Perfectly timed to conclude just before Guy Fawkes’ day, BBC’s latest historical drama Gunpowder took us behind the scenes of the infamous 1605 plot. A brainchild of Game of Thrones actor Kit Harington, it tells the story of Robert Catesby (a distant ancestor of Harington’s) and the reasons behind his decision to attempt to blow up the Houses of Parliament. The final direction of the plot won’t be a surprise to anyone, but the BBC have attempted to counterbalance this by cramming this drama with a host of acting talent and scenes closely based on historical accounts.
That said, this drama trails along with less fizz than a sparkler, and it can’t just be blamed on the historical story. The roster of characters is added to continually but never become fleshed out more than simple names in a book, with little visualised backstory. Shots so dark you have to squint accompany lines muttered in endless, endless talking scenes. It has its gruesome moments, which are deeply unpleasant, but it would have benefited from some energy outside of people getting horribly crushed onscreen. Finally, I do wish the BBC would stop hiring Mark Gatiss for these rent-a-slimeball roles. He can do better – and has!
Gunpowder certainly feels longer than its mere three hours of drama and yet by the end, it’s difficult to feel any kind of attachment to these characters. The world painted of 1600s London is miserable, but spending company in the equally miserable residents still doesn’t provide any kind of emotional interest. There’s no directorial flourishes, no memorable lines. This is a plot of explosive proportions and yet it’s a damp squib.
It leads to a bigger question about the BBC’s new trend of offering big budgets and television slots to passion projects. Tom Hardy’s Taboo comes to mind – backed up in the pitch meeting by movie icon Ridley Scott, starstruck BBC executives appeared to throw money at actor Tom Hardy and his father Chips Hardy to create their bonkers story. Taboo was entertaining but it needed a stronger hand to fix up the writing and acting. In the end, it felt like an amateur production with a generous budget, despite the passion that the Hardys undoubtedly put into it.
Gunpowder is another example of this. Kit Harington is coming from a fantastic few years in a massive show that has made his character a household name. When he wanted to tell this story, he came to it with a personal connection. Like Hardy, he cast himself in the lead role, regardless of fit. Again, as with Taboo, the show didn’t feel as fully fleshed out as other top television being made today.
The BBC might want to rethink their new tactic of handing big budgets to starry names, particularly without the support they need in endeavours that they’re less experienced in. For example, Netflix and HBO have supported fantastic shows like Insecure and Master of None – productions created from prodigious artists’ visions and refined to end up with something that is truly brilliant and beautiful.
The BBC clearly has the budget to continue to create these lavish costume dramas, but shows like Gunpowder and Taboo won’t go down as some of the greats that they could be financing. It’s time to reassess.