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Gunpowder (Kit Harington) - First episode review


Review by Rob Carnevale

IndieLondon Rating: 3 out of 5

GUNPOWDER, the BBC’s lavish new depiction of the events surrounding Fireworks’ Night, got off to a curious start in more ways than one on Saturday night.

It intrigued by virtue of its history – a fascinating chapter of Britain’s bloody past that was born out of religious persecution. But it also intrigued for what it lacked as much as what it included.

The pacing of this opening 60 minutes seemed off, with some of the accompanying content unnecessary. The opening 15 minutes, for example, revolved around a tense search for Catholics who were hiding at a stately home in Warwickshire in 1603.

The search was conducted by Sir William Wade (Shaun Dooley), who conducted proceedings in a style evocative of the opening sequence of Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourous Basterds (a sequence that also involved the search for persecuted people). And while effective in the way that it made you hold your breath, it took a lot of time.

It was immediately followed by a lengthy execution sequence, in which one of the principals responsible for harbouring Catholics, Mary Sparrow (Vivienne Soan), was crushed to death by having a board place over her naked body and weights slowly placed upon her. It was extremely graphic, only to be followed by the even more harrowing sight of a young man being hung, drawn and quartered for similarly Catholic sympathies.

Series producer and leading man Kit Harington, watching as all this unfolded, maintains the scenes were necessary because he wanted to show just how badly Catholics were being persecuted at that time, so as to understand the actions of his own character – Robert Catesby – given the violence involved.

Regrettably, however, the characters involved in these executions did not exist. Mary Sparrow is thought to have been based, instead, on an English Catholic woman named Margaret Clitherow, who perished in the same way 20 years earlier at the hands of Queen Elizabeth I.

Hence, while the sequence in question did revolt and disgust, as was intended, the first 30 minutes of this drama set itself on the back foot by opening itself up to historical scrutiny from the outset. It also opened up the debate surrounding the need for portraying excessive violence on the screen. Catesby, in real life, had plenty of provocation for his actions, given his beliefs, and this could surely have been conveyed in another form.

The remaining 30 minutes of the opening episode was therefore forced to shoe-horn in the beginnings of Catesby’s revolt, while also addressing the sustained pressure on King James I (Derek Riddell) to continue his persecution of the Catholics by men like the Machiavellian Sir Robert Cecil (Mark Gatiss).

This included homosexual sub-plots, with Cecil sending a young and dashing nobleman, Sir Philip Herbert (Hugh Alexander) to the possibly gay King James, as well as the belated arrival of a certain Guy Fawkes (Tom Cullen).

There was a lot to get in and, to be fair, the back-street meetings and accompanying intrigue wasn’t too wordy and injected even a little fun (such as the sight of King James on the loo).

But while consistently intriguing, for all sorts of reasons both good and bad, Gunpowder left you with an overall feeling that it was lacking something. The tension was, perhaps, a little too front-loaded, the tone a little inconsistent, and the violence a little too keen to shock in the way that series like Game of Thrones do in their stride.

Harington, too, still has his work cut out in the pivotal leading role. A direct descendant of Catesby’s (through his mother’s line), the actor clearly views this as a passion project and is keen to remain as historically accurate as possible. But thus far, his character has yet to convey the passion and charisma that some historical accounts of the man have credited him with. He has the looks, for sure, but at the moment broods as manfully as John Snow.

Gunpowder, for all of its extravagance, lacks the fireworks (political and otherwise) that you might have been expecting. Hopefully, its best is yet to come.

Gunpowder is on BBC1 on Saturday nights from 9.10pm.