Review: ITV’s ‘The Great Fire’

ITV’s drama, The Great Fire, aired last night at 9pm in the UK. This morning, I was asked by many on Twitter for my opinions about this show, but as I don’t have access to live television in my house, I was unable to watch it last night. I saw this episode just now on the iTV player and, although it’s more fiction than history, I enjoyed it.

© ITV 2014

Whilst I enjoyed it, there were things that, as a historian, I have issues with. The people and streets are far too clean. It would have been filthy on the streets, with muck, excrement, and rubbish in the middle. The houses would have been much more poky and very close together. Honestly, this seemed like a Disney version of 1660s London. When I see a period drama series, I want to see grime, sweat, and I want to believe that the people on screen are smelly and dirty.

Andrew Buchan (Broadchurch) is the lead as Thomas Farriner, whose bakeshop caught fire and began the Great Fire of London in 1666. Rose Leslie (Downton Abbey, Game of Thrones) was very likeable as Farriner’s sister-in-law. Her husband has been missing since the Battle of Lowestoft and he was on the Great Charity, which used to be called Groote Liefde, and was lost to the Dutch in this battle. I was happy that they were at least referring to a real vessel and battle. Hopefully, some viewers will have had their curiosity piqued and proceeded to look up this battle, among other things.

Oliver Jackson-Cohen as James, Duke of York. ITV's The Great Fire

Oliver Jackson-Cohen as James, Duke of York. ITV’s The Great Fire

The cast is excellent: Charles Dance as Lord Denton, and Perdita Weeks as Elizabeth Pepys was nice. I was very impressed by how similar in appearance Oliver Jackson-Cohen is to the real James, Duke of York (later James II). I remember Jackson-Cohen from his work in Lark Rise to Candleford, but I didn’t know it was him until I looked him up on the IMDb. Looks-wise, Charles II is spot-on as well, as is Clarendon and Pepys. That being said, the characterisation of Charles II was a bit off, in my opinion, for he said some things that made him seem a fool – which he wasn’t. For those who love Charles II’s amours, the storyline includes Frances Stuart, Barbara Palmer, Catherine of Braganza.

Jack Huston as King Charles II. Oliver Jackson-Cohen as James, Duke of York. ITV's The Great Fire

Jack Huston as King Charles II. Oliver Jackson-Cohen as James, Duke of York. ITV’s The Great Fire


Largely, it was entertaining, especially if you can ignore the anachronistic dialogue at times. Really, some of the lines were not good at all and could easily have been said in the 21st-century, not in the 17th. But I quite liked how the series correctly includes water squirts – which were indeed used to fight the fire.

Daniel Mays as Samuel Pepys. © ITV 2014

Daniel Mays as Samuel Pepys. © ITV 2014

Unlike Channel 4’s New Worlds, which was just too cringe-worthy for me, I will continue watching this series. Why? The acting is great and I’m interested in seeing what happens next to the characters even though they are more fictional than historical.

And tv and film-makers – PLEASE make more films set in the 17th-century!

Read more:
1) The Monument to the Great Fire of London.
2) The Fire of London game.
3) London Fire Brigade, “The Great Fire of London”.


Hear ye! 15 thoughts — so far — on “Review: ITV’s ‘The Great Fire’”:

  1. Jennifer

    It certainly made me wonder often which bits were fact and which fiction, or what was authentic or less so. Charles made some exclamation and I was sitting thinking, that really ought to have been “odd’s fish”! Were contractions used in speech then? James is indeed very much like James, and Pepys also – I knew he was a womaniser but I didn’t know he visited prostitutes ( I have the Victorian concise edition of the diary so I’m none the wiser!). I was aw-wing at him getting jealous over Alfredo then yelling at him being so stupid going off like that. I did like the pall mall scene. Did you think James looked taller than Charles? I thought that Queen Catharine came across as a little wimpy in what we saw of her, but maybe we will see her hidden steel later! I don’t know if Charles would be so dismissive of his queen as to make comment about her to a mistress. Plenty food for thought in it, definitely!

  2. Jill

    Sorry I thought the first episode was very disappointing. Charles II’s court had enough characters and intrigue to tell the story without having to resort to fictional characters and storylines. Where are Rochester and Buckingham for example? Also Pepys was not coming home in a boat after an assignation with a prostitute when the fire started, he was home with his wife! I agree the casting of James is spot on but I am always frustrated how Charles is generally portrayed one-dimensionally as a mere womaniser. Ok everyone knows that part of his character but he was also an intelligent, charismatic, witty and extremely complex person. His escape from the battle of Worcester is a wonderful story in itself. I shall keep watching to see if The Great Fire improves but I am not holding my breath!

