“It’s a health and safety nightmare!”
It’s the end of April and I’m sitting under a gazebo in the middle of the Oxfordshire countryside with screenwriter, author and ITV News political editor Tom Bradby. We’re sitting next to an impressive recreation of seventeenth-century London – complete with timber buildings, narrow streets and grubby little children. All the while, a small army of production staff prepare actors and extras for the scenes ahead. Out of the corner of my eye, I catch Andrew Buchan on a small monitor running panicked through the fiery streets. As a historian of this period I have to work hard to keep my giddy excitement under wraps, but it all looks fantastic.
Tom is upbeat, chatty and clearly in his element. This is, after all, the final stage of a journey that began for him a year or so ago when executive producer Lucy Bedford approached him about writing The Great Fire.
I ask him how it feels to have his writing realised in this way: “To begin with it’s always slightly scary because you think ‘I hope I wrote it well enough’, but it’s very exciting, really”. Tom had originally assumed that most of the special effects would be done using CGI, but, as he explains: “I’m not even sure that the producers realised that CGI doesn’t work that well with fire! The long distance shots are going to be done with CGI but they realised quite early on that they were going to have to build a set and burn it. I’m very glad I’m not the producer.”
The drama is of course based on The Great Fire of London, a disaster that destroyed the Old City of London in 1666. Strong winds, tightly packed wooden houses and narrow streets elevated a small scale house fire on Pudding Lane into an apocalyptic inferno that levelled the capital. It was an event of unprecedented magnitude, haunting those who experienced it for the rest of their lives. With this scope, I ask Tom how he went about carving out a realistic plot:
“I’m a history student. I’m also passionate about history and always have been, so I’m relatively clear in my own mind about what the role of historical fiction is – it’s the same as [it was] ultimately for me growing up – which is to capture people’s imagination and inspire them to go and find out the facts. If at the end of anything I’ve written, whether it’s a historical novel or a historical drama, if the net result of people watching is to have people go ‘oh I’m going to find out about that… I’ll go and buy a history book by a real historian’, then that to me is an absolute result.”
At this point our conversation is interrupted by a huge (planned) explosion of fire on set: “God, it’s a health and safety nightmare this shoot!”
When it came to researching the period, Tom read widely. His book collection included Claire Tomalin’s Whitbread winning biography of Samuel Pepys, Antonia Fraser’s acclaimed biography of Charles II and Neil Hanson’s The Dreadful Judgement.
“So I did as much research as I could then what I do is try to set out the pillars of the story so that I am staying within the big historical facts and I’m drawing as much from these facts as I can. So if you know the history you’ll see I’ve taken a lot of stuff from fact. The Pepys scenes, their arguments, the fact that he had an affair with Mrs Bagwell and she has a flirtation with her dance teacher, it’s all taken from fact. Quite a lot of what’s going on in the king’s life is taken from fact.” Indeed, Charles II’s infatuation with Frances Stuart, played by Antonia Clarke, is one of the many sub plots in the drama that has been drawn from reality. It was well documented at the time. In fact, the king was so besotted with Frances that he is thought to have considered divorcing the queen. Also, Pepys really was the one to warn Charles and the Duke of York about the severity of the fire.
“I try and take as much as I can from fact, but then obviously you’ve got people investing many millions of pounds in an historical drama so then you have to fictionalise it in a manner that’s going to make it work across four hours and pace it evenly and all the rest of it. That’s my general approach.”
I ask Tom whether his views of the main protagonists changed over the course of his research: “That’s an interesting question. In some ways they have changed. I mean Charles II is a fascinating character. I didn’t know that much about him in the sense that I knew he was a charming, whoring dilettante, really. But a guy who managed to stay on the throne in some quite tricky circumstances, who managed to get the throne back… actually he’s a kind of fascinating historical character, you know. His father was that rare thing, a happily married family man, but as it turned out a pretty dreadful king. Lost his head and his throne.”
“I think father and son were relatively close by the standards of the time and the realities of their existence. He didn’t write a diary so we don’t know, but that [Charles I’s execution] must have been extraordinarily traumatic and yet he recovered the throne and he must have spent pretty much every waking day of his life wondering if he was going to suffer the same fate. In fact, he clearly did spend some of his time thinking about that and to some extent his dilettantish behaviour may have been connected with a kind of live-today mentality. And yes, he was quite a pragmatic king, much more pragmatic than his father. I found him really interesting.”
