and overgrown gardens, or the infectious – if misguided – enthusiasm of people like landscape gardeners Paul and Yip, just starting out with a derelict hamlet in Normandy. Or, at the other end of the scale, the rewards of a lifetime’s dedication in a medieval village that can now sleep 200. A lovely bit of escapism for these somewhat trying times.

FOREVER IN OUR HEARTS   

Sarah says she had a Neighbours phase like all teenagers in the 80s and says it is a shame the show is ending. Pictured, Kylie Minogue and Jason Donovan

Sarah says she had a Neighbours phase like all teenagers in the 80s and says it is a shame the show is ending. Pictured, Kylie Minogue and Jason Donovan

Like all teens in the 80s, I had my Neighbours phase, back when Kylie Minogue and Jason Donovan were only known as Charlene and Scott , two mixed-up kids from Melbourne. Thousands of episodes and 37 years later, the adventure has come to an end (Friday, Ch5). 

It’s a shame, but how can a show like this possibly compete with the likes of Netflix and Tik Tok? It will forever remain in our hearts, however, a reminder of more innocent times.

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