Dan Jones on the Great Fire myths and misconceptions, Game of Thrones and the Knights Templar

Dan Jones and Suzannah Lipscomb are now something of a fixture in history broadcasting. The pair’s 2016 docu-drama Henry VIII and His Six Wives, and more recently Elizabeth I (starring Lily Cole in the title role), established their modus operandi: Early Modern England from a variety of perspectives, with great research surfacing the great stories that emerged from these utterly operatic lives. For their new show, The Great Fire which airs on Channel 5 from Wednesday 31 May at 8pm, Dan and Suzannah are joined by engineer Rob Bell to tell a very different story, in a very different style. We caught up with Dan to find out more about the show, their approach to broadcasting and his forthcoming book on the Knights Templar…

Why Great Fire? What set you off on this new show?

Well, the channel came to me first of all. I’ve done a lot of work of my own generation with Channel 5. We’d made a bunch of mediaeval drama docs, Suzy and I had made a Tudor drama doc, done a couple of series of the Castles show, and they just came and asked if I’d like to present a show about the Great Fire of London. I thought on the one hand, it was slightly outside my area of expertise, but on the other hand, it was one of the great stories in the canon of British history.

The reason I said yes, that I would do it, is because my eldest daughter was studying it in school and, in fact, everyone’s kids, we’ve all got young kids now, they’re all doing it at school. And they all love it as well. This is just such a dramatic story and it’s something that, really, everyone’s heard of and yet … Well, my one query is whether we actually knew everything about the Great Fire already.

It turns out that we didn’t know everything about the Great Fire already and it was with a great production company, Lion TV, who’ve got a fantastic track record in making really serious history but with a lightness of touch. That runs from Horrible Histories all the way through to the amazing stuff they’ve done with Mary Beard. So, I wanted to work with Lion, I wanted to spread my wings a little bit and this was just too fun a topic to ignore, I suppose.

As a medievalist, it must be quite poignant because the Great Fire of London is sort of the death of medieval London, isn’t it?

Yeah, you know what, I think there’s mixed… There’s like a cocktail of emotions really. In the first instance, yes, it’s an enormous shame speaking historically that the fire wiped out so much of … I mean, almost everything that was there of Medieval London. There’s also a practical bit. I don’t live in London anymore but I did for 15 years and I don’t think I’d have liked to in Medieval London. This is the Ackroyd thesis, I suppose. You know, Peter Ackroyd has done a lot of great work on London. He’s said London was constantly regenerating herself, and built on top of itself, and there were great fires in the 13th century as well, that destroyed most of the city.

And so, you can’t get too sentimental about it. And in some ways, the Great Fire is a sort of tragedy to those of us who wish we could investigate more of Medieval London, or have more of it remaining to us.

On the other hand, in terms of civic life and the development of London as one of the great cities of the world, it has been a necessary part of our capital’s history.

And the other thing to say, I suppose, is that those traces that remain of the Medieval city are the most tantalising part. In one of the episodes [we see] St. Paul’s Cathedral, and even I did not know initially, but if you yank on the manhole cover in the churchyard, you can actually get down into the remains of the crypt of Medieval St. Paul’s. And they let me go down there. I don’t know anyone who has been down there. No one goes down there. It’s not very pleasant.

But you can get down there and you can still see the pillars of the Norman cathedral. You know, blackened somewhat, whether by scorch marks from the Great Fire or whether just the mildew and dankness of the subterranean conditions. And there’s something much more tantalising about seeing this, because there are so few chances to glimpse Medieval London.

The Great Fire – The Great fire Ludgate St Pauls.

Yes, of course it’s such a lovely kind of visual metaphor for the entirety of London isn’t it? Like, it’s this kind of central figure that’s marched through history, and through war and cataclysm and things like that, and kind of come out the other side.

Yeah. It’s literally the church on the hill, isn’t it? But it’s also I suppose a monument to the great passing tide in London’s history, which is the Great Fire. Because you know, had that not happened, I’m sure we’d still have the old St Paul’s Cathedral to rival York Minister and Winchester and Lincoln and Salisbury and all of those other incredible pillars of the earth.

