“It seems there is ample time to torture and maim, but yet not one minute to speak words of love and pity. What world is this?”
This is the world of England under the reign of King James I in 1603. This is also the best line in the new BBC drama Gunpowder. It is stunningly delivered by Liv Tyler’s Anne Vaux with a rigid coldness ultimately motivated by a tender warmth which flickers in her voice. Her (fictional) aunt, Lady Dibdale, is about to be executed for treason, having harboured a Catholic priest, and Anne’s love for her stands in heart-wrenching contrast to the violence about to occur. This disparity is central to the BBC drama, and ultimately shocking.
For many viewers, the horrific violence of the executions following this scene was “too gory” according to a poll on the Radio Times website. However, it also earned praise for its historical accuracy. The question of justification in such scenes, naturally, is always at hand. Do we need to see a woman being stripped naked and crushed to death to understand the horrors of the persecution of Catholics during this period? Do we need to see a young man being hung, drawn and quartered to understand why the Plotters wanted to blow up Parliament?
Kit Harrington, who plays his direct ancestor Robert Catesby, the leader of the plot, defends the realistic depiction of the execution. According to the Guardian, he explained: “I think it’s wrong when showing a torture scene or execution, I think it’s wrong to shy too far away from the reality of it. You need to feel the reasons, to know why they go and do the things they do.”
In my opinion, the horrors of Christian persecution are a heritage we should be aware of in times of religious conflicts. While I was shocked myself, and felt compelled to look away at certain times, the reasons for showing the scene, and the unimaginable courage with which the victims of the regimes were portrayed, did earn my respect. The necessity of portraying the scenes in such an intimate manner, however, remains arguable to me.
Nonetheless, Kit Harrington’s portrayal of Robert Catesby also impressed me. The strong and quiet self-restraint which made up Catesby’s composure throughout the episode always gave a thrilling hint of the anger and hatred boiling within him – the tension before explosion. It was especially fascinating to watch his conversation with Peter Mullan’s admirable Father Garnet, about the justification of violent acts in defence of Catholicism. While the excellently scripted dialogue gave insight to both sides of the argument, there was also some exciting insight into Catesby’s motivations and emotions, which surfaced in long close-ups of Catesby’s face, the flickering light of the fireplace making them legible and illegible at the same time.
Most of the tension of the show lies in the extensive silence in many scenes, before the disruption of action. The calm terror, which Shaun Dooley gave to his character William Wade, was deeply chilling, especially in the scene of finding out the hidden Catholic priest in Lady Dibdale’s house. Mark Gatiss as the scheming Robert Cecil delivered as dry and inwardly-broken performance as ever. Derek Riddell’s James I remained a little anaemic throughout, though.
The episode ends with the killing of one of Cecil’s spies. The identity of the dubious man he encounters (portrayed by Tom Cullen) is the last thing revealed before the credits: Guy Fawkes. A thrilling end to the episode, with the soundtrack at its finest moment, echoing the frizzling gunpowder as Guy Fawkes’s menacing presence leaves the viewer in eager anticipation of the next episode.
BBC Gunpowder faithfully frames history with suspense, and is shockingly relevant to our time. This makes it definitely worth watching for anyone willing to immerse themselves in the violent times of the reign of King James I or anyone willing to search for the present in the past we should learn from.