An interview with Tony McNamara, writer

Category: Interview

How would you describe the series to those unfamiliar with it?

It’s a darkly comic drama about the rise of young Catherine the Great. It’s irreverent fun and is fast and loose with history.

How did you come to this project?

I was interested in doing something not contemporary and became interested in her as a character so wrote a play called The Great and then turned it into a show.

The Great is fictionalised, fun, OTT and anachronistic; the sense of it being true ‘almost’ seems very important. Can you talk about that?

I think I wanted to be true to certain events in Catherine’s life but also create a show that felt contemporary so not be yoked to details of history that didn’t help tell her story, and were anti drama. In The Favourite it was similar - we cut extraneous history if it didn’t serve the essential core of the story. What's strange is some of the more bonkers ideas and details in the show are actually historically accurate.

What research was required? How do you decide which ‘true’ bits go into the script and which you knowingly throw out?

I read a lot early on and then forgot it all, some of the writers in the writer’s room do research and we write things we think are interesting on a white board and we use it as we need it.

The tone of the period seems to come through in your work. Is a certain ‘tone’ of a time period something you aim for?

I think it just comes from being true to the world you create. Knowing what the society means, and not really putting our morals onto that time. For instance, there's a pretty casual acceptance of violence and death as just part of the furniture in this world, and a freewheeling attitude to sex and alcohol that just seemed right for tone and time.

All the characters in the ensemble are so rich; have you a favourite among them?

I think we're blessed with a brilliant ensemble who bring the characters to life, and I like writing them all.

The Great is a LOT of fun to watch and at the same time has a lot to say in a world still living in the fall out of #MeToo. Your Catherine the Great feels like a heroine for our times. Can you speak to this?

It's a contemporary story in a lot of ways. A young woman taking on a very oppositional world skewed against her. I think she has a fierceness and a smartness that reminds me of the young women I know of my daughters’ age, early twenties, who are tackling the world head on in an impressive brave way.

What would you like viewers coming to watch The Great on Channel 4 this January to take from it?

After this past year, I just hope they have a fun break from the modern world and love watching amazing performances by Elle and Nick.

You’ve presumably been writing series two during the pandemic and in some form of lockdown; will the unusual circumstances of the writing environment seep into the drama do you think?

Probably subliminally there'll be something, and Covid-wise there are different restrictions to what and the way you shoot, but mostly I'm happy to leave the real world and just be back in 1780 having a wild fun time.

What Christmas traditions do you always abide by? And can they happen this year, do you think?

We only really have one, which is to eat your weight in panettone...

2020 has been quite a year; how would you describe your own experience of it? What are your hopes for 2021?

I guess it was sad and disconcerting on a lot of levels, but also interesting in that I think a pause on how we live our lives, how our economy operates and who gets left behind in that and how we treat the environment and each other was probably overdue. Hopefully we'll learn from it and change the way we live a bit. I hope for a kinder, more fun 2021.