This hotly anticipated three-part drama series about the most explosive event in British politics stars Kit Harington, whose star is in the ascendant as he’s that Jon Snow off of Game of Thrones. Even if you’re a stick-in-the-mud hold-out refusing to ride that fantasy dragon I’m sure you could pick his curly locks out of a line-up. Not only is Kit in the starring role as chief gunpowder plotter Robert Catesby but he’s credited as co-executive producer, and he helped get this unlikely vanity project off the ground. Turns out that Kit has family ties on his mother’s side to the rebellious Catesby family of persecuted Catholics who are central to the drama and to this famous nugget of British history.
We meet the Catesby’s and co back in 1603. Queen Elizabeth I is dead and James I is in charge. Things are not improving for England’s oppressed Catholics. The well-to-do Catesby family are seventeenth century preppers because in this instance the government really is out to get them.
Their Warwickshire mansion has various priest holes and places for wanted men to hide. And a good job too. The good Father is conducting mass for the family alongside two young trainee priests. Before you can say red shirt the priests are all holding their breath in cubby holes around the house as an extremely tense early morning witch hunt plays out. The hunter is Sir William Wade (Shaun Dooley) who shreds our last nerve as he tries and fails, then tries and succeeds in finding one young priest, Daniel, who sacrifices himself bravely for the God squad.
If you think Sir William is a bad man, wait until you meet the King’s spymaster Lord Cecil. Mark Gatis plays another powerful sinister well-connected man, mocked by the young, athletic men in court for his disfigurement. This spider in his web has a long memory I’m sure – I certainly wouldn’t be making jokes about his appearance if I wanted to live a long life. He sits at the head of his malevolent army who are out in the shires and beyond merrily making martyrs for the cause.
Robert Catesby is young, hot-headed, sulky and vengeful. He’s certainly kin to Jon Snow. The Catesby clan in general are a family of badasses who have had it up to here with the regime and won’t stand for it any more.
Old Aunt Dorothy, the matriarch, is dignified until the end and her end is a particularly hideous public execution. It’s clear that the King didn’t want to deal with traitors in a clean or humane way. There’s no compassion for old women. Young Daniel meets a similar fate – he’s hung, drawn and quartered, but unlike Dorothy’s death by crushing the camera cuts away to the cheering jeering mob. That’s where the Beeb draws the line. There were complaints that the deaths were too gruesome, more so than Game of Thrones. I suspect that those who complained have never seen an episode of said HBO show. I wouldn’t say that the justice meted out was any more grizzly, but we are, and bloody well should be, more squeamish about this because these are real and documented ways to kill people with the blessing of the almighty King under English law. Damn right the things we did during this period of history should make modern viewers wince.
Despite the blood-curdling methods of dispatching treasonous Catholics the King is actually against new anti-Catholic laws. James doesn’t want to piss off the Spanish right now. His are delicate matters of foreign policy, but anyhoo, it’s ok to just off the priests when they can find them. It’s a shame that Popery sounds so much like potpourri. “I detest potpourri in all its forms!” shouts one man, desperate to prove his loyalty to his monarch and his dislike of all overpowering floral bathroom smells. You’ve got to find your laughs where you can in this bleak episode.
Robert Catesby kicks up a fuss at court protesting unreasonable fines. An odd spot was Kevin Eldon as the judge, showing his drama muscle instead of his regular comedy chops. Catesby’s cousin Ann Vaux (yes, that really is Liv Tyler) stumps up the cash to get him and his mate Thomas Wintour (Edward Holcroft) out of prison and provides them with a link to the Catholic underground network. Catesby says he is “humiliated, despised and impoverished”. As a self-confessed desperate man, nothing is off the table. Change is coming, and the oppressed are going to rise up using whatever means they can.
Given the mood of the country it’s incredibly bad timing for the monarchy as the spider-like Lord Cecil finally gets his way and frightens the King James into passing new anti-Catholic laws. Light the blue touch-paper Your Majesty and retire.
This intriguing drama is well worth a watch, especially as the whole thing is just three hours of your time. So far, so gloomy, but in a Horrible Histories style it’s shedding light on an event we all think is common knowledge. An hour in and we’ve only just met Guy Fawkes, so how essential is he to the conspiracy? And what other facts have we lost to the mythology?
Gunpowder is available as a full series on BBC iPlayer now. Episode 2 airs on Saturday night, on BBC1 at 9:10pm.