mon 19/08/2019

Gunpowder, BBC One review – death, horror, treason and a hint of farce | reviews, news & interviews

Gunpowder, BBC One review – death, horror, treason and a hint of farce

Gunpowder, BBC One review – death, horror, treason and a hint of farce

Dark and Gothicky treatment of the plot to blow up Parliament

Fireworks ahead: Kit Harington as Robert Catesby

Much is being made of the fact that Kit Harington is not only playing the Gunpowder Plot mastermind Robert Catesby, but is genuinely descended from him (and his middle name is Catesby). However, despite its factual underpinnings and screenwriter Ronan Bennett’s flowery 17th-century dialogue, Gunpowder is drama in a historical vein, rather than nailed-down fact.

This first of three episodes (on BBC One, but all are now available on iPlayer) was broody, dark and menacing, history recycled into a Gothicky netherworld. Westminster, 1603 style, was portrayed as a stygian pile on the bank of the Thames where no daylight could apparently reach, reminiscent of the cityscapes of Tom Hardy’s Taboo. Plots were hatched in claustrophobic rooms, messages were to be conveyed via secret cyphers written in invisible ink, and no one could be trusted. A visit to Brussels, where rebellious Papists were scheming to overthrow England’s new Protestant (though Scottish) King James I, was like descending into a giant sewer (Derek Riddell as James I, pictured below).Derek Riddell: GunpowderIt’s normally Guy Fawkes who springs to mind as the gunpowder guy, but he only appeared briefly here, played by Tom Cullen as a bearded, shaven-headed killer. Instead, Bennett and director J Blakeson set about showing us why Catesby, who had form as a Catholic conspirator and had been hit with a huge fine for his part in the Essex Rebellion of 1601, felt driven to try to put a bomb under James I and his Parliament. In an agonisingly long but skilfully sustained opening sequence, we observed the sneering and ruthless Sir William Wade (Shaun Dooley) conducting a forensic search of a Warwickshire mansion where, he correctly suspected, Catholics had been gathering for an illicit mass conducted by Father Henry Garnet (Peter Mullan). The very air, as Wade put it, was “rancid with Popery”. The upshot was that the lady of the house, Lady Dorothy Dibdale, and a young priest were carted away to captivity while Catesby himself could only look on, raging helplessly.

Mark Gatiss in GunpowderThe fate of the arrestees is likely to linger in the minds of viewers, since they were subjected to a pair of the most hideous executions ever staged on the telly. The priest was ghoulishly hanged, drawn and quartered, while Lady Dorothy was stripped naked and crushed to death by huge weights. Whether all this really happened isn’t clear, but Bennett has used these horrors to fuel Catesby’s lust for vengeance against the king and his failure to curb anti-Catholic persecution. 

Harington's Catesby is a desperate man driven by a glowing core of anger and loathing, but there was at least a little light relief from Mark Gatiss (pictured above), who played the hunchbacked Lord Robert Cecil, the éminence grise of Britain’s nascent secret service, with an air of louche sadism, skating perilously along the perimeter of farce. Nor was it possible to accuse James I of an excess of royal gravitas, since he was played by Derek Riddell as an effete, tittering ninny, surrounded by foppish sycophants. When he chastised Cecil by telling him that “must is not a word that can be used to princes”, we were in the heart of Blackadder-land. Neverthess, you were left wanting to watch the rest of it.

Harington's Catesby is a desperate man driven by a glowing core of anger and loathing


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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The quotation attributed to James I was actually spoken to Cecil by the dying Elizabeth I

A good point well made, Andrew. I must admit I was thinking of Miranda Richardson’s Elizabeth I - “‘Can’t’ is not a word for princes, Lord Blackadder”.

Catholic priests, if caught, were always deemed to be guilty of treason against the Protestant monarch, and were hanged, taken down before dead, and drawn (disembowelled) while still alive, and quartered. Some were also castrated and had their genitals burnt in front of them before being drawn. the death penalty for Catholic women, by pressing under heavy weights placed on a door, with a sharp stone placed under the naked back was not common, but did in fact happen. The most famous incidence of this was the execution of St Margaret Clitherow in York, in the reign of Elizabeth I. Yes - what was portrayed in the first episode of Gunpowder was nasty, and brutal, but then such things really did happen. I think this realistic treatment of one of our famous historical events deserves to be told properly.

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