Television: Great fire of London? This one never quite catches light

ITV’s four-part series is overly complex and struggles for authenticity

Blazingly dull: The Great Fire

Given the popularity of period dramas, it's not surprising that someone has got around to telling the story of the obviously dramatic great fire of London in a miniseries. And so the four-part The Great Fire (UTV, Thursday) kicks off with a top-flight cast led by Andrew Buchan (The Honourable Woman and Broadchurch) as Thomas Farriner, the humble baker of Pudding Lane. Legend has it that the fire started in his bakery, in 1666, and then burned down the whole city, the biggest in the world at the time. But this drama never quite catches fire.

Episode one sets itself the complex task of explaining the machinations at court, where the playboy King Charles II is impervious to the discontent of his subjects and the many attempts on his life – usually by shadowy papist assassins. His wing man Lord Denton (the always reliable, gravitas-lending Charles Dance) has the task of rooting out anti-monarchists. Quite a lot of dialogue is along the lines of, “They always say Catholic wenches make the best whores,” and, “Maybe we should flush out papist vermin.”

Then there's jaunty Samuel Pepys (Daniel Mays, lighting up the scenes he's in), charged with balancing the books for the navy but mostly dodging out to his mistress. And Farriner, a single father, has a crush on his brother's wife. So a lot's going on – not all of it easy to follow or obviously relevant to the fire that we know – a bit impatiently – must break out any minute.

The Great Fire is written by Tom Bradby, ITN's political editor. Overlaying so much historical political detail, possibly to make it "serious" rather than just another pretty-frocks-and-wigs romp, has the effect of dampening the drama – although maybe some periods are more appealing for TV treatments than others, or at least easier to buy into. Put a wild-looking man in a furry cloak in a damp-walled stone castle and he could be a Viking, and Downton Abbey works simply because it's so appealing looking on every level. But London in 1666 can't be re-created on a less-than-lavish budget. So in The Great Fire the wooden houses of Pudding Lane – and the oddly tiny number of extras – look stagey.


Curiously, while most of the men wear wigs that look borrowed from the Irish dancing world championships’ dressing-up box, Buchan, in the lead, looks exactly as he always does – neat, mild-mannered, 21st century – so that jars too. The fire may have been great, this drama unfortunately isn’t.

It’s too easy to have a go at The Apprentice (BBC One, Tuesday and Wednesday), isn’t it? Year in, year out, the buffed and gelled contestants open their mouths and deliver cringe gold. It’s as predictable as the Budget. “I see myself as a mix between Gandhi and the Wolf of Wall Street,” says Scott. “Felipe’s strategy in the process is to be Felipe,” says Felipe – there’s always someone who speaks of themselves in the third person. At this point they’re interchangeable, series to series, all trussed up in the same suits or tottering on the same high heels, each contestant a terrifying mix of hyperconfidence and mouthy delusion.

This year's lot include two Irish women, Pamela Uddin and Róisín Hogan, breaking what appears to be an unwritten rule that there has to be just one Paddy on British shows of this kind. On Sunday Jennifer Gibney, the Mrs Brown's Boys star, was booted off the BBC's Strictly Come Dancing. She took it with immense good humour, although anyone with a heartbeat could see it should have been Judy Murray who got the heave – Pinocchio is less wooden and jerky than the scary tennis mum. The Irish women, or "girls", as Alan Sugar calls them – he describes a candidate as "arty farty" and really is starting to sound like your grandad – are impressive, though, and should go far.

Much was made in this week's opener that The Apprentice is 10 years old and has had a couple of tweaks in that time: Karren Brady replaced Margaret Mountford in the boardroom, and the prize isn't even to be Sugar's apprentice any more, as he now invests in the winner's business – although I suppose as a name that's not as catchy as The Apprentice.

The change this year is that there are 20 contestants, which means several double eliminations. Even the change doesn't make the series an exciting prospect. The Apprentice is looking old and tired; it's time for it to pack itself away into one of those daft little wheelie suitcases the contestants have.

Thank goodness the weather was good in September: the International Naturist Congress was on in Leitrim, so a lot of tourists were wandering around in the nip. Angela Scanlon tops and tails the first episode of Angela Scanlon: Full Frontal (RTÉ Two, Thursday), her four-part exploration of our relationships with our bodies, with a visit to the conference, which means chatting with articulate Germans and Canadians, her clothed, them starkers.

They talk about how liberating it is not to wear clothes, how unsexual the whole thing is. That much is quickly obvious. What is more interesting are the other stories winkled out in this zippy documentary. Scanlon – an engaging and funny presenter – meets women who commission nude portraits of themselves to come to terms with their body image, and young women who talk candidly about being photographed nude for an Irish fashion magazine, and looks at the extraordinary number of strip-off-for-charity workplace calendars.

Prison warders have done them, as have farmers, and one butcher’s in Co Dublin raised €20,000 for charity, She visits it in Swords. “Nice to put a face to the arse,” she says. “Was it strange touching your bare arses together? I mean, you are colleagues,” she asks two of the staff – or October as they’re probably now known. It wasn’t, they says matter-of-factly.

The only bum note is the interview with the former Miss World Rosanna Davison, who stripped off for the soft-porn mag Playboy. Scanlon is too giddy, although having talked about how "tasteful" the shoot is she does ask obliquely about the end user. "Is there ever a visual for you of the guy who buys this?" "I don't let myself go there," says Davison.

One man talks of how liberating and reassuring for his own body image it had been to take part in the artist Spencer Tunick’s mass nude shoot in Dublin. Tunick expected a couple of hundred people, but 2,500 turned up and stripped off. A revealing, well-thought-through documentary into the Irish psyche, showing far fewer inhibitions than you might expect.

Ones to Watch: cooking up a storm

With a prize of €100,000, The Taste of Success (Tuesday, RTÉ One) is a very lucrative food competition that sees producers of niche products, from nettle pesto to poitín marmalade, judged by our top chefs, including Domini Kemp and Paul Flynn.

In Schama on Rembrandt: Masterpieces of the Late Years (BBC Two, Saturday) the art historian Simon Schama explores the stories behind Rembrandt's magnificent late works, which show how much new energy his creativity gathered in the final years of his life.