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Queen of Oz review: Catherine Tate shines in disgraced royal role

Catherine Tate came back to the spotlight last year with the news that she would be returning to Doctor Who in 2023 for the show’s 60th anniversary alongside David Tennant. In the years since her stint as the beloved Donna Noble, Tate has proved a versatile comedic and dramatic actor, reuniting with Tennant for a 2011 West End production of Much Ado About Nothing, appearing in the final three seasons of the US Office, and playing six different characters in the Netflix mockumentary series Hard Cell, which she co-wrote and co-directed.

Her most recent endeavour, playing the titular Queen Georgiana in the BBC sitcom Queen of Oz, is among her most unique roles yet. The disgraced spare of the British royal family sent to rule Australia to learn grace and decorum, Tate is nothing short of monstrous in her portrayal of Georgiana. Across the series the newly-minted queen vomits on a child during a school visit, attempts to ruin the economy when her portrait on Australian banknotes isn’t to her liking, and inadvertently kills her husband immediately after their wedding with a tahini wrap. This series is, rather refreshingly, not the site of self-improvement for its charmingly despicable main character.

Tate developed and wrote the series alongside her fiancé, American screenwriter Jeff Gutheim. Niky Wardley, Tate’s longtime collaborator who starred in various roles in The Catherine Tate Show and co-wrote Hard Cell, appears as Georgiana’s dim-witted cousin and lady-in-waiting Anabel, providing some well-timed laughs with her blank observations. All the Australian characters are, thankfully, played by actual Australian actors, in light of the BBC’s past proclivity for casting English actors with horrendous accents in ‘foreign’ roles (see Doctor Who for a bevy of examples).

Speaking of Doctor Who, it’s quite remarkable how brazenly two references to the show are fitted into the script of the first episode. One remark from Georgiana (“well, isn’t that wizard!”) makes enough sense in context to only be identified as a Donna Noble quote by superfans. However, you have to wonder whether the BBC’s overexcited executives only tried to sneak in Georgiana asking her staff if they think she’s a Time Lord in anticipation of the 60th anniversary. 

The BBC understands that a fair number of audience members will only tune in to see ‘that woman from Doctor Who’ flexing her comedic muscles, but this is more than a wink-wink-nudge-nudge. It takes you out of the story and reminds you of Catherine Tate’s imminent return to the role that made her a worldwide name, as if Queen of Oz, in spite of its cliffhanger ending, is a mere stepping stone to bigger things. The BBC bringing her out as the UK’s jury spokesperson at Eurovision and as presenter at the BAFTAs achieves a similar effect, only without cutting through the fabric of a (somewhat) carefully crafted comedic story.

It’s fair to say that the characters of Queen of Oz, perhaps other than Georgiana herself, fall into well-rehearsed stereotypes: William McKenna as the bumbling assistant Matthew; Robert Coleby as the exasperated private secretary Bernard; Anthony Brandon Wong as the sassy queer-coded master of the household Wei Wei; and Daniel Lapaine as the stuck-up heir to the throne Prince Frederick. The show’s presentation of royalty isn’t particularly groundbreaking, especially given the buzz surrounding Prince Harry’s recent memoir. 

In fact, it almost seems that Queen of Oz takes pages out of Spare and exaggerates them to their nth degree: Harry as the ‘party boy prince’ in his youth becomes the alcoholic liability of Georgiana, partying too hard too late into her childbearing years for the royal family to take her seriously. The irony, of course, is that she becomes pregnant (apparently, it’s not confirmed) at the end of the series after killing her husband with sesame seeds, unable to give him his epi pen because she uses it to self-medicate.

It’s an interesting choice to not show the King and Queen, Frederick and Georgiana’s parents, in the series. They are only seen in their actions, giving up the throne of Australia to their detested daughter and ordering her to marry for the sake of the succession. They don’t even turn up to her wedding to philanthropist Teddy Anderson (Rodger Corser). Queen Elizabeth not being a year dead and the relative unpopularity of King Charles must have contributed to that creative decision. The machinations of the British monarchy are instead manifested in their golden child Frederick, who comes to Australia to lecture Georgiana about her constitutional role. You can’t help but get a whiff of Prince William there, and not just because of the hairline jokes and both Georgiana and Harry being ginger.

At the heart of this show is Tate’s performance, and she gives her best, but Georgie is not a classical protagonist in that there’s really no reason to root for her. There are some moments of genuine feeling, like when she visits her security officer Marc (Rob Collins)’s family and when she admits that despite Teddy being perfect in almost every way, she just doesn’t love him. Those moments are then undercut either by a quip from one of Georgiana’s many critics, including the Australian Prime Minister played by Rachel Gordon, or a drastic turn in the narrative. 

Georgiana never has to come to terms with the prospect of marriage with Teddy because it’s over before it begins. Seeing the way that Marc’s family protects and celebrates each other doesn’t make her any nicer towards her brother. The horrendous way she treats her staff never leads to a comeuppance where she realises their value, because they’re not written to be valuable. They are called Team Shit for a reason, and it’s entertaining to see which head Georgie will bite off next, but the lack of growth stunts the series’ characters. Queen of Oz feels more like a series of vignettes depicting Georgiana’s horrendous approach to queenship and refusal to change. That might be refreshing, but it’s not narratively satisfying; in fact, the only reason it’s refreshing is because other television shows see the benefit in their characters changing.

Queen of Oz starts and finishes with Georgiana vomiting on someone, in doing so consigning herself both times to a fate she doesn’t want. By the end of the series there hasn’t been enough narrative tissue to get over the first dilemma. Georgiana isn’t made out to be satisfied in her role, so the show’s original premise of seeing if the party princess will succeed in Australia doesn’t really pay off. I wouldn’t be surprised if the show stops here, whether because of its mixed reception or because of Tate, its only saving grace, being scooped away to other projects. There won’t be many hanging onto the edge of their seats anxious to discover if the queen of Australia is really pregnant by the man she just killed, despite how exciting that premise should be.