This Kit Harington-starring three-parter got off to an explosive start. It might be historically accurate but did it need to be quite so gruesome?
Bonus five-point question on last week’s University Challenge: Robert Catesby was the chief instigator of which abortive rebellion of the early 17th century? St Anne’s College Oxford didn’t know. The Monmouth Rebellion, they tried. Demonstrating that Oxbridge is full of dunces, but also that a lot of people don’t know very much about the Gunpowder Plot, which, of course, is the correct answer.
Don’t worry, remedial homework is now available, in the form of Ronan Bennett’s drama Gunpowder (BBC1 and the iPlayer). The first half hour is not the easiest of watches, tension followed by utter horribleness. Mass is being celebrated, illegally (it’s 1603), at a Catholic family’s manor house in Warwickshire. Dark dudes on horses show up, from the King (James I, you’ll know unless you’re at St Anne’s, duh!). All papist paraphernalia is swept away, priests bundled into chests and priest holes. Mass? What mass? The search, led by Sir William Wade (splendidly and wickedly scary from Shaun Dooley, you can pretty much smell his rancid breath) is almost unbearable, a lesson in gradual tension build-up. Hell, I feel like I’m on that rack (which is yet to appear) myself.
It seems they – the Catholics – might have got away with it, but then William orders measuring, inside and out, and starts to knock at the panelling, tap tap, tap tap, while the household (also this one) holds its breath, and Catesby’s sword hand twitches (even though his sword has been confiscated). In the end they root out one young Jesuit, Father Daniel, from a chest, while Fathers Henry Garnet and John Gerard, both of whom will be implicated in the gunpowder plot that all this is heading towards, remain undiscovered in the priest hole (which seems remiss of Wade, given the anomalies in the measurements, inside and out). Anyway, Daniel is carted off, along with the lady of the house, Dorothy, who assumes responsibility, to be slaughtered, immediately, publically, horribly. She, under a board, on to which weights are added slowly, on William’s orders, as the crowd cheers. Oh, and she’s naked. Again, it’s drawn out to breaking point – literally, she breaks. In the score, an ominous low note falls further, by a semitone, very much like in The Handmaid’s Tale, but in that it was used sparingly and was all the more powerful for it, whereas here it’s all the time.
It’s so full on there’s no time to let what just happened to Dorothy sink in. Because then young Daniel is dragged in, hanged, brought down while still alive, disemboweled (ditto), before being hacked to pieces. Yeah, I know it’s what happened, and it’s part of the point, brutality over minor religious differences (the Catholics in Spain were no better) but there’s something about the relentlessness of it and the apparent relish with which it’s dished up (her nakedness, the baby held aloft to see Daniel’s demise) that I found a little bit too much. It’s not just Kit Harington playing Catesby that gives Gunpowder a Game of Thronesy vibe. The violence, the swords, the darkness, the angry men – it’s GoT minus dragons plus history. Ah, and here’s King James on another kind of throne, the royal commode, with a servant to carry away the result. Game of stools. Derek Riddell has fun as James, his camp court provides welcome relief. Harington – a descendant of Catesby, incidentally – broods and is handsome.
Mark Gatiss as secretary of state Robert Cecil wears his head at an awkward angle, and somehow manages to out-evil Dooley’s Wade. Oh, and Liv Tyler’s in it too, but it’s not the most interesting of roles. Gunpowder is really about the chaps, steely chaps with swords and chains and torture machines.
Guy Fawkes thus far is a dark, stabby character in the back alleys of Flanders. Seems we may have been burning the wrong guy – or were burning the wrong guy until Halloween eclipsed it all. Forget forget the fifth of November… perhaps this will help put that right. It’s certainly historically fascinating, and genuine, in language as well. Potent and gripping too, it doesn’t feel like remedial homework at all.
Parts two and three (of three) are already available, on the iPlayer. But I’m not quite ready, I need some respite, a breather, before being racked up again. I think I know where it’s going (I didn’t go to St Anne’s – or any other – College, Oxford). Plenty more blood and brutality to come, if not fireworks. The Guardian