Gunpowder review – can the failed attempt to blow up parliament prove victorious on screen?

Kit Harington in the role of the Robert Catesby for the TV show Gunpowder (2017)
Source: BBC Media Centre

In this year’s celebration of Guy Fawkes and the attempt to blow up parliament, BBC’s Gunpowder, a three-part miniseries starring Kit Harington (Game of Thrones), hit our screens. Set in King James I’s rule during 1605, it unfolds the tension between the persecuted English Catholics and a Protestant ruled England. Harington plays Robert Catesby, the lead conspirator, and shows how he planned one of the most infamous events in British history. Moving away from the typical coverage of the plot, Guy Fawkes (Tom Cullen) is shrouded as a mysterious figure and the show aims to present a historically accurate story of the conspirators behind the plot.

From the first episode, it was clear that if there is one thing the creators of Gunpowder know how to get right, it’s creating suspense. The opening scene dives straight into the action as a secret Catholic Mass is interrupted by Sir William Wade (Shaun Dooley), and his group of King’s soldiers, demanding a search of the house. Robert Catesby, Anne Vaux (Liv Tyler, Lord of the Rings) and the Lady of the House stand off the intruders while priests hide in secret compartments in the house. Wade slowly circles the three characters as he brushes his hand over walls and furniture, each time coming closer to uncovering the hidden Catholics. The blow comes as the pace picks up; just when you think Catesby and his friends outsmarted their persecutors, Father Daniel is found inside a chest.

When a television show airs after 9 pm, you expect more taboo elements to play out on screen. Sex, murder and drugs are the usual suspects. But even those who have become desensitised to such themes may find Gunpowder’s execution scenes disturbing. First, the captured Lady of the House has her clothes ripped from her body. Shots of a tearful Anne and Robert change the atmosphere from a public spectacle to a mournful goodbye. As weights are added on top of the lying down lady, crushing her to her death as she focuses on God, the alternating shots between her and Anne make the torture more shocking and inhumane. In comparison, Father Daniel being hung, drawn and quartered is easy watching because we expect it. With the Protestants presented as unthinkably cruel executioners, the urgency for the Catholics to act becomes clear. It puts us on the side of Catesby as we want to see him put an end to the tyranny.

A thrilling atmosphere filled with anticipation can often be credited to the music and score played throughout highly tense scenes. However, this is an area that the BBC, in this case, could have improved. During horrific moments, whether that be a shocking method of torture or a hidden Catholic almost being found, a foreboding low note drones for a few seconds, overwhelming the score, and falls further down by a semitone each time it sounds.  It strikingly resembles the sparingly used drone in Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, however, Gunpowder’s terror-packed story forgoes limiting its use and plays it multiple times per scene. This was the show’s downfall. The menacing bass note lost its effect as it signalled danger every few seconds.

Hiding and escaping from the tyranny of the Stuart crown is the show’s strong point. The final episode features scenes that turn away from the awaited plot and capture the affection between Anne Vaux and Father Henry Garnet (Peter Mullan). With the Protestants marching in to capture known Catholics from Garnet’s home, the Father’s gentle goodbye to Anne as he hides her gives the show a softer edge after all the torture and plotting.

The awaited climax, the moment Guy Fawkes lights the gunpowder, arrives in the final episode and echoes the scene that opened the series. However, the expected capture of the conspirator seems all too easy. A quick fight between Sir William Wade and Guy Fawkes allows the gunpowder, along with the climax, to fizzle out. Following this, a return to Catesby attempts to reignite the show’s climax and rekindles the anticipation for the final spectacle. Harington’s fight-inspiring rally restores hope after the failed plot. ‘What we have done, what we have dared, shall put the fear of God in them!’ he cries, sounding his fiery appetite for revenge. So, when Catesby storms into a Western-style gunfight against the King’s soldiers, his fall conjures a greater sense of loss than Guy Fawkes’ capture. The hope he rallied up is shattered on screen.

While Gunpowder was successful at redefining the understanding of the 1605 plot, it was let down by its overuse of anti-climax. It managed to present the significance of Robert Catesby over Guy Fawkes, but the final shot of the lead conspirator’s head on the stake ended the series with a sense of defeat. If the show had explored the good and evil strands of both sides of the religious conflict, the final scene may have delivered justice rather than tragedy. The show, like its seventeenth-century characters, didn’t quite achieve its planned victory.


Rating: 3/5 pugs

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