Catherine The Great (Sky Atlantic 2019) & Rupaul’s Drag Race UK (BBC3 2019) – A What I’ve Been Watching Review

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Two series began this week which have attracted considerable pre-transmission publicity.  I watched them both and one was exactly what I was expecting and one certainly wasn’t.

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Sky seems to have been pushing Catherine The Great for ages.  With Dame Helen Mirren as its star and its executive producer this is no surprise.  This wasn’t quite enough to get me tuning in but add to that the presence of Gina McKee and Rory Kinnear in the cast and an interview with the Dame on Graham Norton’s TV show last week and I decided that this was probably going to be a must.  I admit to knowing very little about Catherine The Great, Mirren was keen to point out that most of what people have heard is false anyway, outrageous stories perpetrated by rivals.  These stories tended to have been based upon her reputed sexual voracity and tales of her being crushed to death whilst attempting to have sex with a horse!  I had prepared myself for a very different telling of her tale from Sky Atlantic – this was not “The Borgias” after all!

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Towards the end of the first episode I was aware that there was something not quite right with it but couldn’t exactly put me finger on what it was but I was surprisingly a little bored.  This means that I am probably not going to watch the other three episodes.  It is big budget but it doesn’t look it and that might be part of the problem.  Much of it seemed to be filmed in a kind of greasy half-light which created a kind of soft-focus on the main actors and, true, that type of lighting may have been authentic for a Russian palace, but as we’ve all been pressurised into purchasing TVs with high quality picture definition it all looked somewhat flat.  It was if that flatness rubbed off on other aspects of it.  It certainly did not give me the costume drama lift that I’m getting on a Sunday night with “Sanditon”.  It may be redressing the balance on stories about Catherine The Great but I fear I might not be sticking around to find out.

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There were also royal frocks in the much anticipated “Rupaul’s Drag Race UK” A multi Emmy award-winning institution in the US this show has not to date being served terribly well by UK mainstream TV.  The first series were tucked away on a channel I don’t even now remember.  Most of us have caught up to date binge-watching on Netflix (I don’t think there are as many past series on here as there were) and catching the All-Stars spin-off version when it snuck out here on Comedy Central.  It has a strong cult following over here who are very loyal to the show which has led to events like Season 6 winner Bianca Del Rio bringing her one-woman show over to Wembley and Australian drag queen runner Courtney Act from the same season winning “Celebrity Big Brother”.  Rupaul has been around to do publicity (including a stint on the sofa with Graham Norton alongside Dame Helen Mirren) and the show’s main judge Michelle Visage is currently wowing millions each week on “Strictly Come Dancing“.  So far, so good, but why is the show being aired on BBC3, the internet and I-Player platform probably depriving itself o the big mainstream audience it gets in the US?

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Michelle Visage and Rupaul

Drag has a very strong culture in the UK, but that culture is different from the US.  Over here we have had a tradition of drag acts who have become part of the mainstream- Lily Savage, Dame Edna, Hinge and Brackett for example, but these were primarily character-based.  Only with Danny La Rue did we have a household name where the image and dresses were more important than what the act did.  In the US there is a strong tradition of the Pageant Queen where the look is everything.  This has now evolved into boys on Instagram gaining big followings putting together various looks with the emphasis switching away from the character and comedy of drag which has existed since over here since Music Hall days and more loosely back to Shakespeare and further to creating looks and putting together costumes.

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Now in the US comedy will often win out with previous winners having a strong established act like Bianco Del Rio and Bob The Drag Queen and one of my favourites not to win, Ben De La Crème.  When Drag Race was announced for the UK I thought it would be a chance to provide a platform for those performing flat out nightly entertaining in bars and clubs across the country often working tirelessly for raising funds for charities to be given a nudge into the mainstream.  (Years ago Anne Robinson did helm a Weakest Link Drag Queen Special which did celebrate these) but that hasn’t really happened here with this selection of participants.

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Still, we’ve got weeks to get to know them (episodes are being dropped onto the I-Player weekly) and the format, as expected, works perfectly well with a UK twist.  The big prizes of the American version have gone (it is the BBC after all) and there’s still the hit and miss aspect of the challenges (being photographed on green screen as a beheaded queen – MISS, dressing up for the runway in looks inspired by our present actual Queen – HIT) and this show is likely to be a talking point throughout its run.  Much of the heart of the US version comes away from the contest, when we find out about the lives of the participants facing challenges from families, religion and the geographical location.  How this will translate to the British version remains to be seen but I suspect it will not be such a strong feature of the show.

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Such was the attention this premiere got that I found myself doing something I never do if I’m intending to write my own review and read a couple on the morning after transmission from The Daily Telegraph and The Guardian who awarded it 3 and 4 stars respectively.  The Telegraph felt it overly crude but The Guardian reviewer was certainly along for the ride and lapped it all up.  I’m going along with The Guardian, it’s not the five star review I gave to the opener of Rupaul’s Drag Race All Stars Season 3 but I’m confident it will continue to win me over and bring a big blast of glam and glitter into this autumn/winter.

