- See also: London's Burning (disambiguation)
London's Burning is a British television drama programme that was produced by London Weekend Television for the ITV network. Based on a 1986 pilot movie written by Jack Rosenthal, it centres around the lives of a crew of Blue Watch firefighters stationed at Blackwall fire station in London, with a blend of gritty realism, dark humour and lighter moments. At its peak London's Burning attracted a weekly television audience in the region of 18 million as characters like "Bayleaf", "Sicknote", "Vaseline", John Hallam, Nick 'Zorba' Georgiadis and George Green became household names. The first series aired in 1988 and thirteen more series followed before the show finally came to an end in 2002.
London's Burning episodes are now repeated on the London Live Channel.
London's Burning was the brainchild of Jack Rosenthal, a screenwriter with a long history in television, which included over 150 episodes of Coronation Street in the 1960s, That Was The Week That Was, Pardon the Expression and the BAFTA-winning dramas Bar Mitzhvah Boy, Spend, Spend Spend and The Evacuees. His inspiration for a drama about the Fire Brigade came from the firefighter husband of his au pair, who would regale him with stories about the job over breakfast, and the 1985 Tottenham riots, during which firemen came under attack from rioters.
As part of his research Rosenthal lived with firefighters at Hornsey and Shaftesbury Avenue stations, experiencing not just shouts but the more mundane aspects of the job, like drills, maintenance of the station and the equipment, as well as the practical jokes and the nicknames. He picked up on the double themes of "tragedy and farce, heroism and silliness". Rosenthal was also intrigued by the idea of introducing a female firefighter and how the men would react; at the time, there were less than a dozen women in the London Fire Brigade.
Linda Agran, London Weekend Television's deputy drama controller, commissioned the script and LWT controller John Birt gave the go ahead for it to be made into a two hour film. Paul Knight was appointed producer and he employed Les Blair to direct. To give the film a documentary feel, Knight insisted on the casting of little known actors; of the original Blue Watch, only James Hazeldine ("Bayleaf") had had a significant television career up to that point.
Knight also secured the co-operation of the London Fire Brigade. Deputy Chief Officer Gerry Clarkson agreed to granting the Brigade's support, on condition that the film was "warts and all" and portrayed the operational aspects of the Brigade accurately. To ensure authenticity, Clarkson appointed Brian Clark to be the show's Fire Brigade Liason Officer. The Brigade also provided the crew with two working fire appliances and the use of an operational station. None of the Brigade's disused stations were suitable, so Clark suggested Dockhead in south London, half a mile from Tower Bridge.
London's Burning: The Movie, a mixture of black comedy and serious issues faced by firefighters, was broadcast on ITV on 7 December 1986. At a cost of £1million, it was then the most expensive film made by LWT. It was warmly received by critics and attracted a television audience of 12.5 million. It was nominated for three BAFTAs (Best Single Drama, Best Film Sound, Best Film Editor).
In light of London's Burning's success LWT commissioned a series. Knight stayed on as producer, but Rosenthal was uninterested in writing a series, so Knight recruited Tony Hoare, a prolific screenwriter for Minder and The Sweeney, and Anita Bronson, who had also written for Minder and the ITV playhouse. Between them, Hoare and Bronson would write all but two episodes in the first three series. They would later be joined by David Humphries, Simon Sharkey and Roger Marshall. Knight made the decision to make the show a serial rather than weekly self-containted episodes, to allow the characters to develop.
Brian Clark was retained as an adviser to ensure the Brigade was portrayed realistically. He would read through scripts, advise on how firefighters would behave in given situations and provide the writers with press cuttings of real incidents. Most of the shouts attended by Blue Watch were based on real life incidents. At Clark's suggestion, cast members were required to complete two weeks of basic firefighter training at Southwark and spend two nights at a real fire station in London.
As it was impractical to film a full series at the operational Dockhead fire station, a replica of Dockhead's interior was built at the Jacob Street studios, about 500 yards from Dockhead. The fire station's actual mess, bay and watchroom were still used for some scenes, and real firefighters working shifts appeared as extras.
