Pissed-off Toff

The Great Fire of London – steer well clear

in Reviews

Pissed-off Toff reviews The Great Fire of London – Hour by Hour … a repeat screening of a TV mini-series which is not so much a historical documentary, as an exercise in vanity.

You know how it is when it gets to a certain time in the evening and it’s too early to go to bed, but you can’t quite face the ten o’clock news, nor do those piles of admin and ironing hold much appeal? If you’re lucky there might be something interesting on the television; and if not you might find yourself watching a senseless action movie, at the end of which you realise that you have entirely wasted two whole hours. If only one had done that ironing instead. Or read a decent book.

That, I’m afraid, is how I felt at the end of the recent repeat screening of Channel 5’s The Great Fire of London – Hour by Hour, in which the original three episodes were broadcast back-to-back for what seemed an eternity. So why did I watch it through to the end? Partly, perhaps, because in theory I like historical documentaries; and partly, perhaps, because I kept hoping that that there must be some revelation round the corner.

In this instance, one problem for the documentary maker is that the Great Fire of September 1666 consumed everything it touched, with the result that there’s nothing much left to film and the producers have to open their bag of tricks to fill the gap. They come up with the idea of following the story of the fire through the eyes of three historical characters: Sir Robert Vyner, a rich goldsmith-banker; a bookseller based near the old St Paul’s; and a cobbler’s widow based at Christ Church hospital just inside the city walls. Three actors are dressed up to look like these people, and we are shown endless repeat scenes of the banker counting his gold, the bookseller staring meaningfully into the camera, and the widow-cobbler hammering away at the heel of a shoe.

All we know at the end of this is that Vyner had the good sense to evacuate his records and valuables to Windsor Castle well before the fire reached his house in Lombard Street; that the bookseller moved his stock into the crypt of the old St Paul’s, where it was nevertheless destroyed, along with the poor man’s livelihood; and I can’t remember what happened to the cobbler’s widow, except that it is suggested that she perhaps had a lively sex-life.

In other words, it is thin gruel, served up with tedious regularity. And with Vyner especially, the three presenters (of which more later) could surely have done better. They didn’t even show us the iconic portrait of him and his family that hangs in the National Portrait Gallery and that tells us a thousand times more about the man and his times than Channel 5’s silly play-acting might ever do.

As my own cursory research reveals (a book called The Day the King Defaulted by Moshe Arye Milevsky is informative), he was an interesting figure. Appointed Royal Goldsmith in 1660 on the return from exile of Charles II, he was responsible for the creation of the extravagant new regalia for the coronation of 1661, the original medieval gear having been sold or melted down under Cromwell. As goldsmith-banker, he went on to lend huge sums of money to the monarchy, thereby earning a knighthood in 1665, followed by a baronetcy in 1666. In 1672, however, in an episode known as the Great Stop of the Exchequer, Charles II defaulted on the royal debts, including the vast sum of £400,000 owed to Vyner. This wiped him out, but he somehow struggled on till 1684, when he was declared bankrupt. Presumably the King felt a little guilty, because we read that at some stage Vyner was granted an annuity of £25,000 – enough to fund a princely lifestyle. He died in Windsor in 1688.

All of which is good stuff. The trouble for the producers, admittedly, is that very little of Vyner’s life story is relevant to their subject, which is the Great Fire. As far as this is concerned, all one can say about Vyner is that he got out in time and took his records and valuables with him. Oh, and that for a man of his wealth, the loss of a house in Lombard Street would have been immaterial (tho’ the presenters do not make this point); whilst the chaos following the burning down of London’s financial district would have been widespread (this point is made).

Otherwise, the series concentrates far too much on things with which we are already familiar or which we could have guessed anyway. As every schoolboy knows, the King himself helped carry water to the flames; gunpowder was used to create fire-breaks to prevent the spread of the conflagration; and fanned by the wind, the fire at its worst was very, very hot (probably about 1000°, which compares with the 750° at which the human body is reduced to ashes).

