When I first saw the promotional material for the BBC drama surrounding the ‘Gunpowder plot of 1605‘ I couldn’t help but get intrigued. The timing of the show’s release is one so perfect that it could only have been topped by falling on a significant anniversary like 400 years, but if that was the case then we wouldn’t have had the opportunity to see Game of Thrones megastar Kit Harrington in the lead role in 2005. Thankfully though, we do get to see Kit portray Robert Catesby and not just because the actor is a major British name in the world of film and television but because of the fact that he is a direct descendant of Catesby himself.
Kit Harrington’s mothers maiden name is Catesby and it also happens to be his middle name, so you can understand why the role would be well suited for the actor and would be one that he would have great interest in portraying. Harrington is also an executive producer on the mini series as well as being the obvious top billing for his acting role and is joined by Liv Tyler, Peter Mullan and Mark Gatiss in the series other most prominent roles.
The story of the Gunpowder plot is one that has been the focus of British tradition ever since it took place with Firework displays and Bonfire Night being a result of the Observance of 5th November Act which was designed to celebrate the failure of the plot to kill King James I and originally celebrated as Gunpowder Treason Day until the act was repealed in 1859. Out of the ashes of the original celebration came what is often to this day referred to as Guy Fawkes Night and has popularised Guy Fawkes as the most recognisable name from the plot. So the BBC drama has a great chance of really explaining the events surrounding the Gunpowder plot to a generation and culture who have become fairly disconnected to the origins of the annual November 5th celebrations.
One of the first things you’ll notice with Gunpowder is the familiar yet still very alien look at England. Obviously a lot has changed since the early 17th Century but it’s sometimes easy to forget just how barbaric and gruesome things were even at the top of what was considered to be a progressive society of the time. The political and religious factors behind the plot and the events that lead to it are a huge driving force in the show, which for no fault of the creators can lead to a sense of confusion to those in modern day Britain because of the blurring of religious practices in modern society with less focus on religious denomination in the eyes of the general public with most referring to any religious sect usually just simply as “Religion”. The show does do a good job of explaining the key events surrounding the plot and invoking emotion from the experiences of the Catesby family to make up for the possible confusion and disconnect of a much more secular British society.
The first scenes in the series are ones that grip you as we are introduced to Catesby and some of his closest associates as the Kings men arrive to stamp out their religious practices and take away their Jesuit Priest Henry Garnet (Peter Mullan) for treason. We are quickly drawn into sympathy for these characters as they hurry to transform the home and hide their Priest. We are introduced to Liv Tyler’s character and the other main female role is given to Sian Webber who portrays the fictional Lady Dorothy Dibdale. The lady of the house is a powerful character and truly draws you in and helps create the drama and suspense for this tale from the get go as you feel the tension rise up whilst the Kings men search the Catholic home to a fine detail.
The Guy Fawkes portrayal is one that is introduced in a very impactful way and leaves the viewer feeling more connected to the storyline plot due to the notoriety of the character. Tom Cullen does a good job of coming across as a intriguing character that you want to see more of and is probably taking a back seat in most viewer’s eyes to allow the story to show a clearer representation of the events and it’s ring leader Robert Catesby to an audience of people like myself who have mainly only ever heard of the ‘caught red handed’ Guy Fawkes.
The show does a good job of building sympathy for Catesby and his fellow English Catholics, whilst the cunning and captivating performance of Mark Gatiss as Sir Robert Cecil does well to become the show’s most prominent antagonist, portraying the Secretary of State as a slimy yet backbone staple of King James‘ parliament. Peter Mullan portrays the Priest as a noble man that sometimes appears cowardly to his frustrated congregation with a calmly hidden strength that is actually the moral compass and backbone to the group of Catholics. Robert Catesby’s views and plot of murder is one that deeply troubles the Priest for it’s extreme nature and blatant disregard of the commandment of “Thou shall not kill”. Much like many examples of modern day religious extremism it strikes you as a step too far even under oppression because it goes against one of the fundamental commandments of the religion and in this story plays out as an indication of how far things have gone.
The Gunpowder plot was during a time that King James’ Britain were experiencing rough waters with the Catholic powerhouse that was 17th Century Spain. This part of the backstory is constantly a driving force for the King’s council as they try to find a balance to not rock the boat too much with the Spanish and end up causing a break down after recent developments for a truce. Derek Riddell is in the role of the Scottish King of Britain in this series and the portrayal of Royalty as well as the violent execution scenes are ones that remind you of Kit Harrington’s other role in Game of Thrones except it’s the real life King James rather than Joffrey. The King is portrayed as most of the things you would negatively associate with royalty including strange toilet rituals and seemingly quite disconnected to the general public on a personal level. It is also hinted that he is in a sexual relationship with his Gentleman of the Bedchamber Sir Philip Herbert (Hugh Alexander), a job that was essentially to be around the King mostly helping out when changing and getting ready for the day or for bed, being a guard and pretty much being the King’s friend. Historians have implied that King James may have had gay or at least bisexual tendencies and therefore relations with several men and this show hints at Herbery being the main one as his wife looks on powerlessly throughout the series. The reason for Hereby’s inclusion is probably because of the fact his real life counterpart was promoted to a significant role fairly quickly into the King’s reign. The short length of the series means it does feel like yet another storyline that only gets its surface scratched rather than a drawn out longer focus that could have evoked more emotion.
No matter your religious or political beliefs or even your knowledge of the Gunpowder plot it is a show that highlights the human side of persecution and oppression clouded by misuse of political power and religious reasoning. The show runs for only three episodes and because of this I do feel like it does not go in depth enough on those topics. Whilst they do a good job of drawing the audience into Catesby’s relationship with his son after the death of his wife during childbirth, it isn’t factually correct and neither is the portrayal of Anne Vaux by Liv Tyler as a relation to Catesby. It seems like an obvious quick fix for an emotionally driven storyline to shoehorn something emotional into the series which loses it’s credit once you realise it isn’t true. I feel that if the series was longer they could have either really pushed the Catesby family storyline and made it almost like a Jack and Rose aboard the the Titanic type situation but if a longer series was to have happened then I would have preferred another avenue for invoking emotion from the audience that was truer to the events that actually took place.
One piece of Catesby family drama that is correct though is the relationship between Robert Catesby and fellow plotter Thomas Wintour (Edward Holcroft) as they were real life cousins, although Thomas‘ brother Robert Wintour wasn’t portrayed in the series which may have been in order to really drive home the brother like relationship of the two cousins in the show instead. The show’s creators did do a good job of this as Holcroft’s performance lead to that extra bit of feeling connected to Catesby as a leader on both a revolutionary and general human level.
Gunpowder is a well put together mini series that does not shy away from the truth in some aspects with it’s gruesome portrayal of violence and torture that was rife in this part of the world at that time and for me that is the heart wrenching side of the story. Some viewers may feel the graphic nature of the scenes are an issue for them but I would suggest not watching a Television series about oppression and treason during one of the most gruesome periods in British society. The show does a great job of highlighting the conditions at the Tower of London and it’s a great use of the location throughout the series.
I do wish the series had gone longer as it did feel rushed at times, but for the time it had to portray the story I still felt that it did a decent job as I sat there watching it in 21st Century England with the ironically poetic sound of fireworks outside the building as we lead up to November 5th. Gunpowder is an educating look at one of Britain’s most notorious tales which has me wanting more from the show and inspires me to dig deeper on the subject, you can’t go wrong with that.