Saturday, 18 October 2014


This article was originally published in The Courier on 18th October 2014.

The Great Fire: Thursday, STV

Gotham: Monday, Five

Paul Whitelaw

While trudging through the first half of The Great Fire last week, it struck me that the reason why no one has ever produced a drama about the Great Fire of London before is because the man who accidentally started it, baker Thomas Farriner, is an exceptionally dull protagonist.

Though I appreciate that every good disaster flick must first put all its characters in place before hurling them into chaos, most of episode one was bogged down with Farriner fretting over his terminated contract with the Royal Navy. Call me an impatient thrill-seeker if you like, but it was hardly the stuff of scintillating drama.

As played by Andrew Buchan, replete with anachronistic haircut, Farriner moped around his Pudding Lane bakery in the company of an entirely fictional sister-in-law – it appears that writer Tom Bradby, ITN's Political Editor no less, was moved to invent a sub-plot involving Farriner's dead brother in the hope of jazzing things up a bit. It didn't work. I know it's wrong, but I was desperate for the actual blaze to erupt so as to escape from this dreary storyline.

More interesting by far were the political shenanigans taking place in the court of Charles II (Jack Huston from Boardwalk Empire on suitably foppish form), where Lord Charles of the Dance expertly sold every brooding moment of ambiguous skulduggery.

Daniel Mays, too, is typically excellent as the King's forthright confidante, Samuel Pepys. Traditionally depicted as a bawdy, rather comical figure, this iteration of Pepys is more morally questionable. Though fundamentally decent and wise, his behaviour at times is deplorable. The scene in which he slept with a woman while her paid-off husband seethed in the next room was bizarrely arresting and uncomfortable.

Given his political background, it's hardly surprising that Bradby has opted to draw blatant parallels between the state of the nation in 1666 and Britain today. While I hesitate to describe it as subversive, The Great Fire is unusual for an ITV drama in that it openly critiques the injustice of a ruling elite of uncaring toffs living high on the hog while the poorest members of society are left to rot and burn. Rife with sectarianism and paranoid xenophobia, it's depressing to note how so little has changed over almost 400 years.

It's unfortunate, then, that Bradby's ambition is undermined by some terrible, clunking exposition and his rather bland depiction of the proletariat. His heart is in the right place, but he's obviously more excited by the vile machinations of the periwigged brigade.

Still, it's early days. Perhaps Buchan's Farriner will come into his own in later episodes. When his bakery finally went up in flames – at last! - we were treated to a suitably dramatic sequence in which he escaped from an attic window with his terrified daughters in tow. With a bit of morbid, harrowing luck, the nightmarish horror of the Great Fire will presumably be explored in due course.

In a busy week for urban hell-holes, Batman prequel Gotham proved that, in the hands of a hack, even the most intriguing premise can be squandered. An abject disappointment, this laughable drama has more in common with a stilted daytime soap than the smart, gritty, comic book noir that any reasonable person would expect.

It's well cast, and the production design is impressive, but the earnest dialogue is atrocious. Basically little more than a conventional, clich├ęd cop show, it's an unappetising turkey.

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