He turns to Pepys, played by Daniel Mayes in the drama: “I don’t know what preconceptions I started out with Pepys. Pepys was a bit of a social climber and not really very nice to his wife Elizabeth, it’s one of the reasons why they fought so much. Yet he comes across through the pages of his diary as a very engaging, jolly character”. Tom points out that there is very little to go on, historically, with Thomas Farriner the baker, “so I’m largely creating him as a character”. Tom made the decision to cast Farriner as the “emotional heart of the story”, and he is clearly pleased with Andrew Buchan’s portrayal, enthusing that he has the same quality as Tom Hanks and Harrison Ford, “I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s as big a star internationally as both of those one day”.
(Having now watched the first two episodes, I would agree. Andrew Buchan is perfectly cast. However, the real revelation is Daniel Mayes as Samuel Pepys. His portrayal of the diarist dismantles the caricature to reveal a complexity of character not seen onscreen before).
With a bumbling mayor, royal brothers locked together by tragedy and the constant fear and of religious terrorism, it is easy to draw parallels between the late seventeenth century and today. I ask Tom whether this was in his mind as he wrote: “I think I drew parallels in so many different things really. We live in a world where one of the big debates is equality. The super rich have a huge amount and a lot of people don’t have that much, well this was a pretty lively debate in seventeenth-century England. Not least between the court with its wayward living. One of the aspects of our stories is that the king isn’t paying the baker’s bills and he’s struggling along. I think in every aspect. When you get terrorism sometimes societies overreact, politicians overreact, people overreact, you get scape-goating, you get stigmatism. Obviously in seventeenth century England it was the Catholics they readily turned on and that clearly forms part of my…” He breaks mid flow and changes gear.
“I don’t like that, by the way. It’s something that I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about, that kind of mob-mentality. The older you get and the more you do a job like mine the more you hate it. I suppose it’s something that I drew on quite a lot and that is an aspect. For example, people did quite weird things in the London Riots – why did people go and loot Footlocker? I’m not sure anyone’s ever really got to the bottom of that. For some people maybe it was about poverty, but I’m not sure those were the explanations that came back… that kind of moment when you get the green light for anarchy going on in a city and some people just go and do terrible things.”
“There are some deeper explanations in humanity about why that happens”, he muses. “I suppose I do spend quite a lot of time thematically dwelling on that. There are two characters called Wilson and Bagwell who behave pretty badly. Wilson’s an oarsman on the river and I was quite interested in him as a character. He sort of ends up at some point leading the lynch mob and there’s quite a nice scene at the end where he says ‘looters are looters, I’d hang ‘em all myself’. Where did that madness come from? Where did it go back into?”
This level of insight, works really well with The Great Fire. We know that as people scrambled to get out of the blazing city, boat men increased their fares and the price of hiring carts went up too. We know that shops were looted and that many foreigners, including a French woman trying to escape the fire, were attacked during the blaze – some very badly. To set the great fire against the wider backdrop of anarchy really does add a little to our understanding. You find dark human instincts, buried under decades of learned civility, pop out in unexpected, and often all too expected, places.
“And you can take it right up to the top. We see politicians every day wrestling with whether they are going to take a decision on grounds of pragmatism or on grounds of principle? Decisions of principle are often a lot harder than decisions of pragmatism, but pragmatism, generally, gets you out of a short-term hole and lands you in a long-term crisis. In terms of those decisions, not that much has changed, whether it’s a seventeenth-century court or modern day Downing Street.”
When approached to write The Great Fire, the producers were interested in the experiences Tom might be able to bring from his day job as a broadcast journalist. “Over the years, my interest in the news is really about human beings. I’m interested in themes and all the rest of it, but really it’s about how human beings respond to the world around them. You see so much and take so much that sometimes there’s nowhere for that to go and I do tend to put it into my writing. To some extent I suppose I am actively looking for things where I can use my experience or draw from and this was certainly one of them.”
“There’s a scene where they all get crushed into a street and it becomes quite scary. I’ve been in crowds. The night I got shot years ago in Jakarta. I don’t remember much about being shot, funnily enough, but I vividly remember before I got shot. We were moving around this city – people were looting, there were pillars of smoke from the buildings being set on fire, protestors, nobody was driving around because all the streets were full, the only way to get around was on a motorbike. It was kind of like a scene from Mad Max really and that sort of notion of how frightening it is to be when someone whacks on the green light for anarchy. And then anything goes. So that fascinates me. So it would be weird if I hadn’t drawn on my day-to-day experiences for that. I definitely did.”
The interview ends with the press officer gently reminding Tom that he has a taxi waiting to take him back to London.
The first episode of ITV’s The Great Fire will be broadcast on the 16th October at 9pm.