Boasting a stacked cast and a really well written script, Gunpowder is a bloody and oftentimes surprising drama about the Gunpowder plot in early 17th century Britain. The long, drawn out scenes depicting the violence and torture toward the Catholics might be a bit much for some viewers but if you can look beyond that, there’s a lot to like in this smartly written historical drama.
The story begins with a brief introduction, setting the scene for the time period and mood of this dark drama. Following the death of Elizabeth I in 1603, King James VI of Scotland (Derek Riddell) takes to the English throne and begins a tyrannous reign, hell bent on eradicating the Catholics. With a maniacal glee in his eye, the King wields his power over the Catholics until one man eventually breaks and decides enough is enough. That one man is Robert Catesby (Kit Harrington) who begins to devise a sinister plot to get rid of King James once and for all, allowing the Catholics to rise and see off the protestants. The first episode is a little slow while it establishes the characters compared to the second and third episode, but the long scenes help to establish the characters and are used to great effect early on. The opening fifteen minutes of the first episode are incredibly tense and its pleasing to see this high level of tension carried over to other parts of the 3 episodes.
At a little under an hour for each episode there’s certainly enough here to become invested in the story and characters but the focus remains solely on Catesby and his plot to blow up parliament. Even Guy Fawkes himself struggles for screen time with many of the scenes dominated by Kit Harrington. Anyone familiar with the basic history of the gunpowder plot will slot in comfortably but suffice to say those with a high level of knowledge on the subject matter may well find some of the characters inaccurately portrayed. It works here for TV to heighten tension and build character but in terms of a historically accurate depiction, Gunpowder is best enjoyed for what it is and in this respect, it certainly makes for some enjoyable TV.
In terms of accuracy with costume and setting, there’s a real effort in this department to make things as realistic to the time period as possible. The dialogue is accurate for the time period too and the delivery from almost all of the actors is believable and well received. Its clear to see that a lot of the cast have great chemistry and work well together here, with many of the cast duelling articulately in the scenes and bringing a real bounce to the script lacking in some of the more lacklustre efforts at historical dramas. It is initially difficult to see Kit Harrington as anything but Jon Snow in Game Of Thrones but his performance here certainly goes some way to show his acting prowess, especially in the second and third episode.
Its not just the solid plot line or the well written script that helps Gunpowder stand out; the suitably grim locale and bittersweet ending empathise that this is a drama with no happy ending, intent on trying to tell the most historically accurate plot possible. This attention to detail really helps make Gunpowder a convincing drama and despite complaints regarding excessive violence and gore, its worth mentioning that Britain was always a bloody country and the creators never shy away from showing this in all its gruesome, torturous glory. Its not perfect, and with the tunnel focus on Kit Harrington for most of the run time, the other characters are relegated to back seat status making it difficult to really get a connection with any of them. BBC again manages to deliver a well written historical drama worth its weight in gunpowder, even if the over-reliance on Kit Harrington and a slow first episode drag this show down slightly.