Gunpowder – BBC 1


There was certainly plenty of action in this, but it’s always rather annoying when something combines dramatised fact with fiction and doesn’t explain what’s what! I know Versailles got absolutely slated, but I rather liked the way that each episode was followed by a little discussion about the historical truth of what had just been shown, and it would have been nice to see the BBC do the same with this.  Oh well.

The idea seemed to be a) to show things from the plotters’ point of view and b) to remind people that it was actually Robert Catesby, not Guy Fawkes, who masterminded the Gunpowder Plot. By a pleasing coincidence, Catesby is being played by Kit Harington, who is one of his direct descendants … although I’m not sure that the real Robert Catesby was quite as good-looking 🙂 .   And the gist of it was that Catesby was radicalised, to use the modern expression, by the persecution of English Catholics, notably the torture and judicial murder of his aunt, Lady Dorothy Dibsdale.  However, unless I’m missing something – in which case I apologise profusely to the BBC! – Lady Dorothy never actually existed.  Her niece, Anne Vaux, played in this by Liv Tyler certainly did, and there’s long been speculation connecting her with the Gunpowder Plot, but not Lady Dorothy.  The horrific way in which Lady D was killed – being crushed to death – is well-known as having been the way in which Margaret Clitherow was killed, but it was very rare, and it was hard not to feel that the BBC were deliberately sensationalising things.

Far more realistic were the scenes depicting the hanging of a priest, and the programme featured several Catholic priests who genuinely did exist. There are still some fascinating “priest holes” in stately homes.  I think the best one I’ve ever seen is the one at Towneley Hall in Burnley, and there’s also a good one at Speke Hall in Liverpool, and another at Hoghton Tower near Preston.  Now, one of the priests featured was John Gerard, who (the programme failed to mention this bit!) came from Wigan.  He escaped execution, and wrote a book about his life – which a very boring supply teacher, whom our school saw fit to engage for a term whilst I was in the second year, was obsessed with.  Instead of sticking to the syllabus, he kept going on about this book.  12-year-old girls are really not very interested in the lives of priests, believe me.  He tried to liven it up by telling us to use dramatic-sounding titles in our notes, and one of them was “Clandestine Correspondence” – which I remember being quite excited about, because it involved invisible ink, which Enid Blyton’s Five Find-Outers were always using.  Invisible ink was mentioned in last night’s programme by both the priests and the government spies.  So there.  It was obviously a big thing at the time!

Getting back to the point, most of the characters at court were genuine, and not figments of the BBC’s imagination.  I was impressed with the way they portrayed Cecil, but I thought they did James I a bit of an injustice.  He isn’t known as “the wisest fool” for nothing: he was an extremely intelligent man.  Apart from his unfortunate obsession with witch-hunting, but that isn’t really relevant to the Gunpowder Plot.  But the BBC made him seem rather naïve, wanting to act as a peacemaker.  Well, yes, he did want to avoid trouble with either Catholics or Protestants, but he actually did rather a good job of it, marrying Charles off to Henrietta Maria, Elizabeth off to the Elector Palatine, staying out of the Thirty Years’ War and managing to avoid either too much trouble at home or, although there was some conflict with Spain, any really major trouble with other countries.

The discussions with James and his advisors were the only time that the programme gave any real indication of the context in which all this was going on. William Stanley (a very minor member of “the” Stanley family) was lurking around in the Low Countries, allegedly plotting trouble – although, if anything, the programme rather overplayed that.  Yes, he’d plotted against Elizabeth, but he was getting a bit past it all and fed up with it all by the time James became king. And, even though Philip II was dead by this time, there was still a genuine fear in some quarters that Spain might send another Armada.

But I don’t think the programme really got across the genuine fear that many people felt about the fear of religious conflict at home, and what Catholics within England might do. We still, to this day, talk about “the Spanish Inquisition”, and Spanish troops had carried out atrocities in Protestant areas of the Netherlands.  It was, when James became king, only 31 years since the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in Paris.  And it was only 15 years before the outbreak of the Thirty Years’ War.  Then there were the memories, much played up in propaganda, of what had gone on in Mary’s reign.  There was a lot of religious tension all over the show.  Of course, the vast majority of English Catholics just wanted to live in peace and practise their religion in peace.  And Elizabeth would have been happy to let them do that, had it not been for other people stirring up trouble – mainly the Vatican itself, with the infamous “Regnans in Excelsis” bull of 1570 declaring that English Catholics owed no allegiance to Elizabeth and even faced excommunication if they obeyed her.  No-one took much notice of it, and it was effectively suspended ten years later, but that, and the Armada, and all the plotting with Mary Queen of Scots, got the authorities very worried.  And English Catholics suffered for it.  More anti-Catholic laws were brought in later on in the 17th century, and it wasn’t until 1829 that they were repealed.

Vicious circle. You suspect people of sedition.  You repress them.  And a small number of them, usually young men, become susceptible to …  well, “radicalisation” really is the word for it, partly as a result.  And carry out … well, if we’re going with modern terms, terrorist attacks.  And that basically is what this programme was trying to say – and it’s the side of Bonfire Night that isn’t often told.  But to be fair, however much we may sympathise now with the way in which Catholics were treated in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, that side of it isn’t often told because it was a bloody terrorist attack, and there can never be any excuse for that, even if there can be explanations.  But, at a distance of over 400 years, yes, it’s OK to show another side of it.  It’s interesting how Bonfire Night has lasted.  Over 400 years and still going strong, whereas other “thanksgiving” days, such as Oak Apple Day, have faded into history.  Maybe it’s partly because it linked in with existing autumnal traditions to do with fire.

This programme’s going to grab headlines, because it was sensational – all that blood and guts and torture – and because Kit Harington’s in it.  Good!  It’s always good when anything historical grabs headlines!   And maybe it’ll remind people to pay a bit more attention to Bonfire Night and a bit less to all those ridiculous fake spiders and so on that now fill the shops for weeks on end at this time of year!  Now that really would be good.   Bonfire Night’s important.  It is, after all, about a terrorist attack being foiled.  And that’s a hell of a lot more important than silly fake spiders and knocking on doors asking for sweets.  This is what this time of year’s about.  And the concluding part of this drama will be shown on November 5th.  Let’s have Bonfire Night all over the headlines 🙂 !!


5 thoughts on “Gunpowder – BBC 1

  1. Chris Deeley

    Talking of thanksgiving days: does the UK still celebrate, and does the BBC still commemorate, Trafalgar Day? It was a big thing when I was a lad. I now live in Australia, where Trafalgar Day and Bonfire Night are no longer celebrated (although we do have better spelling – adviser, not advisor; program, not programme).


    • Sadly not. Every so often, someone suggests making it a Bank Holiday, because there isn’t one between August and Christmas, but it never happens. It doesn’t even get mentioned much. Maybe we should start making a big deal of it again, to annoy our French friends ;-).


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