“In that Parliament, have they done us all this mischief. Perhaps God has designed that place for that punishment.”
So speaks Kit Harington as he stares ominously over at the Houses of Parliament in new BBC period piece Gunpowder, which aims to create dramatic tension from one of the best-known (yet curiously unadapted) stories in British history: the Gunpowder Plot.
Well, I say best-known – because despite everyone spending some time poring over the plight of 17th-century Catholics during primary school autumn terms, it’s pretty likely that you’ll know next to nothing about the characters and stories featured in this three-part series.
Kit Harington isn’t even playing Guy Fawkes, who was really more of a fall guy (natch) for the plotters when he was caught lighting the fuses under Westminster all those years ago. Instead Harington stars as Robert Catesby, the true mastermind of the attempt to blow up the House of Parliament whose role has been largely lost to history (except to producer Harington and his family, who are directly descended from him – the Game of Thrones star’s middle name is actually Catesby, as was his mother’s maiden name).
The famous Fawkes is instead portrayed by Downton Abbey’s Tom Cullen (below right), unrecognisable here as a shaven murderer who only appears briefly in the first episode to stab a man in a dirty alleyway and ominously mutter his name.
Nope, this is not yer nan’s Gunpowder Plot – this is a violent world of religious persecution, terrifying tortures and endemic espionage, and Gunpowder does a sterling job of portraying that brutality onscreen. One execution scene for a prominent Catholic (caught hiding priests in a tense early scene that makes good use of historically-accurate “priestholes”) is particularly uncomfortable to watch as she’s stripped naked and slowly crushed under an iron door, while a priest’s disembowelment onscreen is barely less traumatic.
These moments set the tone for a first episode that’s almost unremittingly bleak, as Catesby and his friends have their possessions seized because of their Catholic faith, see their friends publicly executed and gradually inch towards the act of terrible revenge that would make them famous. Well, that made Guy Fawkes famous anyway.
While unquestionably authentic, this bleakness can make watching Gunpowder a bit of a slog at times (a problem never suffered by Harington’s OTHER famously depressing series where he broodingly wears a cloak and sword), as does screenwriter Ronan Bennett’s choice to write the whole series in period-accurate Thomas Nashe-esque formal language. Again, though, this is extremely authentic if historical accuracy is your bag – for example, the line quoted at the start of this piece is actually something the real Catesby is reported to have said at one point.
Still, it doesn’t necessarily lend itself to a pleasant, enticing viewing experience (possibly a sentiment shared by the BBC given that it’s dumping the rest of the series on iPlayer directly after episode one is broadcast) – so we have to give thanks for the performance of Mark Gatiss as legendary spymaster Sir Robert Cecil. Gatiss is clearly having a whale of a time as the alternately monstrous, genius and charming Cecil, whose 17th-century spy games would make a compelling series in their own right, and he lights up any scene he’s in.
Meanwhile, the story’s modern resonances also strike a chord, with a scene where the authorities debate the dangers of a religious minority plotting against the state, near-indistinguishable from contemporary (albeit reactionary) debates.
Of course, it’s hard to judge the whole series based on just the first episode (all that was available to press at time of writing) – Hollywood star Liv Tyler’s Lady Anne Vaux has hardly impacted on the story thus far and the titular plot has barely begun to be plotted. Based on what plays out in the first edition, Gunpowder could end up being a bit of an acquired taste for history buffs, Kit Harington completists and anyone who doesn’t mind a bit of grisly torture on their Saturday-night telly.
But if nothing else, this new production might finally set the record straight about who was behind one of the most audacious (attempted) attacks in British history – even if “Penny for the Robert?” doesn’t have QUITE the same ring to it.
This article was originally published in October 2017