*** This review may contain spoilers ***
(Some historical spoilers, lest the unwary are taken in by this
I first saw this on BBC1 in 1987, shortly before beginning my doctoral research on the historical iconography of the Petrine era, and it stood me in good stead as an unintentionally comic point of reference. Nikolai I, with his cult of Official Nationality and near-deification of Peter, would have *loved* this series; this viewer, however...
Chronology, geography and characters are wilfully distorted, sometimes to comic effect. General Gordon, who strangely appears *without* an Aberdeenshire accent, gets to bed a Swedish belle - loosely based on Aurora von Königsmarck - and fight at Narva several years *after* his death. Peter picks up his future second wife at Azov, instead of in Peterburg after the Baltic campaigns. Tsarevich Aleksei, actually an 8 year old, is shown as a grown man at the time of the execution of the Strel'tsy and the banishment of his mother!
But more often than not, the distortions are to show Peter in the best light possible. The reforming Regent Sof'ya and her highly Westernised, intellectual adviser Golitsyn are shown as conspiratorial opponents of change. (The casting of Vanessa Redgrave as Sof'ya is amusing if you know the portraits of the real Sof'ya, a decidedly plump young woman.) Evdokiya, Peter's harmless first wife, is depicted as a treacherous, frigid shrew. Tsarevich Aleksei - scholarly, consumptive, abused Aleksei - is played by Boris Plotnikov (who was superb as the Christ-like partisan hero of 'The Ascent' - did he need hard currency so badly to appear in this?) as a geeky, reactionary schemer with a terrible haircut. (Aleksei was actually strikingly handsome, with huge brown eyes and long dark curls.) Meanwhile, the corrupt, power-hungry Menshikov and duplicitous, torturing Tolstoi are depicted as lovable rogues, and Marta/Ekaterina as decidedly wholesome... The tough (and prematurely balding) young Swedish soldier-king Carl XII, who resembled a shorter Max von Sydow, is depicted as a vaguely camp cherub with golden curls. All stuff which would have gone down well with Nikolai I-era or Soviet historiography, but not with modern scholars in Western Europe or Russia.
The series leaves a nasty taste with its automatic demonisation of anyone who tried to resist Peter: "blaming the victim" writ large. It even tries to enlist viewers' sympathy for him while he's watching his own son being tortured! The script is also clichéd and awkward ("I'll drag you kicking and screaming into the modern world!" says Peter on one occasion). Characters are depicted wandering around in traditional dress long after the Court had been dragooned into Western clothes, and there is no depiction of 'Sankt-Peterburg' itself, although it is talked about.
If you have a warped and twisted sense of humour, this series is actually very funny, like 'Blackadder' played by a cast who don't realise it's a comedy. That's why I'm giving it 3/10, instead of just 1 - for black humour value. I had to laugh at it, or I'd have thrown a brick through the TV. The BBC's own, much lower-budget production, 'Peter in Paradise' (2003), is superior, as is the 1996 Russian film 'Tsarevich Aleksei', based on Merezhkovskii's novel.
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