Within minutes of its first episode it is abundantly clear that London’s Burning is of its time. Not so much owing to the hairstyles, fashions, talk of “yuppie tarts” and squawking sax-led theme tune, but rather because of its lack of edge. At a time when television on both sides of the Atlantic is approaching various institutions with extreme grittiness (the medical profession in Bodies; the police force in The Shield), London’s Burning comes across as remarkably cosy. Though it grew out of a one-off Jack Rosenthal teleplay of the same name, the series has transmuted his character-based social realism into something more akin to a soap opera – the humour is still there, as is the gentle observation, yet it all comes across in a much looser fashion.
That said, this does at the very least provide a situation whereby you don’t have to have seen Rosenthal’s original or indeed the first series to be able to find your feet. Our assembled firemen are intended to represent a cross-section of society and are therefore multi-ethnic, come from various class backgrounds and even include a woman. Moreover, they also easily fit into to stock types; we have the womaniser, the do-gooder, the joker, etc. plus many of them have been nicknames just so we exactly where we stand – Vaseline’s smooth with the ladies, Sicknote is a hypochondriac and Charisma doesn’t have any.
This heavy reliance on the characters means that their private dramas do tend to override the fire activity somewhat. Each episode contains one or two heavily signposted incidents – ranging from a radiation leak to an escaped parrot – yet it often seems as though these are being included merely to satisfy the needs for a 50 minute episode. Indeed, it wouldn’t be too difficult to make these characters a bunch of doctors and nurses or policeman for what’s important isn’t so much the lives they save, but rather their individual relationships.
As such, series two is made up of various little stories which overlap and interweave throughout the eight episodes in typical soap opera fashion. Mixing both big and small issues we are treated to such weighty subjects as racism, sexism, rape and juvenile delinquency; are introduced to a handful of new characters, often present as a means of causing new antagonisms as is the case with the strict new ADO; and also find room for what is the meat of the series, the countless blooming relations, marital breakdowns and impending fatherhoods. And of course we also conclude – as is seemingly necessary for such a show – with the tragic death of one of the crew.
As is often the case with soap opera and those of a similar ilk, some of these plot strands are inevitably more interesting or less predictable than others. But then it’s also true that London’s Burning doesn’t really stand up on such matters, rather it is the performances which make the difference. And on the whole the series is pleasingly well played. Certainly, it’s all done in what is best described a televisual fashion, yet it allows for each episode to be a mostly agreeable experience. Indeed, for all the tragic deaths, the 15 certificate and a script peppered with the occasional “wanker”, this makes for cosy TV. In the current climate of more hard-hitting programmes this may prompt some to turn away without hesitation – others, however, are likely to welcome the series with open arms.
Network’s two-disc DVD set collects all eight episodes from the second series complete with ad caps. On the whole the presentation is pleasing if hardly perfect. Damage and technical problems are generally minor (we notice, for example, the videotape used for episode two has warped for an instant towards the end) and it’s only the colours which are little worse for wear, no longer looking quite so sharp having dulled with age. As for the soundtrack, we get a DD2.0 offering which is similarly okay. The dialogue levels remain constant throughout, whilst the occasional sprinkling of eighties pop hits sounds equally fine. All in all, each episode is no less than watchable. With regards to extras, however, both discs are completely lacking. That said, fans of the series shouldn’t have too much problem with just having the episodes as the RRP of just under £20 seems more than reasonable for 400 minutes worth of TV.
Anthony Nield has reviewed the Region 2 release of the second series of London's Burning. A big hit for ITV in the eighties, the show now reveals itself to be a cosy, but generally agreeable affair. Of course, in the current climate of more hard hitting shows they may turn prospective buyers