Ratings – Catherine The Great –   threestars

Rupaul’s Drag Race UK – 4*fourstars

Catherine The Great is on Sky Atlantic on Thursdays at 9pm.  The first episode can be found on Sky catch-up services.  Rupaul’s Drag Race UK can be found on the I-Player where new episodes will appear on Thursdays at 8pm.

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Britannia – Sky Atlantic (2017) – A What I’ve Been Watching Review

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So, how to describe “Britannia” the first episode of which appeared on Sky Atlantic this week?  It’s aimed towards the “Game Of Thrones” fans (which reminds me I still have the last series unwatched on my Sky Planner – for some reason I can’t get round to start watching it) and the box set binge viewers (Sky have taken the now increasingly more common tactic of releasing the whole series on catch-up to lure in the Netflix crowd).  This is no swords and sorcery epic however, being rooted in early British history (or at least with a slight nod towards it).

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It starts in 43AD with the Romans return to the British Isles after Julius Caesar’s previous attempt to conquer some ninety years before.  This time the Celtic residents are largely caught unawares.  The first Romans we see are four unfortunate individuals hanging by their arms who have decided Britannia was not for them and have made a run for it only to be interrogated by David Morrissey’s General Aulus Plautius.  One gives as his excuse for desertion “Britannia is a cursed land, ruled by the dead”. First pause for “not much has changed laughter”.  Over the intervening years legends have sprung up around giant squids and demons residing in the forests feasting on human flesh.  In reality it’s the challenging weather and the Celtic tribes that will be causing all the problems.  David Morrissey plays a good baddie, even if I did give up on “The Walking Dead” not long after he joined the cast.  The flesh eating zombies and dystopian nightmare of everyday survival was one thing but Morrissey’s “Governor” proved a little too much for this viewer.  Here he’s soon coming up with a plan where one deserter will cut the throats of the others in order to survive.

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Over on Britannia we’ve already met the drug-raddled The Outcast (Danish actor Nikolaj Lie Kaas) running amok in a frenzy of portents and omens and have seen the preparations for a female initiation Solstice ceremony to womanhood in the Cantii Tribe, which is destined to go horribly wrong.  Right from the off we are seeing society portrayed with women as equals, strong fighting women, which makes this feel different from ancient history tales we’ve seen before and will satisfy Game Of Thrones fan used to strong women in Arya, Cersei, Daenerys and the excellent Brienne Of Tarth will see echoes in characters such as Kerra (Kelly Reilly) and young Cait (Eleanor Worthington Cox) whose entry into womanhood was so abruptly disrupted.

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Kelly Reilly as Kerra

Filmed largely in Prague and Wales, the scenery was often breath-taking which added much to this ninety-minute opener.  High production values are evident throughout. Violent and resplendently unapologetic in its bad language, the flesh-creeping aspects were upped by some particularly unappealing Druids of which Mackenzie Crook is largely unrecognisable as the leader, Veren.  I’m not sure where it’s all going but I’m going to be happy enough to go along with the ride over the next 8 episodes of series 1.

Britannia, SkyEleanor Worthington Cox with Nikolaj Lie Kaas

Britannia is created by notable playwright and screen play writer Jez Butterworth who has credits ranging from his first Royal Court Theatre award-winner “Mojo” to the latest in the James Bond Franchise “Spectre”.  He often writes with family members and here script and production honours are shared with brother Tom and James Richardson.  Someone’s been doing the research effectively.  In our household we took to Google after a scene involving a cat as we didn’t think they were in Britain at that time only to discover that Julius Caesar had introduced them to the country on his first trip over.  Viewers don’t always expect historical accuracy when there’ s action-packed over the top drama so it’s nice we’re getting a bit of both here.

The one thing it seems to be missing at this stage is a great piece of music to kick things off.  “Game Of Thrones” is blessed with a great opening score which really gets under your skin.  Here, for some reason we have Donovan’s trippy “Hurdy Gurdy Man” but with the Brits indulging in natural highs and the Smoke Spirit turning the solstice into an acid rave until disrupted by the brutal arrival of the Romans, perhaps it’s not such an inappropriate choice after all.

Britannia’s first episode has given Sky it’s best viewing figures for an original programme for three years.  The last time as many tuned in was for “Fortitude”, (I was one of those but I didn’t last too many episodes on that occasion).  Hopefully, here I will stay the course.  It seems that in this dark germ-ridden January we want to see Ancient Brits go the distance with Roman armies, a bit of magic and strong warrior women.  Bring it on!

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Britannia is shown on Sky Atlantic in the UK on Thursdays at 9.00.  In the US it has been purchased to be shown on Amazon.