If you ever worried that history wasn’t bloody and violent enough to entertain a modern audience, Gunpowder is here to reassure you. The BBC’s new dramatisation of the famous attack on Parliament arrives just in time for Bonfire Night, and it’s full of treason and plot – and a whole lot of gore.
Our setting is 1603 London, a time when England is at war. Abroad, a long-running conflict with Spain is drawing to a conclusion, while at home, the protestant King James I is at odds with the Catholics in his kingdom, who are persecuted under his ruthless orders. We see that persecution close-up, from naked women crushed under weights in full public view to searches through people’s homes for concealed ‘traitors’. It’s one such nail-biting hunt that opens the show, as we meet Sir William Wade (an intimidatingly gruff Shaun Dooley), who prowls through rooms with a toxic presence. Knocking on wooden panels throughout the property, before measuring every inch of the place inside and out, it’s a genuinely tense sequence – and Gunpowder doesn’t let up from there.
It sets the tone in so many ways, not only the three-parter’s intense pacing, but also in the way the system is stacked against the Catholics: as soon as we start to breathe and think they’ve survived, Wade uncovers a young priest, who is swiftly whisked away to be tortured. Like him, we’re not spared any detail, as director J Blakeson (The Disappearance of Alice Creed) stops just short of relishing the nastiness, but keeps it on full, historically authentic display.
In the face of such nastiness, it’s no wonder, then, that Robert Catesby (Kit Harington) should decide to lead a rebellion against the crown, conceiving the plan that so many attribute to Guy Fawkes. He makes an appearance here, played by Tom Cullen – his first scene, naturally, involves him stabbing someone – but Catesby is the unknown architect of the scheme, oft forgotten in the pages of text books.
That, in itself, is reason enough for the show to exist – to correct the accounts of history, but Gunpowder’s success lies in its ability to entertain as well as inform; Harington is perfectly cast as the well-meaning hero, a man facing financial pressure (due to the fines from the crown for not attending protestant church services) and unable to show his face in society for fear of torture or worse. All because he believes in slightly different form of Communion? In an age of Brexit, and intolerance of foreign culture, such pernicious, trivial division feels pointedly relevant, with each bloody point keenly felt by your every nerve.
Ronan Bennett, Daniel West and Harinton’s scripts (all three are credited as co-creators) finds nuance and conflicts on all sides of the fence, primarily in the relationship between Catesby and Father Garnet (Peter Mullan). Mullan, who could bring gravitas to a reading of My Little Pony, is wonderful as Garnet, a man so committed to his faith that he can’t possibly condone the violent extremes Catesby proposes to defend it – one superb scene sees Robert force him to listen to his idea by presenting it as confession rather than a conversation.
As Robert teams up with Thomas Wintour (Edward Holcroft) to drum up support overseas, the scale of the story widens – although the same personal doubts and certainties still govern actions, as Spain’s Constable of Castille (Pedro Casablanc) finds himself torn between not worsening his fragile relations with England and not supporting the punishment of Catholics.
In the midst of all is Gunpowder’s secret weapon: Mark Gatiss as Lord Robert Cecil, spearheading the hunt for Catholics, and not doing so very secretly at all. Gatiss is enjoying the hell out his villainous role, from his wicked smile and menacing glint to the way he walks with his head permanently on one side. But it’s his soft, gentle voice that really gives you the creeps, as he worms his way back into the king’s favour, even as he finds himself out of it. “What you propose is a recipe for dissent,” says one, quite astutely. “It is a recipe to avoid rebellion,” comes Gatiss’ confident reply, as the drama tackles timeless questions of authority, social unrest and abuse of power.
He’s the perfect foil to Harington, whose earnest, doe-eyed expression sells his own painful conviction with aplomb – just enough to make us sympathise with an outlaw. Liv Tyler is sadly underused as his sister, who provides a moral compass to her brother, as his plotting takes him into London’s underground, but the three performances at the heart of the show (Gatiss, Harington and Mullan) are good enough to keep your mind occupied. With Robert Emms as a nervous young priest drawn into the rebellion, it boils to a simple question of whether anyone will tell the crown what’s happening: Will Garnet betray to avoid further bloodshed? Will Emms’ Father John stay true long enough to be rescued by his brothers? It all culminates in a violent (of course) final episode, as the reason why we only really know Fawkes’ name comes into clear view. Accompanied by a soundtrack that ticks along like a fuse counting down to one of history’s most explosive chapters, Gunpowder is gripping television that crackles with suspense. You won’t be forgetting the 5th of November any time soon.
All three episodes of Gunpowder are available on BBC iPlayer until 4th December.