How accurate is Gunpowder’s depiction of Guy Fawkes?

The new BBC adaptation of the famed historical figure takes a few liberties, admits actor Tom Cullen

Tom Cullen as Guy Fawkes in Gunpowder (BBC, EH)

New BBC drama Gunpowder aims to set the record straight over the story of the Gunpowder Plot, revealing the true mastermind behind the failed historical attack (Kit Harington’s Robert Catesby) and giving more context to their attempt to assassinate King James I and his Parliament.

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However, it’s the character of Guy Fawkes, as played by Downton Abbey’s Tom Cullen, who is likely to be the most surprising part of the drama for viewers. A brutal mercenary recruited after the plot is already in action, this Fawkes is very different to the popular perception of him – and according to Cullen, that was entirely intentional.

“I went and did a lot of work, read as many books as I could,” Cullen told us on Gunpowder’s set earlier this year. “And you source a lot of interpretations, because essentially that’s what history is. It’s not linear, it’s expansive and it’s all about viewpoint.”

In his research, Cullen found out the basic details of Fawkes’ backstory – that he was born in York in 1570, converted to Catholicism when his mother remarried and later sold his estate. He also learned about Fawkes’ military career in the Eighty Years War, where he fought for the Spanish against the new Dutch Republic and France.

Guy Fawkes attempts to plant gunpowder in the cellar of the Palace of Westminster, 5th November 1605. Engraved by George Cruikshank. (Getty, HF)
Guy Fawkes attempts to plant gunpowder in the cellar of the Palace of Westminster, 5th November 1605. Engraved by George Cruikshank. (Getty)

“I found out something that I had no idea of – that Fawkes was a soldier fighting in the lowlands who’d sold his estate,” Cullen said. “He’d moved out and was living in Europe.

“And he was essentially recruited [to the plot] to help them achieve their end goal. That was an interesting ‘in’ for me with the character – that he wasn’t part of the original group.”

Still, there was one problem when it came to film Cullen’s more accurate depiction of Fawkes – the fact that he looked absolutely nothing like him.

“The biggest thing for me was that I wanted him to look different to the rest of the guys,” Cullen said.

“Fawkes was ginger, and had long ginger hair. And I’m not a redhead! So we talked about dying my beard, dying my hair. I just looked stupid, is the truth of it. I’m not a good redhead.”

Instead, Fawkes became a scarred, shaven and bearded figure who exists more on the periphery of the plot in the new drama, an artistic choice that Cullen says he was fully in favour of.

“We’ve taken out a lot of his lines, so that he’s a kind of peripheral figure, an anomaly,” Cullen said.

“He doesn’t quite fit in with the group. He is essentially a mercenary who has come over to help these Catholics with their endgame.

“We wanted to give him an edge and a hardness. A contrast to these guys. He’s been a soldier all his life and he’s got scars on his face and his head. It’s fun, it was really fun to play with it.”

In the end, of course, it was Fawkes who was caught with the gunpowder under parliament, and who became synonymous with the plot to this day. Cullen thinks his new role might have been oddly pleased with the honour.

“I think history perceives him as the fall guy, but they were all caught,” he concluded. “They were all killed. There wasn’t a single one of them that got away.

“I think that he would say that he was the guy that was going to see it through to the end. I think he’d be proud that he was caught at the end.”

Given the torture, hanging, drawing and quartering that followed, we wouldn’t be so sure – but we can’t really argue with the guy playing Guy.

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Gunpowder begins Saturday 21st October at 9.10pm on BBC1