Tom Bradby may have moonlighted as a novelist, but he has never written a TV drama before. Neither does he claim to be an expert on the events of 1666. So when he sat down to dramatise the Great Fire of London, he sought inspiration closer to home: his day job as ITV’s political editor.
“The challenges of 17th-century London aren’t so very different from our own,” he points out. “People in power still get confronted about whether they’re going to take decisions on the basis of pragmatism or principle, and that’s a daily feature of my life as political editor.”
Even more useful were the six years he’d spent as a foreign correspondent in the 1990s. Covering forest fires in Montana, he witnessed the “awesome” power of fire firsthand. “Watching it sweep people’s homes away and the trauma as they saw everything they loved disappear in a heartbeat was fascinating.”
The mayhem that ensues in the drama when Pudding Lane goes up in smoke was familiar, too. In 1999, Bradby reported from the riots in the Indonesian capital Jakarta. One night is seared into his memory: the night he was rushed to hospital after being shot in the leg. (He feared amputation, but has since fully recovered.)
“It was as if the green light for anarchy went on. We were riding around on motorbikes — which was the only way to get around the city — and it was like a scene from Mad Max: people everywhere, buildings being looted, buildings being burned, confrontations between the police and protestors all over the place.
“Big events — whether riots or natural disasters — put enormous pressures on human beings. Some people react very well, some very badly. Look at the London riots. Why were people looting Foot Locker? It’s intriguing.”
Bradby’s fascination with humanity had ample outlet in a drama about a disaster that has become the stuff of nursery rhyme, but must have been pure horror. In just five days, the Great Fire destroyed 87 churches — including the old St Paul’s Cathedral — and more than 13,000 homes, leaving 100,000 people homeless. The 436 acres swallowed up smouldered for months and it took 50 years to rebuild.
Astonishingly, some reports suggest that as few as six people died, but Bradby questions that: “I don’t think modern historians believe it. The latest tome is Neil Hanson’s The Dreadful Judgement and that pooh-poohs the idea that only a small number of people died.”
Bradby’s drama also opens a window onto the court of Charles II, the playboy king. Intriguingly, Bradby reveals that for these scenes he drew on his three years as royal correspondent. (Bradby was the envy of his peers when he was invited by Clarence House to interview the newly engaged Prince William and Kate Middleton and later received an invite to the royal wedding.)
“I spent a fair amount of time watching William and Harry and they suffered very terrible tragedy in a very public way at a very young age,” says Bradby thoughtfully. “I sometimes think that the only one who ever really understands the other is the brother. That’s probably not quite true now. I’m sure Kate understands William well.
“Now, the two brothers in this drama aren’t particularly like them. Charles II couldn’t be less like William! But what’s interesting is they have that bond and that is part of the drama.”
The Great Fire is on ITV tonight at 9.00pm