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With just three episodes, the miniseries Gunpowder (now streaming here on Showmax) is perfect for binge viewers looking for an action-packed drama that won’t take up their evenings for an entire month. It’s the story of Robert Catesby (Kit Harington, Game of Thrones’ Jon Snow) and his part in the Catholic vs Protestant plot to blow up the houses of parliament and assassinate King James during the early 1600s – an event still commemorated around the world to this day on the 5th of November as Guy Fawkes Day. Expect blood, gore, graphic torture… and historical accuracy?
Place & Time
Production designer Grant Montgomery had to entirely recreate the streets of 17th-century London. “The problem with a lot of Elizabethan or Jacobean properties is you can’t recreate them, there aren’t many streets left. They don’t really exist. We looked at The Shambles [a period street] in York but to close that down and physically take it over on the budget we had was probably nigh on impossible,” says Grant. “So essentially we built a backlot at Dalton Mill. Then we built the Tower of London set inside that as well, a cavern where they plot, houses, plus a section of the Palace of Westminster, which is what they were trying to destroy. That was all built in there.”
Having their own sets also allowed the team to decorate the houses in a period-authentic way without running afoul of the National Trust. “The more research I did, the more I realised that a lot of the panel work had been decorated. If you were rich, you painted your panels. So while we didn’t necessarily colour-code them, we started to paint the interiors. It gives it such a distinctive look and the audience also knows where it is at any one point. That’s really important because it’s quite a convoluted plot,” reveals Grant.
Grant worked closely with the script created by Gunpowder’s co-creator and scriptwriter Ronan Bennett. Ronan wrote his thesis for his history doctorate on Enforcing The Law In Revolutionary England 1640-1660. “I have always had a deep interest in 17th-century English history. Radicalism, the Levellers and the Roundheads and all those ideas,” he says. Kit adds, “Ronan decided to use the vernacular of the time and he did it with accuracy. He has a PhD in English 17th-Century History, so he has a very deep knowledge and sense of what this piece is about. He couldn’t have been more excited about it.”
And That’s a Fact
While quite a lot of history has been fiddled with for dramatic effect – including the introduction of improbable romantic subplots – some of Gunpowder’s most startling details are firmly rooted in reality.
Kit Harington, who is one of the show’s executive producers, plays his real-life ancestor. Kit’s full name is Christopher Catesby Harington and his mother’s surname before she married was Catesby.
Lady Dorothy Dibdale, who’s tortured to death in episode 1, isn’t a real person. But both her case and the method of her execution are based on the torture and death of Margaret Clitherow, now regarded as a Catholic martyr, about 20 years earlier in 1586. According to historical records, she was stripped naked, forced to lie on a sharp rock and had a door laid on top of her on which heavy stones were placed until it broke her back. It took her about 15 minutes to die.
The lethal warning letter that exposes the entire plot isn’t a writer’s trick – it really exists and has been placed online by the UK’s National Archives.
The dirty details of how the King’s privy stool worked are also historically accurate. The most powerful man in the country at the time pooped into a bucket, which some poor unfortunate soul (The Groom of the Stool – he had a title and everything) had to carry off. King James I’s Groom of the Stool was Sir Thomas Erskine. “You even see a scene where the king is at his toilet and you just think this must be a really filthy world, even at the court. No wonder they didn’t live long!” says Grant. Gunpowder director J Blakeson adds, “We have this very nostalgic view of the past, of it being this lovely place, but one of the great things about Ronan’s script is it’s not described as that at all. There’s no indoor plumbing, there’s no sewer system. People would die in the street – death was everywhere. It’s a horrible place.”
While shooting in real locations, the production team often ran into severe lighting restrictions thanks to the fire hazard in historic buildings that would allow them to (for example) light only 25 candles in a scene that needed around 150.
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