HBO’s ‘Gunpowder’ chronicles historical events behind UK’s annual Bonfire Night

“Gunpowder”: Remember, remember, the fifth of November

Kit Harington, Liv Tyler and Sian Webber star in "Gunpowder," a three-night miniseries premiering Monday, Dec. 18 on HBO.
Kit Harington, Liv Tyler and Sian Webber star in “Gunpowder,” a three-night miniseries premiering Monday, Dec. 18, on HBO.

Actor Kit Harington has earned global fame with his role as Jon Snow in HBO’s epic fantasy “Game of Thrones,” but he turned to a grim and very real chapter out of British history for “Gunpowder,” a three-part historical thriller premiering Monday-Wednesday, Dec. 18-20, on the premium service.

The drama recounts the events surrounding an unsuccessful plot by Catholic rebels to murder the Protestant King James I of England by blowing up the House of Lords at the opening of Parliament on Nov. 5, 1605. To the extent that Americans know of the episode, they may associate it chiefly with conspirator Guy Fawkes (Tom Cullen), but the real ringleader of the conspiracy was Robert Catesby, an ancestor of Harington, who plays him in the miniseries.

It was about three years ago that Harington first broached the topic of dramatizing Catesby’s story with his best friend Daniel West, a producing partner and one of Harington’s co-stars in “Gunpowder.”

“Every schoolkid in England knows the rhyme about ‘Remember, remember the fifth of November,’ and they probably know a little something about the Gunpowder Plot but not really the whole picture,” Harington says. “As far as I knew, no one had ever really explored it.

“We wanted to do this, not to school people exactly, but we thought maybe that period of history is in danger of becoming lost in time. We thought it would be worthwhile to really dig into the story and remember what the fifth of November is actually commemorating.”

In addition to the charismatic Cullen, joining Harington in the strong cast are Scots actor Peter Mullan (“Top of the Lake,’’ “Trainspotting’’) as the Jesuit leader Father Henry Garnet, Mark Gatiss (“Sherlock’’) as Robert Cecil, the king’s ruthless spymaster, and Liv Tyler as Anne Vaux, Catesby’s cousin.

Kit Harington stars in "Gunpowder," premiering Monday, Dec. 18 and continuing through Wednesday, Dec 20 on HBO.
Kit Harington stars in “Gunpowder,” premiering Monday, Dec. 18 and continuing through Wednesday, Dec 20 on HBO.

When this miniseries aired in Great Britain earlier this fall, the BBC received some viewer complaints about the level of graphic violence shown, particularly in the first night’s depiction of the torture of (fictional) Lady Dorothy Dibdale (Sian Webber).

Harington readily concedes that some scenes are hard to watch, but the violence isn’t gratuitous, he says.

“We felt the violence was essential in it, and in the very first meeting we had with the BBC, we asked, ‘How far we can we go?’ ” he explains. “It was really important to us to see right from the top why these men decide to do what they do. If we can’t understand why they decide to commit this very violent act, we’re never going to follow them through the story.

“Also, we really wanted to be as historically accurate as possible. It was a really horrible, really gruesome time when these events were happening. Nothing that we depict in the show did not happen in real life, to these people. So for both historical accuracy and for storytelling, we needed to show how violent these things were.”

Handsomely produced, “Gunpowder” unfolds at a fairly deliberate pace and is hampered to some extent by the historical reality that what normally would be the story’s climax – the violent destruction of Parliament – doesn’t happen, since the plot was discovered and the conspirators apprehended before they could carry out their scheme.

Still, the miniseries boasts a rich gallery of fine performances and illuminates a chapter in British history that will be largely unknown to most of its American audience.

John Crook

John Crook

A graduate of the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, John Crook has covered arts and entertainment for more than three decades, interviewing such Oscar winners as Julie Andrews, Meryl Streep, Faye Dunaway, Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Robin Williams, Susan Sarandon, Michael Douglas and Emma Thompson along the way.

jcrook has 75 posts and counting.See all posts by jcrook

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