The fact that there’s never been a TV series about the Great Fire of London is surprising given how dramatic an event it was. However, it seems ITV were so convinced that novelty factor alone would draw in viewers for their new series that they rested on their laurels a bit when it came to actually writing it. The Great Fire does an admirable job in bulking out a pretty simple narrative by involving a large cast and multiple plot-lines, but at times it seemed to spread itself too thin. The numerous short scenes ensured the episode didn’t seem to drag on for too long but also meant potentially exciting material was somewhat glossed over, and that there was little time for characters to garner sympathy before fiery disaster struck.
Perhaps a more serious impediment to audience sympathy was that the main storyline, following Pudding Lane baker Thomas Farinner, played by Andrew Buchan, and Game of Thrones’ Rose Leslie as his sister-in-law Sarah. It just seemed flat and unengaging compared to the scenes set in the court of King Charles II. This was probably not helped by Buchan’s acting, which came across as a bit subdued considering he featured in some of the most dramatic scenes of the episode. While Thomas’ struggle to get payment from a Royal Navy made nearly bankrupt by Charles’ war served to neatly tie together the worlds of court and working London, his hurried and somewhat forced sexual tension with Sarah felt too much like ITV trying to meet their romance quota for the episode. By contrast, in the court scenes, Jack Huston played the King excellently, making him seem carelessly decadent but not unsympathetic, despite the impediment of a seriously dodgy fake moustache. The amount of time devoted to other storylines, however, means a lot of political nuance had to be concentrated into a short amount of time, and an interesting subplot involving the King’s brother James was shown only in glimpses. Nevertheless, the show still managed to squeeze in Charles’ attempts to seduce lady’s maid Frances, which unlike Thomas and Sarah’s relationship, managed to feel genuine.
The highlight of the episode, however, was definitely Daniel Mays as Samuel Pepys, who did a great job in portraying a flawed but enjoyable character, and provided the episode with its only humorous moments. While Charles Dance, who is of course no stranger to historical TV dramas, also did an admirable job, this was diminished by the fact that his character, a fictional spy Lord Denton, seemed perhaps a little unnecessary. Considering the sheer amount of actual historical material the writers have to work with from the Restoration period, making up characters seems like a baffling choice, especially seeing as the episode was so pressured by time constraints that a full-blown assassination attempt against the King was confined to a couple of minutes. In fact, the only scene that didn’t feel contracted in the episode was Thomas’ attempt to escape the fire with his two daughters, who had not been given nearly enough development for their peril to create genuine tension. Despite this, The Great Fire shows potential to develop in interesting directions in its remaining three episodes and the few highlights, such as the court scenes, make it enjoyable enough for casual viewing.
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