The week in TV: The Great; A Discovery of Witches; Staged; Death in Paradise; Winter Walks

All hail a rollicking, occasionally true history of Catherine the Great, Sky’s spooky Elizabethan gem, and the simple pleasures of a quiet winter walk

The Great (Channel 4) | All 4
A Discovery of Witches (Sky One) |
Staged (BBC One) | iPlayer
Death in Paradise (BBC One) | iPlayer
Winter Walks (BBC Four) | iPlayer

The Great was just as it said, and lends one hope for the grimmest January most of us have ever encountered. Creator Tony McNamara has approached Russia’s past not with a forensic scalpel. Instead, as an Aussie, and as he did with The Favourite, he’s taken a gleeful and sizeable beachball to the sandcastle of history. Never mind the fact that that very castle is built on shifting sands, normally by the victors or the preening. I’d like to think, especially given the recent trauma over The Crown, which extended unto our culture secretary and thus heralded a new touchstone in pygmy intellectualism, that McNamara just thought: “Dash it”. Or whichever Australian epithet you might deem more apt. “It’s a deuced drama, dash it. We are making it up, the scripts and sets and everything. The actors are doing what their job entails, to act.”

The result is funny, feminist, zinging, louche, and at least a bit true. It does a grand job of reproducing the stultifying non-lives of privileged Russians in the early years of Catherine the Great, in a way seldom encountered since Goncharov’s classic Oblomov. In her portrayal of Catherine, Elle Fanning excels as a virginal shell, open to all ideas. But not so open as to let her brains fall out. As hubby Peter, Nicholas Hoult is also standout, albeit as a revivified Flashheart, and it’s such a shame we’re about to lose him so very soon. History, you see.

An overall triumph, and for once I’m glad its 10 parts are not available to binge-watch. We need something to keep the nation looking forward to February’s proud promise of gloom and ice and rodents and death.

The second series of A Discovery of Witches, a tremendous, often overlooked gem from Sky, launched in fine if dark style. Seriously, it’s awfully dark, the opening episode in particular. Imagine a rat having eaten a bat, and Gordon Buchanan filming the bat’s wing being digested, in monochrome, without lights or infrared, and then casually dropping the resultant footage into a vat of tar.

Teresa Palmer and Matthew Goode in A Discovery of Witches.
‘Eerily masterful’: Teresa Palmer and Matthew Goode in A Discovery of Witches. Photograph: Simon Ridgway/© Sky UK Ltd

Yet this glorious tale of boy-meets-girl (in Oxford’s Bodleian Library – girl’s a prim witch, boy’s a vampire; they fall in lust, try to counter some creeping modern antipathy towards witches and vampires and demons) thrives on the stars alone. Matthew Goode and Teresa Palmer are eerily masterful, and they now get to timeshift! Back to 1590. This leads to a rather lovely couple of sideswipes, such as Kit Marlowe asking eagerly whether his plays will be remembered. But also – US writer Deborah Harkness has squirreled down on that research – pertinent facts regarding witchery. She is right on the button with the North Berwick “witch trials”: read a little of that on Wiki, and I’d suggest lockdown isn’t that bad for most of us. Except if you’re a witch. Obviously.

Michael Sheen and David Tennant in Staged.
‘Meta-within-meta’: Michael Sheen and David Tennant in Staged. Photograph: BBC/Staged Films Ltd

I can’t help wondering whether Staged has suddenly become a little, well, you know, up itself. This first week of series 2 was grand, with David Tennant and Michael Sheen sending themselves up as versions of themselves and managing to make Michael Palin, famously the nicest man in the world, reveal his inner four-letter word, spelt almost like “aunt”. Yet a huge part of the premise on which this is built revolves around the talented two angsting over how relatively, globally, famous each one is, and that needs must involves referential in-jokes, meta-within-meta. I loved it. Billions won’t.

One mystery at least regarding Death in Paradise, this week marking its 10th anniversary, was cleared up: its popularity. The fact that the BBC crime drama regularly pulls in 8 million-plus viewers is less astonishing during a year’s lockdown, when to gaze on sunshine and palms, to imagine oneself in a sexy beachfront bar with still-flapping seafood and lurid neon cocktails is one kind of very heaven. Still doesn’t explain how it’s survived this long during non-Covid years, though. Nor go any way to answering why a French dependency might ludicrously insist on employing, as its police chief, not a French person or a native Caribbean, but a series of white and determinedly British men who arrive complete with “comedy” flaw.

Ralf Little and Élizabeth Bourgine in Death in Paradise.
‘The plot’s always the same’: Ralf Little and Élizabeth Bourgine in Death in Paradise. Photograph: Duncan Fowlie/BBC/Red Planet

The most recent of whom is Ralf Little, who does a decent-enough job with whatever half-script he’s been thrown by a scriptwriter ripe on bayou cocktails. The plot’s always the same: there’s been a murder, and we are introduced to the killer in the first six minutes. The killer will always be charming and have an unshakeable alibi. Ralf – or Kris (Marshall), or Ben (Miller), or Ardal (O’Hanlon), depending on how old your telly set is – will gather the cast meekly together at the end, much as M. Poirot always did just before introducing them to Little Grace Ells. When unmasked (chiefly through the work of redoubtable deputy Florence Cassell, played by Joséphine Jobert), he/she will make a bitter confession before trying in an insultingly half-hearted manner to escape.

As plots go, it actually makes every one of Agatha Christie’s look like a Christopher Nolan timeshift concoction of heartbreaking genius. Jobert returned to Saint Marie (actually Guadeloupe) this week, and I’ve suddenly remembered why everyone keeps watching. Here’s to them, 10 years on: I raise a celebratory glass to all cast and crew slumming it out there and, as must they, wonder precisely how they’ve got away with it for so long.

A surprise pop-up delight, all week, has been BBC Four’s series of Winter Walks. In terms of concept TV, it’s your basic Ronseal. Take a well-enough-known face, a national trinket, if you will, possessed of a modicum of communication skills, and set them loose shortly after dawn on an eight-mile or so walk, accompanied by a handheld 360-degree selfie camera and a couple of drones. And so the likes of Lemn Sissay, Selena Scott and Simon Armitage traipsed bits of Yorkshire and Cumbria under mackerel skies and freezing breezes, with intermittent pantings and long periods of glorious silence broken only by crunching footfall and the occasional musing or poem. No music: and the screen silently, helpfully, gives you snippets of subtitled info on heights and weather and the age of a particular dyke or church, or the whereabouts of the nearest pub.

Lemn Sissay in Cumbria’s Dentdale, one of BBC Four’s Winter Walks.
‘Pop-up delight’: Lemn Sissay in Cumbria’s Dentdale, one of BBC Four’s Winter Walks. Photograph: Jamie Merchant/BBC/Atypical Media Ltd

And we shiver and pant along with them, under that low, cold winter sun, through some breathtaking Britain, her high moors and downs and coasts and burrows. The names alone lick you with joy: Ravenscar, and the postman’s path to Great Knoutberry Hill; Appletreewick. The silence is a chief delight: it can be no coincidence that neither Alan Carr nor Jeremy Vine were (to my knowledge) invited to contribute to this first week of, it is to be hoped, many to come. I think Lemn said it best, quoting, if breathlessly (for he was on the long climb to Dent station), not his own poetry but that of Carl Sandburg. “Open the door now./ Go: roll up the collar of your coat/ To walk in the changing scarf of mist.” Just the ticket: and might lead you to surprisingly fruitful contemplations.


Euan Ferguson

The GuardianTramp

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