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17 October 2014

Overblown vanilla awfulness: The Great Fire is more Great Farce

With its 1990s Cher wigs, glossy modern make-up and Disneyfied London, even a lustful Samuel Pepys can’t save ITV’s The Great Fire. 

By Rachel Cooke

The Great Fire

It’s September 1666, and in Pudding Lane in the City of London, a baker named Thomas Farriner (Andrew Buchan) is flirting mildly with his sister-in-law Sarah (Rose Leslie). A decent cockney sort of fellow, he would, if he was in EastEnders – which, frankly, he might as well be – pop in to the Queen Vic for a swift half only very occasionally. Moreover, his blue tabard is surprisingly spruce for one who makes his living slaving in such supposedly cramped, hot and insanitary conditions; ditto the billowing white shirt beneath it. And his teeth! How pearly they are, not a black stump in sight.

Rest assured, though, that this most certainly is the 17th century. You’ve only to look at the bread to know. From Farriner’s oven, you’ll notice, there emerges only one kind of loaf, as round and as brown as a day-old cowpat. Sourdough, multigrain and gluten-free are all far in London’s future, just like the Shard and Boris Johnson.

Farriner, who has a contract to supply the navy with bread, is having a hard time. Thanks to the perilously expensive war with the Dutch, the government is unable to pay his bills; his flour is about to run out; not even an appeal to Samuel Pepys (Daniel Mays), the surveyor general of victualling, can save him. Not that we much care about any of this. Unlike him, we know that far worse lies ahead, that his house will shortly burn to the ground, eventually taking with it the homes of some 70,000 Londoners.

Besides, he is so dreary – especially compared to Pepys. While Farriner’s idea of a major thrill is placing his hand on Sarah’s shoulder, the priapic Pepys drops his drawers at every opportunity. In the privacy of the boudoir, the only thing that precedes them is his wig, which looks as if it has come from a post-tour garage sale at Cher’s place, circa 1992.

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Can Pepys save this series, if not Farriner’s livelihood? Alas, he can’t. The Great Fire (starts 16 October, 9pm) is a hopeless case. Mays is among the finest actors of his generation, yet not even he can breathe life into this script (it’s the work of Tom Bradby, ITN’s political editor and the presenter of the bafflingly smug The Agenda), which begins by being astonishingly plodding and tedious, and then swiftly descends into farce, the anachronisms piling up so rapidly I half expected to see Farriner yanking an Iceland ready-meal from his wretched oven. Who knew that the Restoration brought with it so many plucky feminists? (“For half of the population, being pregnant isn’t a choice, you know,” tuts one such warrior, admonishing the ever-randy king.) Or that Charles II was apt to sound like an off-camera Gordon Brown? (“If the people had wanted austerity, they would have stuck with Cromwell’s bastard sons,” he tells Pepys over a competitive game of pall-mall.) So determined is Bradby to give his creaking, listing narrative contemporary relevance, he even has the king’s emissary Lord Denton (Charles Dance) refer, Ian Paisley-style, to a seditious Catholic as a “sectarian bigot”.

The look of the thing is straight out of Disney. The CGI roofs of the medieval city are biscuit-tin pretty; the streets are full, not of slops or rats, but of cute, well-fed children; the viewer has no sense at all that any stench might be rising from the Fleet, the Thames or even from local armpits. Everything is in soft focus, including the women, who wear far too much make-up, and all of it too pastel; Lizzie Pepys (Perdita Weeks), shimmering of eyelid and glossy of lip, has the face of a woman who’s just returned from a free makeover at a No7 counter. As for the king (Jack Huston), picture Harry Styles disguised as Captain Hook, and you’re about halfway there.

Poor old Pepys: that the greatest diarist of his or any age should find himself a character in such overblown vanilla awfulness. As I watched, I pictured him pacing his celestial bedroom, brocade gown flapping, his mood ever more choleric. For all that Bradby’s London is about to descend into fiery chaos, there is no real messiness here, no feeling of contingency. And as we all know how the story ends – doubtless we’ll next be invited to compare the refugee encampments of Islington with those of Syria – I’m amazed it was ever commissioned in the first place. 

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