The Sound of Silence: Final Review of BBC’s Gunpowder

It is Catesby’s legacy that ultimately breaks his heart. As the death of people around him enter his hollow eyes, he fires a final gunshot. To avenge them? To vent his anger and hatred? Or to add a last statement to the outcry of the Plotters’ defeat?

In the end, Catesby seems stripped bare of all emotions. All that has been said, and all that remains unsaid, is articulated in this last shot. It is impressive how Harrington, throughout the series, portrays Catesby’s emotions through the subtlest of expressions and movements; these ring louder than any cry could. When Catesby and Fawkes stand in the vaults beneath Parliament, there is vast potential in their silent understanding, with secrets oscillating between a state of awareness and one of knowledge.

In my review of Gunpowder’s opening episode, I stated that the strength of the series lies in the tension of these silent moments. This strength grew considerably, giving a voice to the explosion that was never heard. With absence of sound in the story, the images gain a more expressive role. This serves to enhance our unease when Mark Gatiss’s Lord Cecil haphazardly uncovers the gunpowder plot. Our protagonists have finally been traced and are now exposed to the enemy.

The most memorable scene of Gunpowder’s penultimate episode was Catesby’s reconciliation with his son; this provided a necessary delay before the series’ climax. Even here, Harrington constantly emphasises the silence between lines, a silence in which we can contemplate Catesby’s fraught and complicated feelings towards his boy. The death of Catesby’s wife during childbirth, alongside other broken foundations of Catesby’s life, explain his desire to destroy human foundations elsewhere. It’s interesting that whilst the viewers’ sympathy is with him at every moment of the series, the means of his operation are never shown to justify the ends.

The Plotters’ success would have resulted in the deaths of hundreds of people. Gunpowder is very aware of this, however compassionate a portrayal of the Catholic persecution it delivers. Viewers empathise deeply with the courage and grace of Peter Mullan’s Father Garnet, a character which provides a moral balance to the series. It is a strong and important statement to give such a vital and valiant role to a peaceful believer of the very faith that seeks to undertake a terrorist attack. Garnet’s heroism is amplified when he doesn’t flee persecution, despite the historical Garnet having done this.

Critics of Gunpowder as a historical account, a tale of a heritage that is remembered annually, have offered mixed opinions. The Telegraph’s Jasper Rees criticised the series, stating ‘there was no contextualising reference to the execution of James I’s Catholic mother Mary Queen of Scots, nor to the Armada.’ I think it would have been difficult, however, to fit all historical context into three hours of running time. According to The Tablet, Joseph Shaw, an Oxford lecturer who heads the Latin Mass Society, claims that Gunpowder ‘clearly undermines the established narrative and vandalises the anti-Catholic national myth.’ The article deemed the depiction of the persecution of Catholics ‘something of a first for British television.’ The series therefore challenges a widely held historical understanding, the greatest feat a period drama can achieve.

BBC Gunpowder is told in powerful pictures, innovative lighting and thrilling silence, and in my opinion, not only does justice to the reality behind it, but can inspire us to think about our reality as well. More can hardly be asked of a historical drama.

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