I am going to do something I really shouldn’t: I am going to object to the way a work of fiction, HBO’s Gunpowder, depicted reality; I shouldn’t, because I usually complain about it when others do: I believe authors can do what they like and express whatever ideas they have. Besides, I quite liked it , but, to put it in Whitman’s words, “Do I contradict myself? very well then, I contradict myself”.
So, what is the fault I found with it? The miniseries tells us of the catholic plot to blow up Parliament during the reign of James I Stuart. It is beautifully shot, the cinematography being its best feature: dark, brownish, sometimes golden sometimes grimy. The dialogues are well written, and the acting is fine. Three episodes, dense and tense. So what is wrong with it?
The way the mutual responsibilities of catholics and protestants are shown: in a historical setting in which the catholic church repeatedly tried to overturn England’s protestant monarchs, on grounds of their supposedly being illegitimate and/or just protestant ( respectively Elizabeth I and James I), the catholics are only seen as victims of brutal sentences, and the protestants as persecutors. That the English dislike for catholicism was started by Mary Tudor burning hundred of protestants at the stake is never mentioned, and when – in an attempt at par condicio – the protagonist, Robert Catesby (Kit Harington), sees two heretics burn in Spain and is dutifully disgusted, it fails to set the score right: the two poor souls being burnt are nobody to us, they are two figures whose faces we don’t see, we hear them scream as they burn but the whole scene lasts maybe two minutes.
When Catesby’s mother is killed for hiding priests in her home (she is squashed to death by placing weights on top of her) we have already known her as a proud and dignified lady, we have heard her voice, seen her expression. We have been made to empathise with her. We are never told that the game of murdering christians of a different denomination had long been the catholics’ favourite past time under Mary I, nor that for many years under Elizabeth I there had been no prosecution – things changed after the papal bull which excommunicated the queen and promised the kingdom of heaven to anyone who’d kill her. Essentially, fatwa, you know.
Besides, although o the final episode, which deals with the “gunpowder plot”, does depict Catesby and his friends as extremists doomed to failure, the show fails to underline what Guy Fawkes and Catesby’s plant actually meant: while they were lucky enough to live in a country that had parliament, they just wanted to blow it up in God’s name, the building and the members, together with the king.
Was it an answer to BBC’s Wolf Hall , whose hero was protestant? probably it wasn’t meant to be anything but a show – the writers simply chose the catholics’ point of view just like Shakespeare chose the English side in his historical plays.
Still, I’d rather they had at least said who had started that bloody game, and that it was the catholics. Thomas More, a saint for the catholic church, burnt protestants at the stake.
Anyway, the funny thing is that since watching gunpowder, everytime Ned Willard is mentioned in A column of fire I see Kit Harington in his Catesby outfit, Ned being a protestant and an agent for Queen Elizabeth. Poetic justice of sorts.