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Should TV drama reflect the real horrors of British history?

Or was ‘Gunpowder’ too inflammable?

The first episode of ‘Gunpowder’ exploded onto our screen last Saturday night – and the reaction from viewers was instantaneous. Some took to Twitter to say they felt traumatised, and even hardened reviewers were not immune – the Daily Express TV critic found it “sometimes too nasty to watch”

A Radio Times website poll split the viewers and at the time of writing, 58 % felt it was a bit too combustible for a Saturday night and felt the horror should have been toned down.

The scenes of execution certainly made painful viewing. But not all of the gore was gratuitous and the programme was defended by many on the grounds of historical accuracy. Writing in The Guardian, historian Rebecca Rideal states: “that Gunpowder is shockingly violent is undeniable, but what is also undeniable is that it provides an authentic glimpse into the real, raw world that 17th-century people had to endure.”

Most 17th century Londoners would at some time in their lives witnessed someone being hanged, drawn and quartered, in the way that a young Catholic priest is during the first episode. This most terrible of executions was intended to act as a deterrent to anyone contemplating an act of treason. It was also regarded as great entertainment and was still considered to be so by the time of Samuel Pepys, who writes in his diary of witnessing such an event.  Executions were usually public and attracted large crowds – even outside London they were regarded as major entertainments.

Much of the events and customs depicted in the first instalment of Gunpowder were historically accurate (though the ‘pressing’  of a woman as shown on the programme  is apparently based on the execution of Margaret Clitherow in York in 1586). The atmosphere of fear and religious intolerance was true to life, and the National Trust even has a list of its properties with priest holes .

Catholics had hoped that their new king would be more tolerant (and he had stated that he would not but this optimism was soon dashed. In the programme, the King’s ‘favourite’, Sir Philip Herbert, is persuaded by the sinister Robert Cecil to encourage James to increase Catholic persecution.  There is no way of knowing if this occurred but Cecil certainly did regard Catholics as extremely dangerous and the King had a string of favourites throughout his reign.

The violence and brutality of early 17th-century England and its religious persecution and intolerance is the incubator in which the Gunpowder Plot was hatched.  As Rebecca Rideal concludes:

“Within the first episode of Gunpowder, Liv Tyler’s character Anne Vaux asks: “What world is this?” Not only was 17th-century Britain a place of brutal religious fundamentalism, it was also a place where violence – from duelling playwrights to women burned at the stake – was a part of people’s everyday lives, and it is only through recognising this that our own history begins to make sense.”

All three episodes of Gunpowder are available on BBC iPlayer

There is a BBC iWonder Guide to the Gunpowder Plot,

and a Bitesize revision guide