Gunpowder: excessive violence or justified realism?

A brand-new three-part period drama, Gunpowder, hit our screens at the end of October, just in time for Bonfire Night. As the title suggests, the drama focused around the English legend of Guy Fawkes’ gunpowder plot, in which an attempt was made to blow up King James I and the Houses of Parliament. This rendition of the gunpowder plot, however, focused on the mastermind behind the operation, Robert Catesby, played by the talented Kit Harrington.

Harrington, best known for his role as Jon Snow in Game of Thrones, played the lead and was co-executive producer of this successful BBC drama. In a recent interview, Harrington said he became involved in the show because he is a direct descendant of one of the plotters.

Episode one opens with the audience being transported to the England of 1603: Queen Elizabeth I is dead and the Scottish King, James Stuart, is crowned James I of England. Religious persecution and diplomatic ineptness are almost immediately introduced and juxtaposed, as a Protestant king attempts the removal of all English Catholics whilst seeking long-awaited peace with Catholic Spain.

The drama begins with a startling display of intensity as we see a Catholic mass taking place in the household of Robert Catesby, with the camera shifting between this scene and the unnerving approach of the King’s men. The viewer is unable to look away for a second or catch their breath as the drama unfolds from the very start with the rest of the series certainly not disappointing.

Within the first half an hour audiences were exposed to gore quite unknown to BBC One, and it was revolting to say the least. A gruesome and prolonged ten minutes of screen time was devoted to showing a Catholic woman being pressed to death and a priest being disembowelled. Despite being shown just after the broadcasting watershed of 9pm, and being preceded by a warning, audiences were shocked by the display of violence on the typically family-friendly BBC One.

Audiences constantly get a thrill out of violence and blood-letting in TV programmes, from the ever popular the Walking Dead to Kit Harrington’s own Game of Thrones. However, initial reviews of the show have pointed out the unnecessary display of gore.

One viewer on Twitter declared that the show ‘should come with health warnings,’ and broadcasting watchdog, Ofcom, even failed to comment on the amount of direct complaints it had received following the airing of the show.

Others however, including Harrington himself, have justified the torture scene saying it was ‘important for the story,’ so that viewers could understand why Catesby embarks on the gunpowder plot. Upon further research into the show, it has been discovered that the torturing methods in the opening episode were actually fairly commonly used
in seventeenth-century England. This revelation made the display
of violence even more stomach-turning, but the real question is: why are audiences so appalled by this level of violence on BBC One compared to violence in TV shows by Netflix and Amazon Prime, for example?

Gunpowder as a whole was queasily entertaining, but gripping and fascinating at the same time. Put frankly, however, it was over too soon. The story of the 5th of November is a famous one, taught consistently at this time of year in almost every primary school in England, but still shrouded in mystery.


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September 2021
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