In an age where reality shows can turn bakers into national villains overnight, one of the trade's most notorious practitioners is about to be rehabilitated.
Thomas Farriner, the baker blamed for starting the Great Fire of London, is reinvented as an “everyman hero” in a big-budget ITV drama which tells the story of one of Britain’s greatest historical disasters.
Written by Tom Bradby, ITN’s Political Editor, The Great Fire takes the historical events of 2 September 1666 as the starting point for a sweeping, four-part epic, which takes viewers from the decadent court of King Charles II to Pudding Lane where the blaze which gutted the medieval capital began at the premises of humble baker, Farriner.
In Bradby’s version, the blaze sparks when Farriner, played by Andrew Buchan of Broadchurch fame, leaves to visit his sister-in-law, telling his daughter not to rake the ovens until he returns.
She - rather than the maidservant of historical record - leaves the oven door ajar causing sparks to ignite the wooden home.
Farriner rescues his children by climbing on to a neighbour’s window ledge and is first to dig up the water pipes to try to stop the blaze spreading.
When fleeing inhabitants are threatened with suffocation in London’s narrow streets, Farriner breaks down a wall so they can escape.
Telling his weeping daughter “it was an accident, nobody’s fault”, Farriner strides manfully back into the blazing city to track down his sister-in-law and her son.
“It’s so hard to find someone to play an everyman hero and I think Andrew Buchan did it brilliantly,” Bradby told The Independent. While Farriner shouldered the blame from Londoners angry at seeing their houses destroyed, Bradby wanted viewers to sympathise with his plight.
“Farriner is always going to be at the heart of the story, so I had to have a character the audience feel warmth towards – no pun intended,” Bradby said. “I’m constantly amazed that in many dramas – some quite vaunted dramas – you sit down and watch and think halfway through the series, ‘I bloody hate all these characters’."
Bradby’s screenplay contains several contemporary nods. Treasury advisers to King Charles II (Jack Huston) are afraid to warn him of the consequences of his over-spending, in scenes which echo the dying days of Gordon Brown’s administration. “If the people wanted austerity, they would have stuck with Cromwell’s bastard sons,” snaps the King.
The 2011 London Riots informed the panic and chaos which took hold of the city as terrified citizens succumbed to a mob mentality.
Bradby drew on his briefings from the heads of MI5 and MI6 about the security threat facing London for Lord Denton, a fictional ruthless intelligence officer (Charles Dance) who is determined to prove that the fire is a Catholic plot against the king.
The “bumbling, incompetent” London Mayor, Sir Thomas Bloodworth, who unimpressed with the fire declares “a woman might piss it out”, is however drawn from the historical record and was not directly inspired by Boris Johnson, Bradby said.
Rather than use CGI, the producers Ecosse Films built huge sets recreating London’s medieval streets and them burned them down using pyrotechnics, to add veracity to the conflagration scenes.
ITV Studios Global Entertainment will sell The Great Fire to international broadcasters seeking a disaster movie-style drama to sit alongside the broadcaster’s big hit, Downton Abbey.
Peter Fincham, ITV's director of television, said: “It’s remarkable that the Great Fire has never been the subject of a major film or TV drama before. We follow the story from the top to the bottom of society and Tom’s script has many social and political resonances with the modern world.”
The serial will screen next month.