The Great Fire – ITV1


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Gold star for doing a historical drama series which actually isn’t set in either the Tudor period or the Victorian period. Reasonable marks for entertainment: I quite enjoyed it. Limited marks for historical accuracy: I think they tried a bit too hard to make it soapy and thrillerish, and rather overdid it.

There were various elements to the programme, and they did link them together quite well. For a kick-off, we had Tom, the Cockney baker (played in a very EastEnders type way by Andrew Buchan, who’s actually from Bolton). OK, the bit about him fancying his sister-in-law and dramatically rescuing his daughters from the fire was rather more soap opera than fact, but it was meant to be a drama! The spread of the fire was well done, as was the famous scene in which the Lord Mayor of London said that a woman could “piss it out”.

The scriptwriters had also got Tom having a contract for the supply of bread for the Navy, and not having been paid by the powers that be. That, AFAIK, is a product of their imaginations, but it tied in very neatly with Samuel Pepys’ role at the Navy Board. We think of Pepys as a diarist, and it’s easy to forget that he did play a very important role in naval affairs. We also got to see him cheating on his wife, which may have been soap opera-ish but is undeniably historically accurate as well!

Pepys’ role at the Navy in turn tied in with life at court – and I think the programme gave Charles II a very raw deal. The impression given was that he was too busy trying to seduce Frances Stewart to give any attention to affairs of state, and wasn’t giving a second thought to the damage being done by the expense of the Second Anglo-Dutch War. That wasn’t fair. Yes, we all know about the Restoration court, and about Charles II’s numerous affairs, and, yes, the war didn’t go well and caused a lot of financial problems; but to portray Charles as someone who was only interested in wine, women and song is very unfair and certainly not accurate. Black mark there!

Then we had the Catholic plot. The entirely fictitious Lord Denton was on the trail of the equally fictitious Duke of Hanford, who had been smuggling in Spanish Catholic extremists who were plotting to murder the king. That’s exactly the sort of thing that a lot of people at the time imagined was going on. Most people assumed that the Fire was caused by Catholics. Possibly the Dutch, but possibly Catholics. The inscription on the Monument even says as much. That shows how much concern/paranoia there was at the time about Catholic plots. However, it was largely paranoia, and I don’t see why ITV found it necessary to make up a plot about a plot (sorry!) which pretty much suggested that the concern was actually well-founded.

Maybe they just did it because there’s such an obvious parallel with the way things are today. If a major fire started in London tomorrow, it would be hard not to jump to the conclusion that it was an Islamic fundamentalist terrorist attack. Anyway, whatever the scriptwriters’ reasons were, I could have lived without that particular storyline.

Mixed marks, then, but I’ll certainly be watching the next three episodes – and, again, a gold star to ITV for making a drama series set in Stuart times rather than Tudor times!

2 thoughts on “The Great Fire – ITV1

  1. I’ve been enjoying the series for what it is, an exciting drama loosely based on history, with Charles Dance playing a supreme villain. However, I did a double-take when James accused his brother King Charles of having ‘paranoid’ fears, and Charles denying he had such ‘paranoid’ fears’, when that term wasn’t used in psychology until the 19th century. Did none of the actors, when given the script, think of saying: “Excuse me, I’m not quite sure about this line…”? Apart from that, good undemanding entertainment.


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