The week in TV: Catherine the Great; World on Fire; Succession and more


Helen Mirren rolls back the years as a passionate Catherine the Great, while BBC One rolls out the usual props for its new Sunday-night wartime drama

‘A startling simulacrum of a 33-year-old’: Helen Mirren in Sky Atlantic’s Catherine the Great. Photograph: Hal Shinnie/Sky UK Ltd

Catherine the Great (Sky Atlantic)
World on Fire (BBC One) | iPlayer
Succession (Sky Atlantic)
RuPaul’s Drag Race UK (BBC Three) | iPlayer
What Britain Buys and Sells in a Day (BBC Two) | iPlayer

Helen Mirren, rather terrifically, almost pulls it off. The 74-year-old is playing the Catherine the Great of 1762 and manages a startling simulacrum of a 33-year-old with only rouge, those cheekbones and that talent.

Writer Nigel Williams, also responsible for Mirren’s 2005 triumph Elizabeth I, has wisely chosen not to go so much sweeping Tolstoyan panoptic. Instead, the focus is on the intense romance between Mirren and Jason Clarke as Grigory Potemkin, long before he became a battleship yet still handsome and proud. There’s real fire between the two (historians disagree on whether they ever married), and hence the bigger tale, of all the Russias and all the wars, is thence allowed to come to the Winter Palace. It is gloriously shot, the landscapes a wash of crimson and gold, the interiors burnished, every luxurious plate of food a glistening still life. Yet realism intrudes, often. So far the quality of acting, and the squirrelly duplicity of the last ever tsarina’s court, and the mud and blood and pain and sudden violence, is everything you could possibly demand. Is it too short, at only four episodes, to truly encompass the sprawl of history, least of all Catherine’s many contradictions, chiefly as a great liberal reformer with an urgent murderous desire to hang on to power by any means possible? Yes.

I was in several minds over World on Fire, the ambitious big new Sunday-night drama purporting to tell the story of “ordinary people” during the second world war. (Surely not that new an idea? Mrs MiniverWent the Day Well? Home Fires, the classy if seemingly interminable R4 thing?) On one hand, Peter Bowker (MarvellousThe A Word) is an exceptional writer. On the other, this couldn’t escape its cliches.

The US war reporter (Helen Hunt), all attitude in feisty houndstooth-check slacks; the super-talented black sax player in Paris (Parker Sawyers); the stoic Mancunian (Sean Bean) peddling Peace News in vain with the pretty but poor daughter who says things such as “nowt to be ashamed of, shell shock t’ain’t” and is having the dirty done on her by her posh translator boyfriend, despite having the voice of an angel when she stands in front of a period-perfect prop microphone.

It’s done with some subtlety, admittedly, and some class – notably Lesley Manville, playing a horrendous snob mother to said translator (at the moment Harry, played by Jonah Hauer-King, is little more than a handsome cipher). And the scenes of war in Danzig (Gdańsk) are disturbing and credible. But I have come to the conclusion that not even the best writers may now mess with what has somehow, recently, become our new foundation myth (and Bowker certainly doesn’t). Might as well mess with how you tell the Mahabharat or the nativity story. We, as modern Britons, were all forged in Dunkirk and the blitz. Even though we weren’t. You’re no longer allowed to tell it any other way.

Further north, Brian Cox was trying to pull a fast one. The kingpin of Succession, at the height of his TV fame and bullying the chops off everyone on screen as amoral media magnate Logan Roy, doubtless couldn’t resist the urge to get his little ol’ home town out to the American-speaking world. Unfortunately, the necessaries of plot meant Dundee hardly got a look-in – some swanky anonymous hotel, moody shots of the V&A, rainy hoardings on the Hilltoon. Worse, real Dundonians were represented by a single stoic holding a damp placard reading “ROY CENT”, except the second vowel was a “U’. In this, I can’t help feeling the writers missed a trick: Roy was obviously conflicted about his return home, but showed uncharacteristic cowardice in passing up the chance to learn a few home truths in the way only real Dundonians can tell them. And had Roman talked to even a couple of locals in that bar – was it in Broughty Ferry? – he might have saved $100m or so and not bought the precisely wrong kickball team as a pressie for Dad: a rare misstep for Kieran Culkin’s charmer.

Matthew Macfadyen and Sarah Snook in Succession: ‘gleefully vicious, tremendously acted’. Photograph: Home Box Office

But the plot had perforce to hurtle, and so we’re eagerly awaiting the toppling of Holly Hunter’s CEO, Rhea, in scandal-mired lawsuits, as connivingly contrived by all the toxic kiddiwinkles. Gleefully vicious, tremendously acted by all – and erstwhile heart-throb Matthew Macfadyen deserves something like a medal (a gold Oor Wullie statuette?) for throwing himself into such an unlikable role. It’s getting better each week, and the dispiriting news is that there are only two left; the better news that it’s been recommissioned, even before the recent writing Emmy for our own Jesse Armstrong.

RuPaul’s Drag Raceburst on to BBC Three, having (apparently) been waited for slaveringly for years by every British drag artist and a substantial tranche of less likely fans – it’s quite the phenomenon.

It was fun(-ish, till I grew anciently bored), wild, knowing and probably harmless, in a gaily risque, single entendre, retro-burlesque kind of a way. But it played on so many stereotypes – queer, trans, butch – that often it felt like watching The Benny Hill Show, or Les Dawson’s Cissie and Ada refettling their bosomeries across the garden fence. It raced, veered, between at times slick and camply chic, at times real plain pottymouth. Mr RuPaul, for it was he, all the way from Hollywood, announced proudly that he had not so much chosen as “personally fingered” all of the entrants. The fact that the BBC – BBC, mind – has chosen not just to air but to actively promote this series, in such febrile times, must make it PC-ok, no? Yes? No? I am so confused. But probably past enlightening.

‘Fun(-ish): Alan Carr, RuPaul, Andrew Garfield and Michelle Visage in Ru Paul’s Drag Race UK. Photograph: BBC/World of Wonder

I have no idea what What Britain Buys and Sells in a Day was doing other than rubbing it in. Ostensibly an “exploration” of our daily global trade, it had three personable presenters (though Cherry Healey did little except gawp at stats and make little “wow” noises), but the overall feel was of a Blue Peter special assignment, where the children get to learn that, say, we can’t grow avocados in Britain. Because it’s not warm enough. So we have to grown them in other countries. And bring them in by big ships. Ed Balls was on dockside duty; the ever-winning Ade Adepitan got to go round the world looking at the devastation that, say, growing avocados is doing to other countries.

If this was squarely aimed at children, it will simply have terrified them even more. Never mind climate change: now they also have to fret about Brexit, in which all these far-flung networks are about to disappear under a welter of tariffs, so well done someone because that’s just what we need now: more frightened children. Here’s a thought: might it have been an idea to make this programme roughly three and half years ago?