By Anna May @AnnaMayMight
I've been looking forward to Gunpowder, because the story of Guy Fawkes has been handed down through generations as a historical tale most of us like to think we know very well. However, as this three-part miniseries has just proved, we probably don’t.
Now, as we revisit the events surrounding Fawkes's plan to blow up The Houses of Parliament, our main focus is a man called Robert Catesby, played by Kit Harington. He wants to kill James I in order to stop the persecution of Catholics...and is affectionately known to those closest to him as Robin. So, true to his name, he spends most of his time trying to round up a band of merry men to help him do this. He is also desperate to protect his family and friends, which seems impossible, but somehow he manages to do it…for a while.
Peter Mullan plays Henry Garnet, a Catholic priest, who also needs protection. Sadly, those who try to keep him safe are at risk of being harmed themselves for their kindness. Only a few minutes into the first episode, we’re treated to two extremely vicious examples of such punishment, before the story even gets going!
This is necessary, I think. As harsh as it is, we need to see exactly how Catholics will be treated if they dare go against the Protestant faith. If we don’t, we won’t worry about anyone being arrested or sent to be tortured. When you hear about people in the past being hung, drawn and quartered, it doesn’t quite hit home unless you’re visually presented with it.
If, like me, you’ve watched a fair few gruesome horrors over the years, you may be less sensitive to the scenes. However, the ‘true story’ aspect of Gunpowder, and other such historical dramas, allows a fair amount of empathy to kick in. The fear in their eyes and their screams of terror turn each victim’s brutal torture session into something we wish we didn’t have to witness. Probably because we know only too well this level of torture between rival faiths was a reality…and still is in some places today.
That said, we don’t actually see limbs flying off, or heads being hacked away from bodies. What we do see and hear, though, is a very clear implication of what’s happening. Yes, there is a bit of gore, but we mostly see the results of torture, rather than over-the-top slasher scenes, which really would have ruined it for me.
Even so, these scenes are still hard to watch and, in my opinion, this is not only down to great props, but also due to some incredible acting. We are right there with them, as they struggle to be brave and call on their faith to be strong, but these people are understandably scared…and I believe it.
For example, Thom Ashley plays a very young priest who is subjected to the most horrific death of the series…and, I have to tell you, he set the bar extremely high for me. Surprisingly, Gunpowder is his only credit on IMDb, so I look forward to seeing far more of him than just a head on a pike in future.
Also, what a treat it is to see Mark Gatiss in action again. If you remember his part as the Prince Regent in Taboo recently, you’ll agree Robert Cecil doesn’t quite require the same level of eccentricity, but you cannot deny he’s actually really good at playing these quirky historical figures and appears very prominently throughout. Thankfully, he isn’t portrayed as the more crippled and growth-stunted hunchback we’re led to believe the real Cecil grew up to be, after his nursemaid dropped him as a young child. Still a curvature of the spine, but one Gatiss is allowed to more subtly suggest, and which affords his character that extra little bit of smug pride to play with.
David Bamber also appears as the Earl of Northumberland…and, having also appeared in several similar dramas, is a welcome addition. However, if you haven’t yet seen him play such characters as the strange and twisted Noel from the dark comedy, Camping, you really won’t fully appreciate his amazing versatility as an actor. Yes, his character in Gunpowder is played with a touch of humour, but to go from Noel to this and nail each part perfectly. I’m impressed.
Finally, the dark and troubled Guy Fawkes is played by Tom Cullen, so does indeed feature in the series and is still placed as central to the gunpowder plot itself. After all, he was the man with the powder and the matches…and he even requested a huge trunk of nails to ensure maximum damage. He was also caught red-handed.
With this in mind...should Catesby, the real instigator of the 1605 Gunpowder Plot, have been pushed more into the limelight over the years...and a deeper story told around the traditional tale of the 5th of November? Maybe. Then again, I’m not entirely sure ‘Penny for the Robert’ has the same ring to it.