Gunpowder (BBC One) review

Just in time for bonfire night, BBC One has a brand new period drama for us in the form of Gunpowder – the under-told story of the attack on parliament in 1905 that would inspire the burned effigies and fireworks we enjoy (bonfire night is quite weird, isn’t it?) annually today.

Starring Game of Thrones’ Kit Harington as Robert Catesby, who also serves as executive producer on the project, Gunpowder is no more or less than about what you’d expect. Dirty, violent and full of men with wonderful facial hair plotting and scheming.

Set in a time when catholics were persecuted under the rule of Scottish monarch James I – as the rather crude opening explains via title cards before the credits roll – this first episode sets up both the players involved and the motive behind the eventual plot.

Harington isn’t the only star name here, though he will more than likely be the one to draw in the most viewers, with Liv Tyler, Mark Gatiss and more joining him. There’s a ton of recognisable faces all over, allowing you to play the ‘spot the veteran character actor’ game better than almost any show of late.

We begin with a raid on a household holding mass at a time when such actions were punishable by death and, after the family matriarch gives herself up to spare her niece and son, they are publicly executed.

Said execution scenes are quite ridiculous in their graphic detail, and whether you can stomach what this first episode serves up will say a lot about whether you’ll enjoy Gunpowder on the whole. It seems to me that it’s a show simply entering the sex and violence (and sexual violence) one upmanship that these series engage with so often, testing the limits of what they can get away with in a primetime slot.

Nevertheless, it certainly makes us understand what may have motivated the eventual scheme, but that doesn’t mean it will play out in any particularly engaging way. Like it or not, the problem that shows like Gunpowder must reckon with is the fact that the audience already know what’s coming, and the heavy handed final exchange of this first outing certainly indicates that the show may play up to this foreknowledge in future installments.

But the politics – the endless talking in dimly lit rooms – is difficult to make into compelling drama even with the best will in the world. Sadly, Gunpowder suffers for making its biggest spectacle, and only real notable aspect, the violence mid-way through the hour.

But maybe the rest comes later. When deciding to make the show, Harington spoke about the common misconceptions around the event, with many associating it only with Guy Fawkes, a figure who in 2017 has more association with V for Vendetta masks than he does with any real historical fact. Gunpowder seeks to demystify him somewhat, mainly by relegating him to the sidelines of a story that was never supposed to be his to begin with.

So after this initial hour we can look forward to seeing Catesby and his associates plan one of the most famous plots that no one actually knows that much about, tackling an old story from a decidedly new angle.

Future weeks would do well to bring a little more life to proceedings, perhaps with the rest of the actors matching Gatiss’ rather gleeful performance, or simply with a little more swash and buckle added to the mix. We’re told early in the episode that Catesby is a master swordsman, after all.

Also, if you’ve ever wondered about the process of how kings of England used to take a dump – and who hasn’t? – Gunpowder solves the mystery for us.