My Thoughts on ‘The Great Fire: In Real Time’, Presented by Suzannah Lipscomb, Dan Jones and Rob Bell


Everyone has heard about the Great Fire of London in 1666. The story begins during the night of 2nd September 1666, when an unsuspecting bakery on Pudding Lane suddenly caught fire. Before it could be extinguished, the fire quickly intensified and would go on to burn down the city of London for 4 days and nights! Anything that got in the flames’ path, such as famous landmarks and people’s homes and livelihoods, were completely and utterly destroyed. As a result, the Great Fire transformed London into the city that we recognise today, but sadly at a terrible cost.


‘The Great Fire: In Real Time’: A Channel 5 Documentary

‘The Great Fire: In Real Time’ is a three-part documentary, which aims to delve deeply into the history of the Great Fire of London. The story is retold day-by-day, hour-by-hour to uncover what really happened during the fire of 1666. Dr Suzannah Lipscomb and Dan Jones team up once again to present their findings, but this time they are joined by Rob Bell, (who you may recognise from other historical documentaries on Channel 5). Dan takes on the role of tracing the fire’s journey, by walking through the streets of London and marking its beginning, middle and end. Rob wanders outside of London, in order to experiment with the methods 17th century Londoners used to combat and recover from the flames.


Historians and Presenters: Rob Bell, Suzannah Lipscomb & Dan Jones

Finally, Suzannah decides to explore the human aspect of the Great Fire of London. Interestingly, she focuses on the lives of three 17th century characters, who all lived in London during September 1666 and who came from all different walks of life. She hopes to illustrate how these three characters’ lives – who all suffered traumatic experiences from the Great Fire – represent how London’s citizens were affected as a whole. Additionally, she draws attention to how Londoners reacted and behaved during the course of the Great Fire, with the hope of highlighting just how similar their responses were to our own, during moments of fear and panic.

During the series important questions are confronted, such as: “Where was the exact location of the bakery where the fire started?”, and “Why was the fire able to burn for so long?”. Fascinating research and discoveries are also revealed throughout the programme. Ultimately, the documentary intends to prove to a 21st century audience, just how momentous and important the Great Fire of London of 1666 was in English history, by not only transforming London, but by also influencing Britain’s national consciousness .

Admittedly I am someone who doesn’t know an awful lot about the Great Fire of London, so this documentary was the perfect starting point for me into this relatively unknown period of history.

Suzannah Lipscomb and Dan Jones, (alongside Rob Bell), once again excelled in presenting an engaging and informative documentary. They convey the chaos of the Great Fire in a very moving and compelling manner. Matters were never overcomplicated and the narrative was relatively straight forward, so they didn’t end up losing my attention half-way through, (which is extremely frustrating when that does happen)! Each of the three presenters explored their own outlook upon the Great Fire, which helped in keeping the viewers captivated and succeeded in targeting the interests of a wider audience.

What I absolutely adored about this series, was the regular featuring of amazing historical artefacts. For instance, in the first episode Suzannah visited the London Metropolitan Museum, where she viewed a pair of tiny shoes which were recovered from the ashes. What’s more, in the last episode she presented to the viewers a trade token, which 400 years ago would have belonged to one of the three characters whom they had followed throughout the whole series: Sybil Thame the shoemaker!


Samuel Pepys: His account of the Great Fire was often used

The decision to follow the lives of three contemporary Londoners was a pleasant surprise. Audiences are introduced to Sybil Thame the shoemaker, Joshua Curtain a bookseller, and Robert Viner the goldsmith and friend to Charles II. All three lives were well documented, so Suzannah was able to follow their experiences of the Great Fire very closely. Other more famous characters also made an appearance, such as King Charles II himself and Samuel Pepys, whose detailed account of the Great Fire of London was regularly recounted throughout the documentary.

Another feature which I found incredibly useful during this retelling of the Great Fire of London, was the use of graphics. The graphics were installed in the creation of maps, timelines and images of the streets in 17th century London. I thought that the graphics were brilliant, as they allowed people to gain a greater understanding of the Great Fire’s progression and development stage-by-stage.

Finally, I feel that I have to mention something that really stood out for me throughout this whole documentary… and that is Dan Jones walking around the streets of London – at night – with a lantern held aloft! I mean, I can see why he decided to do it, as I guess it worked in creating the atmosphere. However, he did end up looking like an over-enthusiastic Jack the Ripper tour guide! Instead of being a criticism, I have to say that this scene ended up being extremely comical and entertaining! I’m quite disappointed that I didn’t see that being filmed actually, for I’m sure that would have been a sight to behold when walking through London’s streets…

I was super excited when I discovered that three personalities from the 17th century, were to be unearthed and brought to life within this documentary. What’s more, the Great Fire of London is an unique subject, which isn’t really focused on within the media. Ok, so the build-up of suspense was overused, and statements were often repeated – but don’t let that put you off! It was obvious that Suzannah, Dan and Rob were extremely passionate about their subject, and the documentary was so fast-pasted and enthralling that it never disappointed! The documentary is also a great starting point for people – (like me!) – who have never studied the Great Fire in much depth before. The entire series was crammed full of entertainment, information and a desire to tell a great story.

The use of contemporary historical objects and accounts, helped to bring the tale of the Great Fire to life. It made the tale of the Great Fire more relatable to a 21st century audience. Intriguing topics were also discussed, such as the formation of fire insurance and 17th century medicinal treatments, which were used to heal the wounds inflicted by the fire. Visiting relevant locations around London, (including the original medieval pillars of St Paul’s Cathedral!), alongside the revelation of where the fire actually started, were also a real treat!

I would recommend this documentary to any ammeter historian who wants to discover more about the Great Fire of London. It does the job in delving deeply into the story of this infamous period of history. It unveils the rapid progression of this intense inferno in an easy step-by-step format. It also reveals some interesting insights into everyday life in 17th century England. It brings together the geographical, scientific and human aspects of this great catastrophe, which prevails in answering some very important questions. The documentary triumphs in its aim, which was to demonstrate just how important it is that we remember the catastrophe that was: the Great Fire of London.





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