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#6 - JRL 7214
The Guardian (UK)
June 7, 2003
Last night's TV: Peter the beheader

"Fear is what is needed in a despotism," said the philosopher Charles de Secondat. "Virtue is not at all necessary, and honour would be dangerous." As far as needs go, this one was more than met by Peter the Great of Russia. (He was, it would be fair to say, an overachiever in that respect). He had 14 torture chambers built to house his opponents, and beheaded 1,200 "rebels" in a summertime purge. He forced his first wife to become a nun, exiled special advisers to Siberia, and had his son Alexei tortured and murdered after he absconded from Russia to Italy. He even had his torture chambers equipped with whips soaked in salt to make them sharper.

And, along with the courtiers and counts, there were the countless, nameless Russians who died attempting to build St Petersburg on the swamp around the Neva river. Peter's paradise was a crypt for his countrymen. But Peter wasn't entirely devoid of virtue. The first tsar to leave Russian soil, he was determined to unify and turn his country westward, suggesting his ambition was not just for himself.

He introduced coffee, tea and smoking to Russian society, mastering naval architecture during his time drinking in what Europe had to offer. "Learn," he enthused. "I see teachers everywhere." While he may not have founded a line to stretch to the crack of doom, Peter turned Russia from a shambling tramp into a fearsome player, a makeover to make Trinny and Susannah balk.

Mary McMurray's Peter in Paradise (BBC2) detailed both sides of the emperor and was conflicted like its subject. There were moments when it did communicate the weight of Peter's achievements and made the history very meaty indeed. But there were also moments - and these were more frequent - that were excruciating, embarrassing and downright lame. It's not that it was cheap (though it was and, a little admirably, it made a virtue of its cheapness) but it was that it had all the credibility of a schools programme.

Some of the storytelling was atrocious and it was laughably bad in parts, right down to the hammy actors with comedy beards and funny accents. It could be construed that Peter the Great died of disappointment. After watching Peter in Paradise, you knew how he felt.

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