London would still have it’s own. And it doesn’t. It has this beautiful but nonetheless strikingly different type of baroque creation.

From your perspective as a medievalist, what do you think the greatest kind of non-human casualty of the Great Fire of London was? What amazing thing have we lost, that we feel most of all?

Well, I think it is that connection to the Medieval past. It’s not that I still mourn it terribly, but we are divided by the Great Fire, architecturally in particular. And there isn’t this sense of an old quarter. Do you know what I mean? You go to the old bit of the city today, and well increasingly it looks like Singapore. Or Dubai or Qatar.

And there isn’t this sense that there is an old Medieval quarter. So it’s not the same as going to Rome. Of course, Rome has a much more ancient history than Medieval, but you see my point. Or Florence, or even Paris. You can’t go and wander the old Medieval streets and look at the higgledy-piggledy raggedness and wonder.

Now, on the other hand, as I was saying before that has been to London’s advantage, because the most ancient part of London the city just now has is it’s culture regeneration and a new development. There’s not such a pressing need to preserve the medieval heritage because it’s all gone.

In the synopsis, it says that the show makes use of that comparatively recent sort of discovery of the origin point of the fire, that it wasn’t Pudding Lane. It’s a well known story on the surface, but the more you dig into it the more it’s sort of obvious that a lot of these are just sort of canards that are often repeated. Like that point of fact that only six people died, when the death toll was much more considerable. Are there any other really key points that you think are misunderstood or misinterpreted?

Well, I think the first thing was, as you say, the location of the bakery. I think that is so demonstrative of the way that historical stories tend not to be examined when they seem to be so very established. And work being done to locate the exact position of the point of fire in the bakery and not only that but the sort of yard out the back where the kindling’s kept, where the sparks lighted the fire.

It’s incredibly simple. And that was in fact the same sort of work that actually located Richard III. And that wasn’t Philippa Langley walking over the ground, getting a tingling in her fingertips. It was a piece of desk-based research done at University of Leicester. In Richard III’s case, where they even made a lot of maps and located the priory where the grave was.

Well, lo and behold, the same thing was done for the Great Fire. You go back and do a lot of desk-based research with maps, and you whittle down the exact spot where the bakery was. And you can then overlay it with modern maps and find out literally to the yard where that was.

The fact remains literally that we filmed that right in the project. And then that was when I kind of knew that we were going to do something genuinely interesting. They often stand on Pudding Lane going “It was here on Pudding Lane…” It’s actually interrogating that and saying, hold on where was Pudding Lane? What did it look like? It wasn’t like this. Where’s the bakery? Hang on, it was in Monument Street. I think that was really interesting.

I was just amazed by the range of reactions of people to the fire. I suppose I shouldn’t have been, because when you study enough mass events and catastrophes, you’re always going to find a large spectrum of reaction. But it ranges from some genuine heroism and benevolence and civic spirit and people trying to help each other, at best, to real sort of skullduggery and downright dastardly behaviour. . Now Suzy, I don’t know if you know, but Suzy made a film as part of the show looking at the indictment of the Frenchman, Robert Hubert, who admitted, I think, incorrectly to having started the fire.

And lo and behold, one of the names at the bottom of the indictment is that of Thomas Farriner, it was in his bakery as you know the fire started. So, but the sheer level of wickedness in the name of self-preservations is quite surprising to me.

There wasn’t universally that Blitz spirit that Londoners are often commend in themselves.

Dan Jones, Suzannah Lipscomb and Rob Bell against the London skyline

To me, it feels like it’s a theme in your Henry VIII show and theme in Elizabeth are kind of surfacing the immediacy and how contemporary these stories feel, actually, once you get down to them. The kind of emotional registers, the dealing with the concerns, the politics. Everything feels very kind of fresh and important and almost contemporary. And the structure of Great Fire feels like a disaster film. You’ve got all these things happening at different levels, these kind of reactions from the court down to the streets, and the mob and things like that. Is it part of your conscious remit, Suzannah and yourself, to bring these things to life in that way?

