Gunpowder, Treason and Plot

This entry is part 4 of 4 in the series Guy Fawkes
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Guy Fawkes

Shown: 2004
Written by: Jimmy McGovern
Starring: Robert Carlyle, Michael Fassbender, Clemence Posey


An exciting new(ish) take on the old story of Guy Fawkes

Every British schoolchild knows the lines “Remember, remember the fifth of November; gunpowder, treason and plot”.  Most probably have a vague knowledge of why we burn an effigy of Guy (or Guido) Fawkes and set off a lot of fireworks on 5th November, the anniversary of the failed Gunpowder Plot by a group of Catholics to blow up the Houses of Parliament and assassinate King James VI of Scots and I of England.  Gunpowder Treason and Plot is an impressive drama written by Cracker creator Jimmy McGovern which was first shown on the BBC in 2004 and attempts to explore the history behind the plot.

Two very different episodes tell the story of Mary, Queen of Scots, her son James and the religious struggles which led to the attempted assassination.  French actress Clemence Posey is best known in the UK for her portrayal of Fleur Delacour in the Harry Potter films and here portrays Mary as a spirited and sensual young woman.  Her ascension to the throne is initially opposed by Protestant Lords in Scotland, who are horrified that a Catholic has taken the throne.  Her marriage to Henry Darnley, a grandson of Henry VII, is an unhappy one but does produce an heir to the crowns of both Scotland and England.  Following the murder of Darnley and disputes with England, Mary is imprisoned in the Tower of London.  Episode 2 begins with Mary’s beheading and her crippled son’s marriage to Anne of Denmark.  James and Anne do not have a happy marriage but a business like arrangement.  Anne will provide male heirs and the riches of Scotland and England will be showered upon the Queen.  Initially sympathetic towards Catholics, James is soon persuaded to reintroduce the brutal regime of his predecessor Elizabeth.  This betrayal leads a group of Catholic noblemen including Guy Fawkes, to plan the murder of the King and the destruction of Parliament.

McGovern plays somewhat fast and loose with historical facts in his script.  I’m almost certain that James did not sanction the execution of his mother just to bring him closer to the English throne.  There also appears to be discrepancy in the timescales, Mary was only 44 when she died but the woman shown in the opening minutes of episode two looks to be in her 70s and is unrecognisable from the beautiful young Queen seen at the end of episode one. 

In fact, most of episode 2 is completely unrecognisable from the first part of the story.  The years have moved on and the focus of the narrative has changed but the whole episode seems like an entirely different programme.  I did check to see if both parts had the same director as the discrepancies were so noticeable, particularly characters in episode 2 speaking directly to camera to explain their actions and motivation.  This technique was over-used in the first half-hour but became much more effective later in the episode.

The acting throughout was brilliant.  Robert Carlyle was his usual strong self as James, Clemence Posey brought a whole new interpretation to the character of Mary and Sira Stampe was hugely impressive as Queen Anne, the shrewd consort.  Current Hollywood darling Michael Fassbender is great in the relatively minor role of Fawkes – he has a real on-screen presence and power and it’s not surprising that he is currently in demand.  The much under-rated Richard Coyle shines as Catesby, the leader of the plotters.  There were a few over the top, pantomime moments.  Daniella Nardini is a howling banshee as Lady Huntley, a Catholic noblewoman who turns against Mary but these are few.

Great chunks of history were mangled by McGovern in his quest to write a script full of intrigue, drama and excitement.  He succeeded in creating a brilliant piece of television, the kind of costume drama at which the BBC excels.  It seems unlikely that this will be repeated but I do recommend that you pick up a copy on DVD if you can.  It’s a great take on one of the most infamous episodes of British history.

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