‘Only occasionally true’: Fact-checking ‘The Great’, Channel 4’s fabulous new biopic of Catherine the Great
While Netflix’s The Crown has had to contend with allegations of fabricating history for dramatic effect, another period drama has met any criticisms of historical inaccuracies head on, with The Great on Channel 4 being subtitled, ‘an occasionally true story’. Written by one of the co-creators of another zany period drama, Oscar-winner The Favourite, the show is just as witty, slapstick and saucy, portraying the court of Russian Empress Catherine the Great (from which the series gets its name) and her oafish husband Emperor Peter III as one of hedonistic boredom and lasciviousness. But amongst all the silliness, what did actually happen?
Catherine was a romantic but also power hungry
At the beginning of the series, Catherine is shown to be a naive ingenue, whose chief concern in life is for Peter to fall in love with her. At first she romanticises everything, from life at court to losing her virginity, but quickly becomes disillusioned. According to historian Robert Mackie’s 2011 biography, Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman, Catherine was keenly influenced by her mother’s own unhappiness and coldness growing up, and was keen to fulfil her social ambitions (she schemed to introduce her to Peter’s aunt, Empress Elizabeth, who was looking for a bride for her heir and it worked). As the New York Times wrote in a review of the book in 2011: ‘[Catherine] wanted power and she wanted what she “couldn’t live for a day without” — love — and she’d get them both, in spades, but not from the husband who awaited her.’
Peter III wasn’t as much of a brute as portrayed
Nicholas Hoult clearly had a lot of fun with the role of Russia’s oafish Emperor Peter III. When he isn’t shooting his wife’s pet bear for a laugh or punching her, he’s making quips about sex or inviting her to a threesome with her new friend. In reality, historians think that Peter was actually more childlike than laddish, as he is shown to be in the series. A poor student, he did badly in academic subjects, which was a source of conflict with his intellectual wife, Catherine, later on in life. Indeed, much of what is known about Peter’s character comes from Catherine’s memoirs, in which she portrays him as an idiot. Yet some oafishness does shine through – including his apparent penchant for practical jokes. ‘I had a particular story to write about men in power and the original Peter didn’t help me tell that story,’ Tony McNamara, the writer, explained to The Times. ‘He was a much weaker character, and childlike in a different way.’
Peter did not keep his mother’s skeleton in a frame in court
Unsurprisingly, this is an exaggeration, and a chance to poke fun at Peter’s character. Peter’s mother Grand Duchess Anna Petrovna of Russia died in 1728 when Peter was just a newborn, so he could not have instructed his courtiers to keep her mummified remains. The only similar occurrence would have been his aunt’s body lying in state for six weeks after her death in 1762.
Catherine’s lady-in-waiting was not a demoted aristocrat
The character of Marial (played by Phoebe Fox) in the series is one of the most fascinating – after all, it is she who informs the unhappy Empress Catherine that in Russia, the throne can pass from husband to wife… if the husband dies. In reality, Catherine did indeed have ladies-in-waiting drawn from the nobility, but none would have occupied the sort of role seen in The Great, and none of them assisted her in her coup against Peter. This character is reportedly loosely based on Maria Choglokova, who was Catherine’s lady-in-waiting at the beginning of her marriage. In Catherine’s memoirs, she writes of how Maria suddenly started encouraging her to have an affair, with some speculating that Peter’s aunt, the Empress Elizabeth, grew tired of the couple’s inability to conceive, and decided that any heir (so even one by another man) would be better than none.
Peter probably did not give Catherine a bear as a wedding gift
Rather than a kitten or a puppy, Peter is seen giving his new wife a bear as a gift – a call back to an earlier reference to the prevalence of bears in Russia at the time. Yet in real life, Empress Elizabeth had outlawed the ownership of bears in the 1740s, so it is highly unlikely that Catherine would have been the owner of one (or that it would have been so tame).
Catherine did not have an affair with someone called Leo
In The Great, Catherine is encouraged to have an affair with a man called Leo (played by Sebastian de Souza), chosen by her husband Peter. In reality, Catherine was known to have had many extramarital liaisons, with the character of Leo standing in for several men. Her most ‘important’ lover was undoubtedly Grigory Orlov, who in the series is shown to be a close friend of Peter’s, which was not the case. Indeed, it was Orlov who aided Catherine in her coup against her husband, ultimately installing her as Empress of Russia, and aiding her rule for many years until he fell from favour.
We don’t know if Catherine was obsessed with strawberries
In the series, strawberries become a common motif of Catherine’s unhappiness in Russia, as she misses them so much. In reality, strawberries probably were not commonplace in Russia at the time, but they were becoming more popular in Western Europe. She was known to be a fan of Capability Brown, whose gardens often included strawberries, so that might be the grain of truth in the plotline. A more accurate choice would have been the rather fabulous sounding ‘champagne soup’, which she apparently was a fan of.
More from Tatler
In order to see this embed, you must give consent to Social Media cookies. Open my cookie preferences.