Yes, it was. And here’s the difference between the two shows [Elizabeth , and I think this will lead into your central point: we write the drama docs like soap operas, and that’s not to diminish their content. Suzy and I slightly argue about this. Because I come at it very hard from, with the drama docs we’re writing dramas. And then we’re going to interrogate what we’ve written and make sure that it’s telling the history in the right way. And that’s it’s telling something new and something interesting.

But fundamentally, I really firmly believe you respect the medium in which you’re working. And television has some very strong and well-established and very tight structural tropes. And the soap opera is one of them, particularly when writing about the Tudors. It’s entirely appropriate to write a show about Henry VIII and to a slightly lesser degree, but still to a similar degree, about Elizabeth I, as though they were soaps.

And that’s sort of what we do. And it’s not to diminish the story or content. The Great Fire show isn’t like that. The Great Fire show is like rolling news. But it’s also germane to the form, the medium, right?

TV, particularly modern TV, is brilliant at breaking news. And it’s so brilliant at breaking news, it’s starting to warp events to fit the form. But that’s what it’s good at doing, and that’s what viewers also are used to seeing. And I think with the story of a natural disaster, the question in my mind when I was reading the scripts and, I think, I did less structure work on these scripts than I do with other shows. But I certainly, I was glad that we got there with it.

This has to feel like how Sky News reports the Great Fire of London. It’s not like it’s a pastiche of the form. You know, the sort of feeling when any big, major event of national importance happens. You turn on the radio, you turn on the TV.

And that’s one of the things TV’s really good at. I think, if you’re going to tell history on television, you have to think carefully about your approach to it.

It was always slightly a caricature to say that old history was an old man with a moustache marching up and giving a lecture. But it’s not that far away from being true. The lazy modern form of history on TV is to make it look like a travel show. So the man doesn’t walk up and give you a lecture, he sort of bounds around and you’ve got a lot of flare on the lens and it’s shot like a travel show.

I thought, okay it’s fine, but it doesn’t do it. So I’m more interested in making shows that are pushing what you can actually do on television. And that means knowing what television is good at. So that’s really what’s in my head with this show. You know, the drama docs are like soap operas – this one to me is like rolling news.

And I hope it works. I think it works. I think it was great.

The Great Fire – Channel 5 – 31st May to 2nd June at 8pm

It definitely feels like shows like Game of Thrones have of weakened people’s immune system to history, in a sense. They expect things to be complex and nasty and full of impossible, dynastic webs of relationships. So you almost want to make a series about the Rough Wooing or something, in the style of Game of Thrones.

Yeah, I’m not saying that the notion that Thrones has changed the way that people think about storytelling. I love Thrones, I love the guys who make it. I’ve worked with HBO, making films about the history behind it with [author] George RR Martin. I think it’s great.

I think we’re kidding ourselves that Game of Thrones has invented complex storytelling. We only have to go and read Hamlet to realise that’s not quite the case. However, I think Thrones more than anything else has pushed the boundaries of what’s acceptable human beastliness, actually, in a mass market programme.

It certainly, in people’s minds, it’s set the bar for telling ye olde stories on television. And some of that’s great. It’s great that, speaking selfishly, it’s opened up people to the Middle Ages, or a generation to the Middle Ages. And it’s opened up markets and groups of people to my work who I don’t know would have come to it so easily.

I think it’s more where the visual language of it has done a lot of good, because I think people were wanting to see this kind of Excalibur version of medieval life. Now they’re open to the idea of everything being brown. It’s lovely.

Lots of things work about it. [Executive producers] David Benioff and Dan Weiss are great screenwriters. Number one.

