Scene from "The Great" © Hulu
The satirical "dramedy" series The Great tells the (occasionally true) tale of a German princess plotting a coup against her own husband, the annoying and useless Emperor of Russia, with a most generous side serving of (occasionally pretty dark) British humor…
Make Russia great again…
At the beginning of the series, we learn that The Great is "occasionally based on true facts"…
What is true is that the series is inspired by the real story of 18th Century Empress Catherine II, called Catherine the Great, of Russia. In real life, Catherine II was born as Sophie of Anhalt-Zerbst on 2 May 1729 and married the crown prince of Russia in 1745, when she was 16 years old.
When Catherine first meets Peter in "The Great". © Hulu
In the series, however, Peter is already Emperor when Sophie (Catherine) arrives at court, while the real Peter only became Emperor of Russia in 1762.
Also, the reign of the real Peter III only lasted for six brief months before the real Catherine managed to successfully overthrow him in a "coup d'état" (or in other words an uprising) and became the sole Empress of Russia after his "mysterious death".
Peter and Catherine in "The Great". © Hulu
But just like in the series, the real Catherine (played by American actress Elle Fanning) was extremely unhappy in her arranged marriage to the current Emperor of Russia, her husband Peter III (played by British actor Nicholas Hoult).
She learns quickly that at the court of Peter III, whenever something went well, she should use the word "Huzzah!" and preferably smash a glass into pieces. But… that's about all that Catherine and Peter have in common…
So, as you do, Catherine starts to plot and find supporters for her cause to get rid of her useless Emperor husband and make herself the sole leader of Russia.…
The Film Locations
Creating a fake Russia.…
Even though set in and around St Petersburg Russia, The Great was actually not filmed in Russia. Instead, the film crew went to Italy and England.
Scene from "The Great". © Hulu
The main film location in Italy was the Royal Palace of Caserta, which is located about 30 kilometers from the city of Naples in the south of Italy. The king of Naples originally built this palace to rival with the super palace of Versailles in France.
Many of the outside shots of Peter's and Catherine's grand palace in St Petersburg and the interior shots on the grand staircase were filmed here.
Scene from "The Great". © Hulu
The main film location in England was Hatfield House in Hertfordshire located about a one hour drive from London. Every time the characters in The Great go along a long corridor, it is the Long Gallery of Hatfield House.
Hatfield House is a popular film location and you might have seen it in other TV and cinema productions, such as The King's Speech (2010), Netflix series The Crown (2016– ) or the period dramedy The Favorite (2018), which I have written a separate blog post about.
Read more about the film location Hatfield House in my Film Review for The Favorite (2018).
Other film locations for The Great in England include Hever Castle and St Clere Estate in Kent, Belvoir Castle in Leicestershire, Ham House in Richmond, Surrey and Castle Howard in York, North Yorkshire.
Scene from "The Great". © Hulu
Real Russia Calling
In real life, Catherine and Peter lived at, among other residences, the Winter Palace in St Petersburg. Today, this former palace is the so-called Hermitage Museum.
Thanks to the real Catherine's extensive collection of artworks, the Hermitage is nowadays known as the second largest museum in the world straight after the Louvre in Paris.
Thus, if you ever travel to St Petersburg, be sure to include a visit to the Hermitage Museum. It's a must-see and you will not be disppointed.
The Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, Russia. © Sonja Irani / FilmFanTravel.com
Similarly, you can visit the stunning Catherine Palace in Pushkin, which is located just outside the city of St Petersburg, but easily accessible by guided bus tours.
Catherine Palace just outside of St Petersburg, Russia. © Sonja Irani / FilmFanTravel.com
The Catherine Palace was not named after Catherine the Great, but Catherine I (the wife of Peter the Great). Contrary to what is said in the series, Peter III was in fact the grandchild of Peter the Great and not his son.
Nowadays, Catherine Palace is not only beautiful to look at from the outside, but the tons of gold on the inside will surely impress you. No wonder the interior of Catherine Palace was also used as one of the filming locations for the BBC series War & Peace (2016).
The inside of Catherine Palace. © Sonja Irani / FilmFanTravel.com
For more information about visiting St Petersburg, check out my travel posts
The final verdict:
One of the things that I found particularly interesting is that in the series, some of the highest nobles at court are black. This would have not been realistic in the 18th Century at all. However, I noticed this had been done in quite a few recent historic productions, such as in the feature film Mary Queen of Scots (2018) or the series The Spanish Princess (2019). As such, I believe that the casting of black actors and actresses is meant as a sign for modern-day diversity and inclusion and that's definitely a good sign!
Some of the nobles at the Russian court in "The Great". © Hulu
Furthermore, I personally thought The Great found a great angle for telling a historic real-life tale freely and jokingly with lots of British humour.
Also owing to the great performances by the actors and actresses, The Great was less "dry" as the usual period drama and it was overall a very entertaining first season with 10 episodes.
However, while the series started off with many lough-out-loud moments, I found that in the middle bit, the pace was a bit slow. Finally, the first season finished with a pretty big cliffhanger.
We know from real history that the historic Catherine eventually managed to overthrow her husband and continued to rule over Russia as the sole Empress. However, because the series took many liberties and changed quite a few things from the real-life history, we never quite know what to expect from this series. There could be many more unexpected twists and turns…
Also, considering that the real Catherine spent 17 years living with Peter before she managed to successfully overthrow him, I think there is room for more and at least a second season of The Great.
Overall, a jolly good job indeed! Huzzah!
**** 4 out of 5 stars
Elle Fanning in "The Great". © Hulu
Where to watch it?
The Great was originally produced by the Hulu network. I watched it on the STARZ channel.
Planning a trip to Russia?
Check out my travel posts about my trip to the city of St Petersburg – the real-life former home of Catherine and Peter: