The Great Fire review: Andrew Buchan & Rose Leslie shine in this patchy historical drama (Spoilers)

by Matt D
The Great Fire Cast

The Great Fire Cast

Over the past few weeks I’ve become increasingly disenfranchised with the amount of crime drama that ITV have produced. From the tiresome Lewis and predictable Grantchester to the reliable Scott and Bailey; I feel that the channel’s drama output should give us more than just a cavalcade of police procedurals. That’s why I was excited to see something a different drama on ITV in the form of The Great Fire, a dramatisation of the blaze that engulfed London in 1666.

Written by ITV’s political editor Tom Bradby, The Great Fire’s main problem is that the titular disaster doesn’t occur until the latter stages of this first episode. Instead the writer spends a little too long focusing on the four protagonists who are all affected by the fire in separate ways. Baker Thomas Farriner will be a familiar name to anybody who studied The Great Fire of London at school as he is the man who is credited with igniting the flames. In Bradby’s drama, it is Farriner’s daughter who accidentally starts the fire whilst his father is out delivering some tragic news to his sister-in-law Sarah. The news relates to her husband, Thomas’ brother, who has been missing at sea for several months and whose tragic fate has finally been revealed. The drama appears to suggest that there is a romantic spark between kindly widower Thomas and his sister-in-law but we soon discover that she has a lot to worry about. That’s due to the fact that Sarah has become a pawn in a political game between her The Duke of Hanford and the King’s intelligence officer Lord Denton. So, as the flames begin to engulf London, Sarah is put in the back of a prison wagon presumably to be interrogated by the malicious Denton.

Andrew Buchan

One of The Great Fire’s main themes is the discrepancy between the rich and the poor during the time of Charles II. With the country at war with the Dutch, Thomas and his fellow tradesman are struggling to make ends meet whilst at the palace Charles II is living a life of decadence. Charles II’s first appearance in the drama occurs during an ostentatious ball at Whitehall during which his advisers criticise the way the monarch is recklessly spending the people’s money. It appears that the playboy King is more interested in women and wine with his eye being particularly drawn to the pretty Frances Stewart. The only person who is willing to tell Charles the truth is Navy Official Samuel Pepys but his advice falls on deaf ears. Charles believes that the people love their king and are willing to follow him after the country was under the rule of Oliver Cromwell. As the man who is best known for documenting the Great Fire, I was shocked to learn that Pepys wasn’t the sympathetic character I believed him to be. Instead we see him refuse to give Thomas the money he’s owed from his contract with the Navy and later he sleeps with the wife of a man who can’t pay his debts on time.

I personally found the majority of this first episode of The Great Fire to be awfully dreary as the characters conversed with each other in speeches filled with exposition. It was only when the fire started to burn that I became interested in the story as a whole. In particular I was on the edge of my seat when Thomas was forced to leave the bakery through the attic window and had to convince his older daughter to jump from one rooftop to another. This sequence was definitely the highlight of the episode for me as director Jon Jones piled on the peril by focusing on Thomas’s daughters frightened expression. In fact, whilst I thought Bradby’s script was far too expositional, Jones’ direction of the piece kept me interested for the most part. His direction of the final sequences in which the fire spread through the streets of London were brilliantly executed. One of The Great Fire’s best qualities was its production design which saw Douglas Hyman recreate 17th century London perfectly. I didn’t for one moment question the authenticity of the drama’s set design and I felt that the period detail was spot on. Additionally brilliant was Sheena Napier’s costume design especially during the aforementioned ball scene in which the garments worn by the guests expertly conveyed the opulent nature of Charles II’s reign.

Rose Leslie

Another element that The Great Fire has in its favour is its reliable ensemble cast who do their best to make the audience understand their character’s motivations. Andrew Buchan plays Farriner as a loving and caring father figure who always tries to do the right thing but is occasionally prone to violence when provoked. Buchan perfectly transforms his character from ordinary baker to action man as he’s forced to act quickly to save his family and town from the fire. Daniel Mays proves himself to be a versatile actor as he goes from playing wideboy Ronnie Biggs to the respected official Samuel Pepys. Even though I think Mays delivers a great turn, he still didn’t make me care about a character who commits a number of dubious acts in this first episode. Rose Leslie gives a believable turn as damsel-in-distress Sarah who finds herself in an impossible situation as the flames gather around her. Meanwhile Charles Dance delivers another scenery chewing performance as the devious Lord Denton, a man who’ll use anybody to protect his King.

Ultimately The Great Fire proved to be a well-acted, visually brilliant historical drama which was let down by a patchy script. My main issue with the drama was the fact that it takes too long for the blaze to actually begin. I found the first half an hour or so of the drama to be utterly tedious and I mentally checked out during the earlier scenes. However The Great Fire did show promise as it progressed and, primarily due to these latter scenes, I’ll probably tune in next week to see what happens next.

What did you think to The Great Fire? Did you enjoy it more than I did?

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1 Comment

  1. Rae Croft on November 2, 2014 at 10:09 am

    I have been so dissopointed with this programme, it was totally unnecessary to invent the charector of Lord Denton, any reading of the diary would give all the material needed to craft a good story. If Pepys had been able to pay the baker he would have done, but there was no money, due in large part to Charles’ spendthrift ways. Yes he was a womaniser, but the great joy of the diary is his total honesty as he writes it.try it !

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