They run a very tight ship on the show. George Martin’s vision, I think what’s most appealing about it now is his deep moral ambivalence and his unsentimentality. It’s not a sentimental show. And it’s not a sentimental … it’s anti-sentimental and it’s anti-Star Wars. It’s the opposite of Star Wars, okay? It’s the opposite of there being “goodies” and “baddies”. And Star Wars has dominated thinking about storytelling for so long, that when something big and bold and brilliant comes along and says, you know what, there isn’t a bunch of good guys, there isn’t a bunch of bad guys.

You’ve got to think about it differently. That is kind of interesting. You know, we all know that George Martin thinks a lot about history and to him, growing up with the Korean War and Vietnam War were much more entrenched than the narratives about the Second World War. That’s another kind of cool thing about this world, which I do think has been very helpful. For historians particularly, it’s made us think about having a degree more subtlety in our thinking about words.

Rob is testing at what temperature a pad lock will deform and so find out how hot the Great Fire became.

It feels like Suzannah and yourself have got some serious momentum going with these shows now,  because Great Fire is following so quickly from Elizabeth I, which you know followed Henry VIII. What do you think has worked about that partnership?

We’re old friends now. We’ve known each other for about 10 years. And we have in most ways complementary skill sets. And we’re roughly in the same area. We overlap in terms of the certain period we know about.

In the show rooms where we work, you know, two of the shows particularly we work from the ground up, building the stories, building the scripts. All having a hand in writing with the director and the executive producer. And then we do come at things in a complementary way. Suzy’s a brilliant academic expert and a very knowledgeable historian about the Tudor years. And compared to her, I’m an amateur in that stuff. Although historically, particularly with the Henry shows, I was always … I think the 16th century is quite useful to come at from a Medieval point of view, as well as an Early Modern point of view.

So, would could sort of thrash that out together. But I’m really, really, really into story architecture and narrative form and TV writing. And whenever I get carried away in search of that journalistic urge to tell a good story, she’s there to say, yes, but remember we’re talking about history. And whenever she gets sort of carried away with the kind of incredibly fascinating details of the sort of niche, counter-Reformation, I’m there to say, we’re making a television show.

We’ve been friends, to build to work as partners with respect for each other’s skills. I think some of it’s down to television’s… the last time I saw a man and a woman together was a BBC breakfast social trope. And you’ve got to respect that as well.

But I think in the broadest sense, history on Channel 5 is really trying. And I’m not just saying that because they employ me. But over the last three years, three and a half years, I made more than 30 hours of television for them. Which, career in the BBC, you’d be lucky to do that during the entirety of your career there. I mean, Dan Snow probably has, and Lucy Worsley might have done. But I don’t think very many others have been given that much screen time and that much … with the channel you get incredible freedom to make shows.

Our most recent series on Channel 5, Elizabeth I was a huge success – the highest rating docu-drama on Channel 5 ever.


The Great Fire presenter Rob Bell.

Are you able to tell us a little bit about your book on the Templars? Because it feels like if there has been a throughline here, it’s definitely mythology and punching through that fog of popular misconception.

Yeah. Well, look, I’m unbelievable excited about this Templars book. More excited, not that I’ve been unexcited about any other books, but this is certainly the biggest book I’ve done in quite a few years. And it’s the book I’ve been itching to do, as well.

Ever since I brought out The Plantagenets, this for me the big sexy subject of the Middle Ages. And you’re right, it’s grounded in myth and legend and misunderstanding, deliberate misrepresentation. And my take, right from the start was: the Templars have been deliberately turned into a sort of fantasy myth, the legend of the Middle Ages. And it’s almost as though, in order to make them interesting, people have been trying to associate them with a Holy Grail. The Illuminati. Time travelling nonsense.

And actually, the real job isn’t to ask suspicious questions like, “Did the Templars have the Holy Grail and did they bury it in Canada?” Or whatever. The job is to strip that away. Because once you do you have the most incredible story. Incredible in the same way. All my book does is what I did with The Plantagenets, that it starts at the beginning and takes you through to the end of this epic narrative of popular history. But it’s so full of contemporary resonance.

