tv series

Less ‘unnecessarily gratuitous’ than historically accurate: Why the TV show ‘Gunpowder is so violent

Viewers have forgotten the bodily brutality that reigned in the seventeenth century, explain the advisers to the BBC show

With its explicit scenes of execution and torture, the BBC drama Gunpowder, starring Kit Harington, has left some viewers shocked.

“Accuracy” is often demanded of dramas and yet in this instance, scenes that had been carefully researched and that are grounded in history have been regarded by some critics and viewers as “unnecessarily gratuitous”.

These debates about Gunpowder’s interpretation of the 1605 plot reveal the distance that often remains between popular and academic perceptions of the past. It seems that despite a high profile afforded to Tudor and Stuart history in the UK’s cultural landscape – in terms of dramas, exhibitions, historic houses, and the school curriculum – many people have cauterised their historical memory and forgotten the bodily brutality of the age.

One way to try and bridge this gap is the involvement of historical experts in such dramas, both prior to and during filming.

Questions of the past

As historical advisers to Gunpowder, we met key members of the crew and some of the cast to address any emerging questions or concerns before the start of filming. Overall, the nature of our involvement on the show was pretty typical of most dramas. We read the scripts shortly before filming and sent in notes and thoughts about points of detail – including some supporting contextual information and suggestions of more unusual historical specifics that could be used to enhance visual or narrative details.

Play
Gunpodwer.

In the case of the Gunpowder scripts though, we barely had a chance to remove the lid from our red pens, as the scriptwriter’s own expert knowledge was very evident – Ronan Bennett holds a PhD in 17th-century history. He is also the author of a historical novel set in the same period.

Grant Montgomery’s immersive production design also helped Gunpowder to reach some history high notes. Montgomery is the brains behind numerous striking period visuals in recent years and his genuine passion for history and scrupulous research is worked through every element of his designs.

Period detail

The role of a historical consultant can sometimes feel like sitting a surreal exam. One that tests all of your knowledge and command of the period – from milestone political events to everyday personal interactions and gestures such as bows, nods, handshakes and winks.

Why did Fawkes fight in Spain? Were only women burnt at the stake? How diverse was London society? How did someone pray, take a seat, pay for something, greet a friend or cold shoulder a rival? Who removes the royal poo? How do you pronounce Anne Vaux’s surname? For reference, as “Vorx”, but pronounced as “Vaugh” on screen in this production to prevent any distracting confusion with “Fawkes”.

These kinds of questions are typical of the queries that pop up both before and after cameras start to roll. Such testing, though, is itself a useful academic exercise. It makes us think carefully about what we already know, why we know it, what we don’t know but should know and, perhaps most importantly, where the gaps still reside in broader historical knowledge.

It is also rewarding to be able to share some of the latest academic research and see elements of that work unfurling on screen. For Gunpowder we could provide access to a recently completed digital reconstruction of the interior of the House of Commons. This was researched and developed at the University of York, and has given historians a much richer understanding of the appearance and layout of the Palace of Westminster.

Horrible history

Yet Gunpowder has shown that the line between fact and fiction is not easily drawn. The much discussed opening scene of the execution of Lady Dorothy Dibdale is a case in point.

Dibdale is a fictitious character, and so some might say “inaccurate”. And yet she is representative of real women of this period – most famously Margaret Clitherow of York. She was slowly, painfully and publicly crushed to death in 1586 for her refusal to testify when accused of harbouring Catholic priests. Dibdale’s character is therefore richly informed by historical “fact” while also being a fiction.

An execution scene from Gunpowder. Image courtesy BBC.
An execution scene from Gunpowder. Image courtesy BBC.

In this way, the discussions about accuracy that instantly begin to swirl after the screening of a drama rarely get to the “truth” about the historical content – or point toward a more sophisticated understanding of history. They are, however, a useful barometer of how a contemporary audience perceives the past. And in the case of Gunpowder, it is clear how uncomfortable viewers can become if their collective certainties are challenged or unsettled in some way.

Hannah Greig, Senior Lecturer in Early Modern History, University of York and John Cooper, Senior Lecturer in History.

This article first appeared on The Conversation.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

When did we start parenting our parents?

As our parents grow older, our ‘adulting’ skills are tested like never before.

From answering every homework question to killing every monster under the bed, from soothing every wound with care to crushing anxiety by just the sound of their voice - parents understandably seemed like invincible, know-it-all superheroes all our childhood. It’s no wonder then that reality hits all of a sudden, the first time a parent falls and suffers a slip disc, or wears a thick pair of spectacles to read a restaurant menu - our parents are growing old, and older. It’s a slow process as our parents turn from superheroes to...human.

And just as slow to evolve are the dynamics of our relationship with them. Once upon a time, a peck on the cheek was a frequent ritual. As were handmade birthday cards every year from the artistically inclined, or declaring parents as ‘My Hero’ in school essays. Every parent-child duo could boast of an affectionate ritual - movie nights, cooking Sundays, reading favourite books together etc. The changed dynamic is indeed the most visible in the way we express our affection.

The affection is now expressed in more mature, more subtle ways - ways that mimics that of our own parents’ a lot. When did we start parenting our parents? Was it the first time we offered to foot the electricity bill, or drove them to the doctor, or dragged them along on a much-needed morning walk? Little did we know those innocent acts were but a start of a gradual role reversal.

In adulthood, children’s affection for their parents takes on a sense of responsibility. It includes everything from teaching them how to use smartphones effectively and contributing to family finances to tracking doctor’s appointments and ensuring medicine compliance. Worry and concern, though evidence of love, tend to largely replace old-fashioned patterns of affection between parents and children as the latter grow up.

It’s something that can be easily rectified, though. Start at the simplest - the old-fashioned peck on the cheek. When was the last time you gave your mom or dad a peck on the cheek like a spontaneous five-year-old - for no reason at all? Young parents can take their own children’s behaviour available as inspiration.

As young parents come to understand the responsibilities associated with caring for their parents, they also come to realise that they wouldn’t want their children to go through the same challenges. Creating a safe and secure environment for your family can help you strike a balance between the loving child in you and the caring, responsible adult that you are. A good life insurance plan can help families deal with unforeseen health crises by providing protection against financial loss. Having assurance of a measure of financial security for family can help ease financial tensions considerably, leaving you to focus on being a caring, affectionate child. Moreover,you can eliminate some of the worry for your children when they grow up – as the video below shows.

Play

To learn more about life insurance plans available for your family, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of SBI Life and not by the Scroll editorial team.