Gripping and gory, the first installment of this BBC drama demonstrates you don’t always need big action sequences to create a tense series opener.
Remember remember the fifth of November, Gunpowder treason and plot. But what exactly do you remember about the Gunpowder plot? Perhaps not a lot, other than the name of the infamous Guy Fawkes? This new BBC Drama hopes to change that with a retelling of the plot to blow up the houses of parliament. Executive produced by Kit Harington, a distant relative of one of the plotters Robert Catesby, this three part drama aims to provide a more detailed historical telling of the plot to kill the King.
Opening in 1603, the first episode spends much of its hour explaining the historical and religious context behind the gunpowder plot. In an era of Catholic suppression under Protestant ruler King James I (James VI of Scotland), Catesby and others gather in secret, practicing Catholic mass and swearing loyalty to the Pope. The episode begins with a spectacularly tense scene in which men loyal to the King search Catesby’s residence attempting to discover a hidden priest hole. While this may sound a little dry and historic to those hoping for a thrilling opening, the episode soon turns gory. In a scene sure to shock some, Catesby and fellow Catholic supporter Anne Vaux (Liv Tyler) watch on in horror as Catholics are brutally executed in public. This scene, combined with the horrified reactions of Catesby and Vaux in juxtaposition to the cheering crowd of onlookers, excellently demonstrate the isolation and persecution that Catholics at the time must have felt.
The casting of the show in on the whole brilliant. Mark Gatiss is perfectly cast as Lord Robert Cecil – advisor to the King and one of the key men who eventually uncovers the plot. Gatiss has made a career of playing intelligent and scheming characters, and in Gunpowder he is clearly in his element. Kit Harington, while currently best known as the brooding Jon Snow from HBO’s Game of Thrones, is here instead the brooding Robert Catesby. As of yet the role has not stretched him hugely, with much of his performance based around looking mildly disgusted or gloomy. It is clear that this episode is largely concerned with setting up the motivations behind the plot, rather than the plot itself. Considering the name most people know from the plot is Guy Fawkes, it is a bold move from the show to only show the infamous conspirator briefly at the end of the episode, however this pays off well. Tom Cullen’s Fawkes appears genuinely menacing, and it is apparent that much of the explosive tension of the series will lie in the scheming between Catesby and Fawkes, and the dynamic between the two.
Gunpowder is also well filmed, with great attention to period detail making the settings feel authentic. The show ranges in setting from the grand and ostentatious court of the King to the muddy streets of the public execution, and demonstrates the clear difference between the Monarchy and his subjects. The cinematography is crisp and functional, avoiding too many arty shots in what is ostensibly a period piece, while the music helps create tension; in particular in the extended first scene. Harington also served as an executive producer on the show, suggesting that his career may also show promise behind the camera. In focusing on the context of the plot and setting up character, the first episode of this three part BBC series has done an excellent job of building tension and suspense. It is now up to the next two episodes to set up the action of the infamous plot.
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Episode Two of Gunpowder will premiere on BBC One on Saturday 28th October, and is reviewed here.