It’s about a war, a sectarian war between Shia and Sunni Islam in Syria and Egypt and Palestine, and Greater Syria, so taking parts of Iraq as well. Into which a sort of muscular Christian western invasion comes. So that’s the sort of broad context. And I think you don’t need to push too hard to see why that feels either timeless or modern.

But then you have this organisation in the Templars, and they started off as kind of bodyguards on the roads around this war zone. And then turning into the elite, quote-unquote special ops soldiers of the Middle Ages: Blackwater meets the Navy SEALS. And then on to that you pile, number one, a level of zealotry because it’s the age of the Crusades, but then all the financial operations.

It’s often so lazily said that the Templars were the first bankers. It’s much more modern in many ways that that. Certainly more resonance with us now. Because I didn’t turn to the first days of financial services. They’re not just a banker, deposit, and withdrawal. They’re subcontracted pretty much the entirety of the French Treasury. And they provided sort of expert accountancy services to very high level clients among the war families of Europe.

They took on the job of tax collection and auditing on the behalf of the pope. They’re able to shuttle Crusade tax revenues from all across Europe through their network of properties and down to, the Sixth Crusade down to Damietta. They may have an organisation that in some ways looks a little bit like Deloitte.

And then you pile on to that the incredible wealth, wealthier than some states. Massive tax exemptions. Pretty much do as they like. Away from the jurisdiction what was at that time through kings and the church, the regular jurisdictions. Again, in an age of Facebook and Google, so that story kind of resonates.

And then finally pile on the mystery of the trial. Not the mystery, the drama and skullduggery of the trial. And this sort of propaganda, this fake news levelled against the Order of the Temple.

And all of these ingredients in the story, they are in the book. I don’t have to try to bang over the reader’s head how relevant this is. Because I think it just sings from the page. How important this story is now, as powerful for the times.

And so I’m really, really, really super excited about it. But I’ve also spent last year, while I was finishing the book, working on Knightfall, which is a big History Channel A&E studio drama about the Templars.

And that’s really about Templar mythology. They wanted to set it within a viable and believable historical context in Medieval Paris. So I spent a lot of time actually shooting that in Prague, for the most part. And I spent a lot of time out in Prague working with the whole team there. And that’s a big sort of $40-50 million Game of Thrones-style production all about the Templars. So it also feels like there’s a big Templar resurgence of interest about to happen, so it’s a good time to be writing about it and talking about it.

The Great Fire – Channel 5 – 31st May to 2nd June at 8pm

It feels like all the kind of stars have aligned. It’s got a very crucial, contemporary relevance in it’s role in the Middle East, there’s the sort of Dan Brown-ization of the subject and then there’s also the way that Crusader iconography has been adopted and misused and abused by the alt-right as well. So there’s a lot of visibility. It also feels like it’s important that somebody step into this space and go, well actually, calm down. There’s a real story here, it’s not just a prop.

Yeah. I think that’s true. And the way the Templars have been, as you say, misappropriated over the years, and particularly recent years. Right, absolutely now. Look at Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian mass murder. He said he was a Templar. He said he and eight other guys had set up a new Order of the Temple in London shortly before he committed his murders in Norway. And was very explicitly trying to shroud himself in the imagery of the Templars. I mean, obviously, completely bogus. But nevertheless, that was what he was appropriating.

One of the great things I came across researching the book was that there’s a Mexican drug cartel who call themselves Los Caballeros Templarios. They’ve got their own Templar rule, which is sort of a pastiche of the medieval Templar rule, but it’s also a direct homage to it. It stands up to these good Christian values. And you’d struggle if you didn’t know what it was to understand that this was a code of conduct for a murderous drug cartel. But that’s what it is.

So the potency of the Templar myth, it burst the banks, let’s say, of where it once was.

The Great Fire starts on Channel 5, Wednesday 31 May at 8pm and continues 1 June and 2 June at the same time. Dan Jones’s new book The Templars will be released 7 September – you can pre-order it now from Amazon.co.uk. For more insights into Early Modern Europe, subscribe to All About History for as little as £26.