    1. Andrea Zuvich Post author

      I didn’t want to be too harsh, as I had to be last time for the other programme. That being said, if the next one continues to be more fiction than history, I won’t be as kind. I also liked Rufus Sewell’s portrayal, but no one can match James Villiers in The First Churchills (which I highly, HIGHLY, recommend!).

      1. Barbara Harfield

        You are so right in what you say Andrea. I too like Rupert Sewell in the part, but James Villiers, as an actor, with his family connections to the king, is immediately striking. He was almost Charles` double in looks and height and just custom made for the part. I had the good fortune, many years ago, to meet him a couple of times, because of my interest in the king. He came over as being very much like I would have expected the king to be and to sound. He was a lovely man, and very gracious. At our second meeting, I knocked on his dressing room door and he called out to me to come in. On entering, I found him sitting in front of the mirror at his dressing table, MINUS his trousers..!! I managed to hide my blushes, I think. To him obviously, as an actor and descendant of King Charles 11, maybe, it was nothing out of the norm I suppose. Anyway, he very kindly signed a book for me on Barbara Villiers, entitled, `The Great Lady`, and in doing so wrote, I`m not as great as the “Duchess” but never mind…!!

  3. Barbara Harfield

    I have to say that I am in complete agreement with Jill. The real story, with the real characters involved, is in itself enough to tell this dramatic story..!! I wish too that the person of the king, had more of a presence about him. We all know, those of us that love him that is and who, incidentally, are aware of his weaknesses, are also knowing of his strengths. His popularity and easiness with the ordinary man in the street was well known, as was his approachability. I seem to remember, that a few members of the royal family were there in the thick of things at the time, handing back buckets etc. and spurring the people on. One can only hope that those who find the fiction interesting, go on to read the contemporary accounts from the time…!!

  4. downbythebrook

    I liked the first episode, not perfect, but at least they used candlelight for the scenes. Might go against health and safety to have excrement on the streets though! It is way better than that awful Muskateers series that was on a few months ago- I gave up on that after the first episode. Andrew Buchan was also in Garrow’s Law- the series about law in the eighteenth century- that was an excellent series!

  5. Jennifer

    Now that I’m wiser as to Pepys’ shortcomings, please do not tell me that James was out to bump off his big brother, for this is where we are headed on screen it seems….

  6. Jill

    Tom Bradby you have lost the plot! While London burns, Charles is wandering around Whitehall with a constant bemused look on his face, in a state of paranoia, as if he has never set foot outside of a palace! Meanwhile James is plotting to kill his brother if he doesn’t convert to Catholicism. The true story was worth telling, not this fiction. What a missed opportunity.

  7. Retro Brothers

    What a disappointment. Everything about the show is so dumbed down it has ended up being a massive opportunity missed.

    They have pretty much ignored the real story of the actual event, and concocted a fairytale that has no bearing in reality. There is no sense of danger; Thomas Farriner can seemingly walk from one end of the city to another with ease. We have this completely needless sub-plot around political intrigue and assassinations.

    Each episode is worse than the previous one. The dialogue, the sets, the costumes, the poor acting, the watered down script, the cleanliness of the streets and the people…. What a huge let down.

    The fire itself has ended up being incidental to the ‘story’ that is being foisted upon us.

    Instead of being treated to King Charles II and his brother organising and participating in fire-fighting, desperation as demolition was finally organised, mass looting, panic, hastily put together markets on the outskirts to feed the homeless… Instead we are left with a couple who have had no sleep and no water for 48 hours finding the time to cop a feel in a barn.

    Oh, and London seems to be so small; there is no sense of scale here and it is like watching a play viewed through a lens.

    What a shame to see one of the most fascinating and important events in English history reduced to this.

  8. Jennifer

    I’m not sure there is much to add to the comments above. I was blazing myself last night. The actors are of a high calibre and are wasted on this.

    Charles seems as dim as they come and James as though he is all wit. Charles swore as well, which I believe he did not do. People leaving their kids with random strangers. Nothing about the French or Dutch being beaten up in the streets – just the usual reduction of everything down to Protestant v Catholic.

    I quite like Lord Denton as a character – pity he’s altogether fake as well! I did laugh at him complimenting Sarah on her fine hands; I thought have a look at her teeth mate, they’re pearly white!


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