Viewers defend Gunpowder amid outcry over graphic execution scenes

BBC1's new Kit Harington drama split viewers right down the middle with its graphic depiction of punishment in the 17th century

Kit Harington, Edward Holcroft and Tom Cullen in Gunpowder (BBC, HF)

Viewers have come out in defence of new BBC drama Gunpowder amid public outcry about the show’s brutal execution scenes.

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The drama, which tells the true story of the men behind the famed Gunpowder Plot, including Harington’s own ancestor Robert Catesby, attracted praise for its high production values and tense storytelling but a particularly brutal execution sequence – a woman was stripped naked, tortured and crushed to death by a weighted metal door before a young priest was disemboweled and “quartered” on the scaffold next to her – split the audience right down the middle (pun intended).

Were the scenes too gory? A RadioTimes.com poll of more than 3000 viewers revealed that a slight majority – 52.2% to be exact – didn’t think so.

An execution scene from Gunpowder (BBC, HF)
An execution scene from Gunpowder (BBC)

“In order to understand the events one has to understand what led to them. It’s not gratuitous if it’s what really happened,” Cheryl Boxall told RadioTimes.com via Facebook.

Sheila Ann Stone said Gundpowder was “gripping horrendous and informative” and that people had been warned to expect the worst. “There was a warning at the beginning of the programme about upsetting scenes. A welcome change from the usual sanitised Sunday night dramas. Excellent acting”, she added.

“I looked away, but to stop watching is ridiculous,” said Penny Hayward. “That’s the way things were and there were plenty of warnings previous to the programme being broadcast.”

Laura Lambden – like Kit Harington before her – said the scenes were necessary: “It wasn’t gruesome, there was no gore, but it was horrific. And that’s the point – people were (and still are) killed in horrific ways simply because they believe something different to those who hold power. The scenes were necessary to make us understand exactly why they were rebelling.”

Kit Harington and Liv Tyler in Gunpowder (BBC, HF)
Kit Harington and Liv Tyler in Gunpowder (BBC)

However, 47.8% of viewers polled didn’t agree. They said they didn’t think the scenes needed to be so graphic.

Frances Elizabeth Pope said the executions were “ghastly” and she had to turn the show off. “It may be history but not in my front room on a Saturday evening. Gave me nightmares.”

Her sentiments were echoed by Maria Grazia Spila, who said the show just wasn’t for her: “I thought it was just horrible to have to witness such brutality. My stomach couldn’t bear it. Have I watched Game of Thrones? Nope. I was put off by the brutality of episode one. It is not something I want to cope with while relaxing in front of the telly. I’ll leave it to the fans.”

“That lady who was stripped naked, denied her dignity, then crushed to death under a heavy stone slab and four weights, that was terrible” said Martin McFarland. “I turned off before the young boy was hung.”

Helen Case could understand why darker themes needed to be explored but thought the scenes could have been handled differently. “I agree that this is what historically happened but I don’t think the show needed to be quite so graphic,” she said. “Loved the rest of the show but that scene was a too much for me.”

And Catherine Fearnley suggested that it had been perhaps a bit too much for Saturday night on BBC1.

“It’s history yes but for me it was too gory and maybe a little unnecessary for Saturday night viewing they could have toned it down and not made it quite so graphic.”

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Gunpowder continues on BBC1 on Saturday nights and is also available to stream on BBCiPlayer