Most of the characters from the movie reprised their roles. The first episode aired on 20 February 1988. The camera crews had to be committed and cautious when working with fire. Emergencies or 'shouts' would not only be fires, but included a range of incidents from cats up trees to major road accidents. Each episode ran for 50 minutes, typically broadast on a Sunday evening. In the first series (1988), five episodes (plus a Christmas special) were commissioned. For the second series (1989), and third series (1990), this was extended to eight.
London's Burning steadily increased in popularity. The first series averaged 12.1 million viewers, the second 12.3 million and the third 12.5 million. During the second series, Knight decided on a shock for the viewers, the death of one of the main characters, "Vaseline", both to reflect the dangers firefighters face and to keep the audience on edge, unsure if members of Blue Watch would emerge from future shouts unscathed.
A special 30-minute behind-the-scenes documentary, which originally aired on 8 September 1991, marked the launch of the fourth series. LWT commissioned 10 episodes for Series 4, the climax of which would see two members of Blue Watch buried alive at a huge warehouse fire and, in the aftermath, one would break down under the psychological trauma. Series 4 averaged 15 million viewers and the series climax won the programme its record audience figure of 18.86 million.
Each series now included a major disaster. In Series 5 (1992), a youth caused carnage at a fairground by jamming a pole into a ferris wheel's mechanics. The series attracted an average of 17 million viewers. In 1995 (Series 8), ratings fell to 16 million viewers. Knight decided it was time for another shock, a tragic exit for a major character, Sub Officer John Hallam (Sean Blowers), who had been in the show since the 1986 pilot. Hallam would fall to his death from an 85 ft gantry during a shout at a factory. Series 9 proved another ratings success and attracted 16.8 million viewers. Series 10 was the last series produced by Knight, who would go on to produce episodes of The Knock.
Series 11 marked a new era for London's Burning, with a new producer (David Shanks), a new writing team, a new theme tune, and three new cast members. By now, only Richard Walsh ("Sicknote") remained from the original cast. The series would also see a switch in emphasis from drama to the personal lives of the watch. Due to cost cutting, fire scenes were now being made with computer generated imagery. In 1998, another new producer arrived, David Newcombe. Ratings dropped from the show's peak but remained respectable. Series 11, 12, and 13 drew audiences in the region of 8-10 million, although by the close of series 13 these had dropped to 7 million.
Budget cuts, a new Saturday time slot, the departure of popular characters and the switch to soap opera style plots had steadily eroded the show's appeal. In 2001 it was given another revamp, with five major characters axed, the number of episodes reduced to eight and another theme tune introduced. Series 14 focused almost exclusively on the personal lives of Blue Watch. It went out in an unfamiliar summer time slot and viewing figures did not improve, instead dipping below five million. The final episode was broadcast on 25 August 2002. ITV bosses decided that the show was "stale" and a new series was not commissioned. A new firefighter drama series, Steel River Blues, was broadcast on ITV in 2004 but lasted for only one series. In 2014, another drama series about the London Fire Brigade, The Smoke, aired on Sky and also only lasted one series.
The London's Burning theme used between Series 1–10 was composed by Simon Brint and Roddy Matthews. Series 11–13 used a theme composed by Warren Bennett (son of The Shadows drummer Brian Bennett); revamped opening titles created by Capital FX were introduced. The theme tune and opening titles were updated again for Series 14. The titles were made to fit the look ITV were giving to shows at the time. The theme was produced by Mcasso. A soundtrack of incidental and theme music from the show was released in 1999.
Series 1-10 did not have a title sequence, episodes opened with the text "London's Burning" superimposed in white over the opening scene of the episode, with various fonts used in different series. Series 11-13 used a montage of action shots superimposed over a fiery background as the text "London's Burning" in gold and black slowly grew in size over the course of the sequence before quickly zooming to most of the length of the screen on the final musical flourish. Series 14 used a shorter montage of action and character shots before the text "London's Burning" in orange and white appeared and moved closer together over a shot of fire engines emerging from the station that blurred out.
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