Daniel Mays: Ronnie Biggs and Samuel Pepys aren’t all that different

The star of ITV drama The Great Fire tells RadioTimes.com about portraying the famous 17th century diarist

Daniel Mays brings our school history books to life tonight on ITV. As Samuel Pepys in The Great Fire, he’s King Charles II’s confidante and the man who provided us with the most detailed documentation of London’s 1666 blaze in his famous diary. 

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Co-starring Andrew Buchan, Charles Dance and Jack Huston, the four-part drama from ITV’s political editor Tom Bradby follows residents of the capital as they battle the blaze, from the king and court to baker Thomas Farriner, whose business was the first to go up in flames. 

RadioTimes.com caught up with Mays – best known for playing train robber Ronnie Biggs – who explains why his two famous characters aren’t that different after all…  

What makes The Great Fire different from other period dramas we see on TV? 

It feels really refreshing. You get all those elements that people really love about the drama – costumes, make up and amazing settings – and yet it has a great energy to it and the fact it’s a four-day disaster movie gives it a real urgency. 

Filming with fire must be a gruelling experience? 

I lucked out. Andy Buchan had the tough gig of jumping around on rooftops. He was action man on this.

If the worst happened and your house caught fire, what one material possession would you rush back in to save? 

I’ve got a lot of my own oil paintings at home so I’d definitely try and grab some of my artwork. Some would say, “Just leave it Danny and let it burn. It’s really not that good,” but I’d probably do something about that.

We hear you had a novel way of researching this particular role – listening to Kenneth Branagh’s audio books of Samuel Pepys’s diaries…

It’s so dense, the whole thing. I would listen to it in the car, just have it on my iPod, and then I downloaded some music of that time as well. When you put your iPod on shuffle… “I groped a maid on such and such”.

That sounds embarrassing! So, you’ve seen a lecherous side to Pepys, too? 

Oh my god, it’s all in there. But what you get more than anything is that he was an absolute workaholic. He was like this dynamo in and around the city. He was constantly on the go and it’s all in there about his marriage, how he used to grope his maid. It’s kind of indicative of that time, isn’t it?

You won critical acclaim for your portrayal of train robber Ronnie Biggs in ITV drama Mrs Biggs – did you spot any similarities between him and Samuel Pepys? 

They were both unfaithful, they were both engaging and rather gregarious characters and both would act for their own gain. There’s a selfish element to both of those characters intellectually – although within the social order they’re vastly different. 

In their separate ways, neither are particularly likeable characters, either…

You can’t have vanity. You can’t worry about what the audience are going to think about him. Pepys does come to the fore at the end – he really does, fundamentally. He had such compassion for the city and the people in it. 

You’ve got another big project – a film of Frankenstein – coming out in cinemas next year. How was that? 

It was a blur, really. I was working with Rupert Grint on stage in Mojo and then I went straight on with [his Harry Potter co-star] Daniel Radcliffe, being thoroughly unpleasant towards him. He was amazing – such a lovely guy. I was so worried I was going to injure him in some way. It’s a really exciting new version of a famous story. 

And you were basically filming with the cast of Sherlock – Andrew Scott, Mark Gatiss, Louise Brealey…

It’s weird because I have a scene with Andrew Scott. I was Keats in Ashes to Ashes and he’s Moriarty from Sherlock so we had these two nemeses going up against one another. But he’s a terrific actor, Andrew, so I had a great time.

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The Great Fire begins tonight at 9:00pm on ITV