Not only is none of this new, but when, towards the end of the series, the presenters finally touch on one or two of the more interesting and less explored aspects of the Great Fire, they make almost no effort to pursue them. The fire, we are informed, displaced about 100,000 people, and despite the fact that their homes had been destroyed, the former tenants were still expected to pay rent to their landlords. Could this really have been the case? How were people reduced to homelessness and deprived of their livelihood meant to pay rent for a house that no longer existed? Assuming, that is, that the landlord even knew where to find them? I wanted to know more.

In another example of a topic left tantalisingly unexplored, we are told that most of those displaced by the fire made their way northwards to the open fields around the village of Hampstead. That was an exodus of epic proportions. What happened next, I wondered. Was there a sort of tent city? Were the refugees rehoused in different places? How did they establish normal lives again? Or did they starve? But about this, almost nothing. We must be content with the easily available information that ten years or so after the Great Fire, London had been largely rebuilt in brick.

Which again begs various questions. Presumably the landlords still owned the land on which the smoking remains of their houses lay. But how did this square with the need for wider streets and new layouts? Was private land compulsorily purchased for the public good?

Oh, and what, I wondered, about the rats which caused the Plague of the previous year? Presumably London was in large part rid of them? Or perhaps not? Perhaps they jumped into the Thames and swam to safety (rats can swim). Again, I wanted to know.

* * * * *

So, the producers of this series have three 45-minute slots to fill, but not much content. What to do? Oh yes! Instead of having one presenter, let’s have three of them, sort of – like – riffing with each other! Brilliant!! Let’s get Dan Jones to do the history stuff; Rob Bell to do the technical stuff about heat and flames and all that; and let’s throw in the saucy Suzannah Lipscomb for … um … well, let’s throw her in anyway … adds a bit of female interest, know what I mean?

Which brings me to the aspect of this mini-series that I found most annoying. The producers had enough material to make a respectable one-hour documentary presented by a single person. But in stringing it out into a mini-series with three presenters, they succeed only in shifting the focus away from the material and towards the presenters themselves.

First, there’s Dan Jones, who was educated at Cambridge, where he was taught by David Starkey. He’s now a successful writer and presenter, something of a celeb in his own right. In the numerous photos of him which are available online, T-shirts stretched over a well-formed torso reveal tattoos all the way up his forearms, with another tattoo partly visible below his neckline. He’s a good-looking chap; he knows it too; and in this documentary he appears with a super-sharp urban haircut.

Then Rob Bell. Whilst still totally with-it, his haircut is a bit more spiky than Jones’s; plus, Bell has designer stubble. As the photos on the internet again show, he’s a sort of outdoor action-man, much given to revealing his own muscular torso. Indeed, he’s all but indistinguishable from the ghastly Simon Reeve (see below).

What both Jones and Bell have in common is some academic credibility; youth and good looks; street-cred, along with the inevitable Estuary accent; cheeky-chappy good humour; and – the simplest google-search leaves no doubt – considerable personal vanity.

Lastly, the alluring Suzannah Lipscomb. In one shot after another, the camera lingers on her waist-length flaxen hair with its corkscrew curls, before cutting to her long, elegant fingers with their bright-red nail varnish; and we are shown endless shots of her striding along the streets of London in her smart red frockcoat and her long black riding boots.

Basically, Dan Jones and Rob Bell are the hunks in this cabaret, and Suzannah Lipscomb is the totty.

What’s not to like, you might think. Is Pissed-off Toff just a sad curmudgeon, and jealous too? Perhaps. Nevertheless, my principal objection to this mini-series is the same as it was to Simon Reeve’s series about Greece (I direct the reader to my lacerating denunciation of it in the Reviews section of this blog); namely, that what seems to matter is not the subject under discussion, but the people presenting it. 

In the final analysis, The Great Fire of London – Hour by [Interminable] Hour is not so much the ground-breaking historical documentary it purports to be, as a vehicle for the advancement and self-promotion of three street-wise young TV celebrities.

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