Review: Gunpowder (S1 E1/3), Saturday 21st October, BBC One

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NB: SPOILERS INSIDE

Historical drama Gunpowder arrives with the promise of violence, treachery, conspiracy and beards, all tied up with a healthy dose of ladies’ favourite, Kit Harington. What could be a better lead-in to 5th November?

Kit Harington, fresh from the cult success of Game of Thrones, plays his ancestor Robert Catesby, one of the prime movers of the Gunpowder Plot. While Guy Fawkes got most of the fame, Catesby arguably has the better back-story, and Harington says he has always wanted to tell the tale.

It’s not a bad time to do so. Most people probably don’t remember the details – something to do with fireworks and the Houses of Parliament? – and certainly couldn’t explain the complex politics involved.

Fortunately, Gunpowder lays it all out in a way anyone could understand. It’s 1603, Elizabeth I is dead, and Protestant King, James of Scotland, sits uneasy on the throne, balancing desire for an end to the war with Catholic Spain, against fears of Catholic rebels at home.

Eager to promote persecution of English Catholics is spymaster Robert Cecil (Mark Gatiss), a hunched spider-like figure who recruits ne’er-do-wells to infiltrate the Catholic revolutionaries.

Playing Darth Vader to Cecil’s Emperor Palpatine is Sir William Wade (Shaun Dooley), who raids the home of Lady Dorothy Dibdale (Sian Webber) while a covert mass is being conducted, captures a novitiate hidden in a chest, and executes the unfortunate young man as well as Lady Dibdale.

Nothing is spared in the scenes of the executions, where Lady Dorothy is stripped and crushed, while the novitiate is hanged, drawn and quartered (yes, that’s ‘hanged’, folks, not ‘hung’ as many reviewers seem to believe).

Arguably the brutality of these scenes is justified in explaining the strength of young Robert Catesby’s reaction – or maybe it’s just an excuse to introduce some gore and nudity. In any case, Catesby is fined and imprisoned as a recusant refusing to attend church services, and has to be bailed out by his cousin Anne Vaux.

Is Liv Tyler well cast as Catesby’s cousin Anne? Well, she has no opportunity to glam up, but she does demonstrate a passable English accent, not that she is given a great deal to say.

Like recent BBC drama success Taboo, Gunpowder is understandably a gloomy, brown-tinted production, but we’re spared the worst evidence of BBC drama mumbling, or intrusive background music. The real problem with it is that nobody can be described as a hero – the characters’ actions are just different shades of despicable. But that’s history for you.

Also, of course, we all know what will happen in the end. Guy Fawkes is only the best-remembered figure in the conspiracy because he was the first to be caught; he’s (Tom Cullen) revealed until the final scenes, a Bane-like character emerging from an alley to stab one of Cecil’s spies. So far the star of the show is Mark Gatiss, camping it up as the manipulative Cecil. As a fan of The Prisoner he must have relished the line, “His lordship is Number 1 – you are number 32”. Good to see ‘the actor Kevin Eldon’ in a rare serious part as magistrate Sir Joseph Hawksworth, too.

One does feel the BBC’s heavy-handed political commentary at work – while Wade comments, “the air in this house is rancid with popery”, other characters note, “Catholics are loyal and quiet if left in peace”, and put the argument that repressive action taken against them can only result in a violent backlash. They might as well have had an extra holding up a placard saying ‘Pay attention! Contemporary resonance!’

So if we stick with Gunpowder, it won’t be because we can expect any surprises in the plot; it will be more because we know it can’t end with a bang, so it will be interesting to see how it avoids fizzling out.

Chris Jenkins

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