“No more swords, no more horses – and maybe I can cut my hair.” So Kit Harrington reportedly demanded of roles inbetween turns as Game of Thrones’ resident auntie-romancer Jon Snow. Cue much sword wielding, horse riding and an impressive mane as Harrington seeks to transfer his brooding charms to BBC1 for Gunpowder, a bleak historical drama about the plot to blow up the House of Lord in 1605.
But while the King of the North might be on familiar territory, the same can’t be said for the rest of us. Despite commemorating the event each year by setting fire to old kitchens and paying through the nose for whimsical pyrotechnic displays, it’s likely many of us know next to nothing about the real events of the gunpowder plot.
For starters, Harrington isn’t even playing Guy Fawkes, who was really just the fall guy for the plotters after being caught guarding barrels of explosives beneath Westminster all those years ago. Instead, he stars as his real-life ancestor Robert Catesby, the true mastermind behind the plot whose role has largely avoided the eyes of history up to this point.
That the true story has gone untold for so long is surprising, for it’s a tale ripe dripping with dramatic potential. Scripted by Top Boy’s Ronan Bennett, the show draws us into an expensively mounted, relentlessly grim world of religious persecution, where stately homes are routinely ransacked by the King’s guard and Catholic priests are forced to cower in secret holes for preaching the word of God.
Gunpowder doesn’t shy away from revealing the gruesome reality of this period. One particularly unpleasant sequence sees Catesby’s elderly aunt stripped naked and slowly crushed to death in front of a baying mob, followed moments later by a boyish priest being disembowelled and dismembered.
So why, given its obvious pedigree and rich source material, does the drama underwhelm? Part of the reason is the aforementioned bleakness. The first episode is unrelentingly grim, full of stoney faced characters either being brutally tortured or brooding over the state of the country. Perhaps such horrific scenes are important in establishing what sets Catesby and his conspirators on their path towards an act of terrible revenge, but it hardly makes for enjoyable Saturday night entertainment.
The story also suffers by trying to hard to cover all angles. The flaw in dramatising a little-known period of history is that the audience need events to be put into context for them. That leaves episode one with a lot a heavy lifting to do, meaning there’s little time to get under the skin of its characters. And that’s a shame because the performances are uniformly excellent – look out for a grandly malevolent turn by Mark Gatiss as arch schemer Lord Robert Cecil.
The fireworks may be still to come, of course – the plot has barely begun to be plotted by the episode’s end, leaving plenty of scope for the action to pick up in the remaining two instalments. But if Gunpowder continues on its current trajectory, its plot is in danger of being scuppered before it’s even had a chance to light the fuse.