The striking parallels between the political situation during the Great Fire of London and 2014

Credit: ITV/The Great Fire

By Tom Bradby: ITV News Political Editor

Almost everyone knows something about the Great Fire of London. They will tell you that, in the sweltering summer of 1666, an enormous fire began at a bakery in Pudding Lane, and was probably started by the Catholics.

Or possibly not, but most of the populace thought it was, and went around stringing up anyone with a foreign-sounding name or accent. Londoners had survived the Civil War, the joyless years of Oliver Cromwell's rule and the plague, so the fire must have seemed like a dreadful judgment in a time when to lose everything truly meant having nothing.

Many thousands saw their worldly goods go up in smoke, often in a few short, terrifying minutes. They surged through the crowded streets and spilt out of the city gates, struggling for survival and searching for scapegoats. The king and his brother, whose profligacy had created considerable hardship, were forced to ride across the capital urging restraint, leading by example and sometimes intervening with force. For a few days, their rule hung in the balance.

If all this sounds inherently dramatic, that's what I thought, too. In fact, when Douglas Rae, from Ecosse Films, came to me with the idea of writing a drama based on the events of those few days, I was surprised it hadn't been attempted before. The producer, who later had to build a replica of 17th-century London near Henley, fill it with actors, many of them children, then burn the whole lot to the ground (not the children, obviously), would have known why: fire, it turns out, doesn't work well close up on computeranimated graphics, so there was no choice but to do it for real. It was not a great shoot for the health-and-safety division.

The Great Fire lasted four days, so the proposal was to create a drama in four parts. The producer whose idea it was, Lucy Bedford, was interested in what experiences from my day job as a correspondent at ITV I might be able to bring to bear on a drama whose modern-day equivalents I have covered many times.

There were many interesting resonances. The royal brothers of 1666, Charles and James, had been bound together by childhood tragedy and the unique pressures of their position — both must have feared that their heads, like that of their father, Charles I, would sooner or later be rolling down Whitehall. One was serious and dutiful, the other fun-loving. The government had embarked on a foolish and hubristic foreign war that was dragging on and that many had come to regret. The public coffers were empty and times were tough, particularly if you relied on the king to pay your bills. The joy of the Restoration in 1660 had long been forgotten, to be replaced by a sullen resentment of those in public office.A religious minority was feared, reviled and considered a serious threat to the security and wellbeing of the state.

Most striking of all were the parallels with the London riots of 2011. Then, some of the prime minister's senior officials called him in Tuscany to say it was time for him to return. Far from a television set, he was not entirely convinced, only to be told by those in his office that they were watching a man on Sky News standing guard outside his shop with a pitchfork, and that the capital appeared to be genuinely on the point of anarchy. He got the message.

Charles II did, too, and it is seen as a defining point in his reign. Nobody stole anything from Foot Locker in 1666, but there was plenty of looting. Not everyone behaved well, as they often don't in times of crisis. I can't remember all that much of the night when I was shot while reporting from Jakarta for ITV in 1999, but I can recall the eerie sense of what it felt like to travel around a city in total chaos, as the green light for anarchy flashed wildly and plumes of smoke from burning buildings twisted into the sky.

Where does all that hatred rise from and fall back to? Is it that, by nature, man is selfish and will regress to what he can get away with whenever the normal rules are perceived no longer to apply? Or is it a flash rebellion against privilege? In The Great Fire, I decided to have my cake and eat it. One of the mob's ringleaders, Bagwell, lives in dire poverty, whores out his wife to Samuel Pepys (as he did in real life) and uses the chaos to strike back at the elite he so resents. The other, Wilson, is a boatman and cynical opportunist, who simply likes a bit of Catholic-bashing.

The fact that The Sunday Times now produces a Super-Rich List, filled with people whose net worth has reached unimaginable proportions for this or any age, is an indication of how relevant an issue this remains. We no longer see the levels of absolute poverty of the 17th century, but the relative gap between those who have clawed their way to the top and those who have bumped along the bottom has not narrowed anything like as much as most might wish.

It was interesting, also, to note how little the basic tensions in society had changed. You could more or less directly substitute suspicion of so-called Catholic extremists for fear of Muslim fundamentalists.

How to find a compelling path through all this raw material? I worked out quickly that too much fire was going to make for dull viewing. Once you have seen one family fight to save their home, or escape it, you've seen them all. But the extraordinary thing about the Great Fire was how quickly it spread, fanned by the wind and facilitated by the intense proximity of the wooden houses in one of the poorest quarters of the city. The streets were jammed, then blocked, by people trying to move their possessions.

Credit: ITV/The Great Fire

I have learnt to be wary of crowds as a reporter, and I particularly recall being sent to India to cover the Kumbh Mela, a Hindu religious festival that takes place every 12 years and sees about 30 million people attempt to get down to the Ganges on one day. Panic in that kind of vast crush is extremely frightening. If, as parents, you lose one child, you inevitably fear that, if you go to search for him or her, you will never be reunited with those you have left behind.

If there was plenty of natural drama to work with, the tricky part was structuring a multistranded story that moved along at a compelling and even pace without losing focus. I have written novels and films, but this was my first television drama, so, since the story was that of Britain's greatest natural catastrophe, did that make it essentially a disaster movie? Or was it really a different kind of relationship drama? Or even, given that the authorities were forced at various points to engage with the notion of a Catholic plot, a thriller? In the end, the conclusion seemed to be that it must be all three.

The other key question in any drama such as this is: how much fact, how much fiction? I have always been passionate about historical fiction, and believe it has a clear role — to inspire interest in an era, a subject or a set of characters strongly enough to persuade people to find out the facts for themselves.

As a former history student, I am always keen to keep as close to the facts as reasonably possible. The real story of the fire is peopled by a stellar cast. Pepys played a key role, rushing to Whitehall to alert the king. The court was at first reluctant to intervene, but the king overruled objections, and he and his brother rode out to quell unrest and lead the fight against the fire spreading. These facts formed the pillars of our structure.

I hope I have captured something of the atmosphere and spirit of 1666. If you want to understand how modern Britain was fashioned, the Restoration remains one of the key events. We still have a monarchy because our experiment with republicanism simply fizzled out, and we couldn't seem to think of anything better than reverting to what we had had before. Charles II was indisputably one of our most engaging kings. He was a physically brave, goodlooking, curious and intelligent man who was also, as his brother puts it halfway through our drama, "an impecunious, whoring dilettante whose profanity threatens us all".

So, will I be packing in the day job? Nope. It is still thrilling to be able to sit in my daytime chair and witness history being made in our lifetime. And it gives me a lot to write about.

  • Watch the second episode of The Great Fire tonight on ITV at 9pm

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