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TV Series Review: Gunpowder (2017)

An instant classic, dipped in historical fact and not afraid to realise the horrors of the period

(4 / 5)

In the absence of Game of Thrones I (like many I’m sure) have been pining for a historical drama with some bite.  It is then somewhat ironic that the leading man in Gunpowder is none other than Jon Snow himself Kit Harrington.

Gunpowder is a three part mini-series from the BBC that tells the story of the period of religious discontent in England in the early 17th Century.  The story is set not long after the death of Henry VIII and all the chaos that he left in his wake.  The year is 1605 and James I sits on the throne.  James I is advised and led by a close group of spies/confidants.  One in particular, Lord Robert Cecil is more ruthless than any of his peers.  Cecil leads the witch hunt against the Catholics and has his sights set on one particular individual, Robert Catesby.

We see the extent of Sir Robert’s ruthlessness from the very beginning of Gunpowder when he sends his bloodhound Sir William Wade to Robert Catesby’s home in search of Catholic dissidents.  It is from this point that you realise this show is not going to pull any punches and will give it to you with both barrels.  We all know from our GCSE history classes (or trips to the London Dungeon) just how brutal and savage us Brits used to be – especially with those who disagreed with us.

The show’s researchers had obviously done their homework and opened the series with some very authentic looking, (excruciating painful looking) and difficult to watch torture scenes.  What I particularly liked about Gunpowder was the characters it focused on.  Our main protagonist is Robert Catesby and our chief antagonist Lord Robert Cecil.  The writers did a good job of creating two multifaceted characters.  We understand why Catesby is so driven and passionate about his cause because of the great personal loss he suffered.  We can also understand why Cecil felt compelled to drive out the Catholics and the lengths he was prepared to go to to achieve this goal.  Also of great interest is how the thick plot is gradually revealed uncovering a conspiracy far bigger than any one man.

I really enjoyed the character of Lord Cecil, ok it was almost cartoon bad guy villainy at times but for the most part Mark Gatiss played him with an intelligent, menacing demeanor that made him a feared enemy.  He gave us an insight into how decisions were made during this period and why confession by torture is no confession at all.  Cecil’s use of capital punishment would have made even the toughest and bravest quiver with fear.

The feared Lord Robert Cecil, have you anything to confess?

Although in a smaller supporting role I think that Liv Tyler deserves a special mention.  I thought she played Anne Vaux convincingly and was the perfect choice for the part.  Aside from some notable TV roles we haven’t really seen Tyler in something as challenging or dynamic as The Lord of the Rings for a long time.  Hopefully this is the start of a big comeback for her and we continue to see her taking on roles like this, perhaps historical in nature as they appear to be her forte.

Great to see Liv Tyler on our screens in a role like this

So what of Guy Fawkes himself?  As I mentioned earlier the show does heavily focus on Robert Catesby and how he is instrumental in the gunpowder plot.  The way that this story is told simply sees Guy Fawkes as a tool to be used by Catesby in enacting his bloody revenge for persecution of his fellow Catholics.  Tom Cullen plays Fawkes well for the small amount of time he has on screen.  I did feel however that in the face of such horrific torture he would not have remained so defiant and aggressive towards his unforgiving hosts.  Perhaps given more screen time we could have seen more depth to his character and cared a bit more for him when the brutal end came.

Confession/interrogation by torture was a key method used by investigators of the time and does feature heavily in this show.  In fact if you are particularly squeamish I would probably advise giving Gunpowder a miss altogether!  Perhaps the most brutal scene was in the first episode where poor Dorothy Dibdale met her end.  You see Dorothy laid down face up upon a sharp rock, a large board is then placed over her body.  The executioners then place heavy weights on top of the board until the rock protrudes her back and kills her.  Apparently this was actually based on a real life execution of a woman named Margaret Clitherow.  She was executed for the crime of harbouring and aiding Catholic priests.

Other torture/execution methods to feature in the show are the rack (most frequently), several people are hung, drawn and quartered, burning at the stake and of course pulling fingernails.  I can see why some people would be put off watching a show featuring these kinds of atrocities but I cannot understand the wild backlash that the show has received from the public and some critics.  All I will say on the matter is that firstly this is part of our history and that these things really did happen (probably in afar worse and brutal fashion than we could ever portray on screen).  Secondly as with anything else if you think something may offend you then please don’t watch it.  This is a show about one of the most bloodthirsty periods of British history, I think it would have been hard to make it without these scenes.

As you would expect with a show of this magnitude, sets, costumes and props are all fantastic and really help to bring 17th century London to life.  I’m sure that if you look hard enough you will find plenty of historical inaccuracies but I accepted the show as a historical drama not a reenactment from the history channel so was more than satisfied.  The make-up artists should get a special mention as the torture and gore scenes that caused so much of a stir only did so because they looked so realistic.

Overall I think this was a fantastic show did a great job of re-telling the tale of ‘Guy Fawkes’ night right in time for the big day itself.

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