18 November 2020, The Tablet

When hell came to Paris

The Notre-Dame fire

When hell came to Paris

Notre-Dame cathedral burns on the evening of 15 April 2019
Photo: BBC/Getty Images, Aziz Ary Neto


An epic new documentary tells the minute-by-minute story of the night France’s greatest cathedral caught fire

Was it only last year that the world watched, horrified, as flames tore through the medieval fabric of Notre-Dame, France’s greatest cathedral, a jewel of European culture? It was early evening on Monday, 15 April 2019 – the beginning of Holy Week – when a fire alarm picked up a tiny indication of heat just as the bell had rung and the congregation assembled for the 6.15 p.m. Mass.

First shown on Monday in BBC4’s Storyville series and now available on iPlayer, The Night Notre-Dame Burned is a documentary by Jules and Gédéon Naudet. As exciting as a thriller and as moving as the grandest epic, it picks up the unrolling events through the memories of those who were there, from the Mayor of Paris to the schoolchildren in the pews at 6.15 who thought that they could smell burning. Firefighters, including first-time recruit Marie-Ange, were just packing up at the nearby fire station of Poissy, checking their equipment was in top working order. “Save or Die” is the fire service motto: “It reminds us of our vulnerability,” said General Gallet, the service chief. Monsignor Chauvet, the engaging, bespectacled rector of the cathedral, was going home, stopping (“like any good country priest”) at every bistro on the way to have a little drink and catch up on his parishioners’ news.

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