Though there are few of us who can’t quote at least one fact (or rumour) about the Great Fire that engulfed London over four days in 1666, this startling chapter in history has surprisingly never been dramatically depicted onscreen. Just as intriguing as the event itself is the political and societal climate in which it occurred, and the way in which the unprecedented disaster laid the groundwork for a new era in London’s growth.
Roughly 500,000 people lived in London by the 1660s, and the circumstances leading up to the Great Fire had been in the making for years. The unplanned and haphazard nature of the city’s streets and infrastructure, coupled with the continued use of wood for the majority of the city’s buildings, had already contributed to the spread of large fires in recent years. The risk that fire posed to a city of London’s unique composition wasn’t lost on the King, or his advisors, and efforts were made to combat some of the urban conditions that could lead to a disaster. Unfortunately, they met with little success.
With the city facing one of the most terrifying episodes of its history, noted residents like naval administrator and diarist Samuel Pepys (played by Daniel Mays) painted a vivid picture of both the human toll on the ground, and the bureaucratic reaction behind the scenes. They provided us with detailed accounts of four days that left swaths of one of Europe’s largest and most successful cities razed to the ground – but which also helped to usher in a new era in its development.
As we prepare for the North American premiere of The Great Fire on Wednesday, March 11 at 9pm ET/6 PT, get to know Pepys and other individuals that shaped this pivotal point in London’s history, and what the actors who bring them to life onscreen have to say about them.
Thomas Farriner (Andrew Buchan)
Though there have been countless theories as to how the fire started, almost all versions of the story at least make mention of Thomas Farriner, a baker on London’s Pudding Lane. In the series’ first episode, it’s a spark from one of Thomas’s ovens that ignites the Great Fire, but there’s more to the character than his role in starting the titular blaze.
“There are no frills to Thomas Farriner,” says actor Andrew Buchan (The Honourable Woman; Broadchurch). “He is a very humble, modest, honest working man who cares for his family a great deal and just goes about his everyday business – until the fire.”
Like so many others, the fire threatens both Thomas’s family and his livelihood, but as thousands of homes are destroyed and people displaced, his position becomes uniquely precarious.
“There was a desperation to pin the blame along with hostility towards Thomas Farriner, and mob violence with a breakdown of law and order,” he explains. Whether or not he’ll be able to escape both the fire, and the wrath of his fellow Londoners, remains to be seen.”
WATCH: STARS OF THE GREAT FIRE: ANDREW BUCHAN
Charles II (Jack Huston)
Known to history as one of England’s most charismatic rulers, Charles II’s reign was nonetheless marked by division and turbulence. Eleven years after his father’s execution, he returned to London with the restoration of the monarchy but, as The Great Fire explores, the merrymaking that defined his court masked underlying political strife.
“He lived in court as a rather debauched man of pleasure,” says Jack Huston (American Hustle, Boardwalk Empire), who portrays the playboy royal onscreen. “But he was always very conscious of the fate of his father, and the views of his people.”
Ever fearful of retribution should his judgment come into question, the fire raging out of control in London forces the king, himself far from the flames, to take decisive action. But with such high stakes, there is always the chance of dire consequences for Charles.
“It takes something as tragic as The Great Fire wiping out most of London to bring the King out of his shell,” Huston says. “It’s an amazing turning point.”
Sarah Farriner (Rose Leslie)
In a cast of characters based largely on real people, Sarah Farriner, sister-in-law to baker Thomas, is one of a few fabricated players. Though not based on a historical figure, Sarah’s role adds drama and nuance to the story the Great Fire, and how it likely affected the common Londoners living close to its origins. Played by Rose Leslie (Game of Thrones; Downton Abbey), it’s through Sarah’s eyes that we see much of London’s destruction.
“It’s an incredible event to think of now,” Leslie muses. “Imagine that happening today! Most of the City consumed by fire, including St Paul’s Cathedral?”
Faced with that kind of horror, Sarah is left to protect her young son essentially on her own, as the city around her descends into chaos. However, her resourcefulness could prove to be up to the test, even as unforeseen charges are laid against her.
“Sarah is devoted to her son and fiercely protective of him. So while she is kind and gentle, she doesn’t cower in any way, which was an attribute I loved,” she says. “It’s quite something to be, effectively, a single mother bringing up a child in what could be a brutal world.”
WATCH: STARS OF THE GREAT FIRE: ROSE LESLIE
Samuel Pepys (Daniel Mays)
Anyone who’s read excerpts from his famous diary knows that Samuel Pepys was a singularly observant and ambitious individual. His writings are among the few reliable, firsthand accounts of the Great Fire, and include both immediate descriptions of the destruction, and his personal interactions with the authorities in charge of stopping it. The series reveals Pepys to be more than just an entertaining recorder of history, but a very active participant in its making.
“This is a grittier, meatier take on Pepys,” says actor Daniel Mays (Mrs. Biggs; Public Enemies). “I just have to go with the fantastic scripts that writer Tom Bradby has produced. The fact that Tom is also the ITV News Political Editor means he is able to lift the lid on the political aspect of it.”
Not unlike Charles, Pepys sees the dangers of getting the response to the crisis unfolding in the city wrong, but unlike the wary monarch, he knows that to do nothing will only lead to further disaster. When he advises his king to act, it’s a bold act that he can only hope will pay off, knowing the dire consequences should his plans go awry.
“He was the playboy King who hid from his people,” Mays says. “It’s a hugely brave thing for Pepys to do. His head is on the block, literally, if it all goes wrong.”
Lord Denton (Charles Dance)
Some might think that a monstrous fire devouring whole neighbourhoods at a time might offer enough menace for one television drama, but The Great Fire boasts a threatening human presence as well. Another fictional character, Lord Denton, animated by the inimitably intimidating Charles Dance (Game of Thrones; The Imitation Game), occupies a position that was nonetheless very real at the time of the Great Fire.
In a time of great political uncertainty, he acts to keep the monarchy as secure as possible – a job that often requires a chilling level of detachment.
“There was a real need for that because the monarchy was not safe, despite the fact it had been invited back,” Dance says. “There was the continual fear the Catholics would come in and unseat Charles II, a Protestant King, and put a Catholic in his place.”
That paranoia and religious division are a constant presence underlying the courtly lives of many of The Great Fire’s key characters. It’s the manifestation of those fears, and the ways in which they affect each individual’s actions, that supplies the series with real tension.
“It’s important that aside from the spectacle of the fire we concentrate on the characters and their relationships,” he says. “Those two elements, if they’re done properly, work very well and give the drama substance.”
WATCH: STARS OF THE GREAT FIRE: CHARLES DANCE
The Great Fire premieres on VisionTV on Wednesday, March 11 at 9pm ET/6pm PT and airs Wednesdays through April 1.