fri 19/08/2022

The Great Fire, ITV | reviews, news & interviews

The Great Fire, ITV

The Great Fire, ITV

ITV's historical drama is long on intrigue but short on action

Thomas Farriner (Andrew Buchan, centre) has some fires to fight

It takes some brass neck to look at one of the most destructive events in London’s history, which destroyed a chunk of the poorest part of the city and left an estimated 70,000 people homeless, and think that it wasn’t dramatic enough.

But that must have been what went through the head of Tom Bradby, the political editor of ITV News, when he was writing his four-part drama: we were deeply immersed in espionage, war, assassination plots, kidnap and a spendthrift, philandering king before as much as a single spark began to fly.

Unless, that is, we were to consider the sparks between hapless baker Thomas Farriner (Andrew Buchan), in whose bakery the fire began, and his possibly just-widowed sister-in-law Sarah (Rose Leslie). Given what little is known about the causes of the fire, I suppose there is every chance that it could have been avoided had some sleazy character not insisted on leaving his two young daughters unattended while he walked a cutie home - it’s certainly more believable than Daniel Mays in a sloppy wig as Samuel Pepys.

Buchan’s take on Farriner was hard-working but headstrong

Bradby and Buchan’s take on Farriner was hard-working but headstrong, as we saw in an early scene when he knocked the wig from the head of the navy contractor who owed him money for biscuits. “You’ll regret this,” said contractor hissed, but by the end of the day finding money to buy his next bag of flour was the least of Farriner’s worries. Meanwhile in Westminster, a playboy King Charles II (Jack Huston) was doing that slow yet tremendously complicated dance which shows up in all the period dramas (below right), giving him plenty of time to make eyes at all the ladies of the kingdom oblivious both to the watchful glare of his heavily pregnant wife and the fact that the country no longer had the money to pay its bills.

He was also able to miss a woefully inept murder attempt, foiled by his honest-to-God head of security services Lord Denton (Charles Dance). At the same time, Denton had been posing as a kindly old parishioner to ingratiate himself with Sarah, in order to recruit her as a spy against her Catholic employer who was suspected of conspiracy in a plot against the king. In a refreshing change from those spy dramas with more contemporary settings, such as recent Andrew Buchan vehicle The Honourable Woman, Denton was already proving twice as effective despite having none of the technology.

With plenty of sub-plots to establish, it was two thirds of the way through this first hour before the fire got started - and still longer before it could in any way be described as ‘great’. At this point ITV’s decision to screen the drama over consecutive nights began to make sense, as otherwise it would likely be Christmas before we were done. With the two Farriner girls trapped in the upstairs bedroom of the burning bakery the peril was pushed to the max in the closing ten minutes - but with so much to sit through before we got there it’ll take a lower boredom threshold than mine to endure the next three parts.

The peril was pushed to the max in the closing 10 minutes


Editor Rating: 
Average: 2 (1 vote)

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A bit harsh, Lisa-Marie. Surely just the standard disaster movie trope of introducing us to a gallery of characters before putting them through the chosen catastrophe. You know: "you can have as spectacular a fire / earthquake / capsizing ship / alien invasion as you want, Barry, but the audience had to care about the *characters*". I thought this was quite good, rompy, fun. I can't be the only one, though, who's thinking that 17th century London seems to be the afterlife for "Game of Thrones" casualties. I wonder if Sean Bean or Michele Fairley will pop up from behind a box hedge or smouldering hovel in future episodes?

But that's the thing, John: by the end of it I didn't care about any of them! I guess my empathy switch was disconnected for this one.

Glad you enjoyed though!

Oh no, me neither: it's not your failing. I was just suggesting that, since the dawn of Irwin Allen, that's the deal with disaster movies. They insist on taking time to set up the characters when the audience just wants the burny-smashy-explodey stuff. Deeply moved by Fred Astaire and his girlfriend's cat? Me neither: bring on the fire and water effects. Fascinated by Gene Hackman ranting at God? Hell no—I'm here for a capsizing liner; not a theology seminar. We've learned through experience to bear with Jeff Goldblum's marriage problems cos the White House blowing up is going to be spectacular. I'm trusting (I'm an optimist) that this Fire will indeed be Great now that it's actually started.

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