Ex­plo­sive drama

Fresh from the dragons and zom­bies of Wes­teros, Kit Har­ing­ton has turned the Gun­pow­der Plot into a ma­jor BBC se­ries. Why now? And what can Guy Fawkes teach us about ter­ror­ism to­day, asks Sally Wil­liams

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Kit Har­ing­ton ditches Jon Snow to bring the Gun­pow­der Plot to our screens. By Sally Wil­liams

When Kit Har­ing­ton was a school­boy in Mart­ley, Worces­ter, in the late ’90s, he liked to tell friends the truth about Bon­fire Night. It wasn’t Guy Fawkes, he’d say, who was the brains be­hind the Gun­pow­der Plot of 1605. It was a de­vout Catholic from War­wick­shire called Robert Catesby. He was the one who de­vised the plan to blow up Par­lia­ment, wipe out King James I and, in so do­ing, the rul­ing Protes­tant elite. Guy Fawkes was just one of the plot­ters.

The ques­tion of why Fawkes is etched into the mythol­ogy of 5 Novem­ber, and not Robert Catesby, is a per­sonal one for Har­ing­ton: he is a dis­tant rel­a­tive. ‘My mid­dle name is Catesby and it’s some­thing I was proud of,’ he says. ‘It’s a part of my fam­ily his­tory.’

Har­ing­ton went on to find fame as Jon Snow in the HBO se­ries Game of Thrones (where he also met fi­ancée Rose Les­lie; the cou­ple an­nounced their en­gage­ment last month). But he never for­got his rel­a­tive. And now, more than 400 years af­ter his death, Har­ing­ton has, in his own way, led a cam­paign to en­sure that we don’t ei­ther.

Gun­pow­der is a three-part BBC One drama de­vel­oped by Har­ing­ton (he also plays Catesby), writ­ten by Ro­nan Ben­nett (the screen­writer and nov­el­ist best known for TV crime-drama se­ries Top Boy) and directed by J Blake­son ( The Dis­ap­pear­ance of Alice Creed). It tells the story be­hind the Gun­pow­der Plot from the point of view of the dis­af­fected Catholics. While Catesby is not ex­actly ac­corded glory (he was a ter­ror­ist; his group ‘ the al-qaeda of the 16th cen­tury’, ac­cord­ing to one com­men­ta­tor), the drama does make it clear how de­spi­ca­bly Catholics were treated in Eng­land in the early 1600s.

The first episode be­gins with mass in a stately home – a per­ilous act of wor­ship at that time. Hopes of greater re­li­gious tol­er­ance un­der the new King James I have faded. And Eng­land has be­come in­creas­ingly hos­tile, not just to the Catholic faith, but to Catholics’ very ex­is­tence. They are im­pris­oned, fined, ha­rassed; priests are hunted down, tor­tured and ex­e­cuted. And the drama un­flinch­ingly re­counts some of the grue­some ex­e­cu­tion meth­ods used for those who are caught. We watch a young lay priest, clad only in a loin­cloth, be­ing hanged and then cut down while still alive; where­upon he has his bowels re­moved, then is be­headed and di­vided into four pieces (hung, drawn and quar­tered). Such is the pun­ish­ment that awaits you, as a Catholic of that pe­riod, when you refuse to re­nounce your be­liefs. But rather than be­ing crushed by the threat of such a death, Catesby ral­lies a Catholic com­mu­nity (in­clud­ing his cousin Anne Vaux, played by Liv Tyler) that de­fi­antly con­tin­ues to wor­ship in se­cret, of­ten in back rooms, af­ter dark.

The idea, says Har­ing­ton, grew out of a con­ver­sa­tion with his friend and house­mate Daniel West (the two met at drama school) about three years ago. ‘ We were sat in a pub hav­ing a drink and I said to Dan, “I don’t know why no one has done the story of Catesby,”’ he re­calls. The two got very ex­cited. ‘And when we woke up the next morn­ing we still thought it was a good idea,’ says West. They wrote a treat­ment and con­tacted pro­duc­tion com­pa­nies.

The se­ries was com­mis­sioned as a part­ner­ship be­tween Thriker Films (Har­ing­ton and West ’s com­pany) and Ku­dos, the drama pro­duc­tion com­pany.

There have been other in­car­na­tions, for ex­am­ple, Gun­pow­der, Trea­son & Plot, a 2004 two-part TV drama by Jimmy Mcgovern with Michael Fass­ben­der as Guy Fawkes, which ad­dressed the life of Mary Queen of Scots and her son James I. ‘But there hasn’t been a drama that re­ally seeks to un­der­stand what drove those men to try and carry out that act,’ says ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer Ol­lie Mad­den, who first met Har­ing to non an­other Ku­dos pro­duc­tion, Spooks: The Greater Good ( 2015).

For any­one at­tempt­ing to drama­tise the Gun­pow­der Plot there are two ma­jor draw­backs: first, there is no hero. And, sec­ond, ev­ery­body knows how it ends. But, thanks to Ben­nett’s de­ci­sion to flesh out the char­ac­ters

Rather than be­ing crushed by the threat of such a death, Catesby ral­lies a Catholic com­mu­nity

and fo­cus on the ef­forts of the au­thor­i­ties – headed by Robert Ce­cil (Mark Gatiss), King James’ spy­mas­ter-in-chief – to catch the plot­ters, it is hoped that the au­di­ence will be more in­vested. ‘Catesby has lost a wife and a child by the time we meet him. He’s got a very frac­tured and dif­fi­cult re­la­tion­ship with his sur­viv­ing son and he’s a man who feels like he’s got nowhere left to turn,’ says West, who worked with Ben­nett on the script and also plays Thomas Percy, one of the con­spir­a­tors.

It ’s like in Ti­tanic, says J Blake­son, ‘By the time you get to the end, you are so into the char­ac­ters’ sto­ries that when it hap­pens you are al­most sur­prised.’

You can un­der­stand Ben­nett’s in­ter­est: he was born in 1956 and raised in Belfast by a Catholic mother, and came of age at the height of the Trou­bles (he was wrongly con­victed of mur­der­ing an RUC of­fi­cer and spent 18 months in Long Kesh prison, later re­named the Maze). This and other as­pects of his life, such as spend­ing 20 months on remand in his 20s, af­ter be­com­ing in­volved with the an­ar­chists in Lon­don, means that pol­i­tics runs through his work.

‘Ro­nan has said he wanted peo­ple to think about what hap­pens when you per­se­cute a re­li­gious mi­nor­ity – they come back to bite you,’ says Mad­den.

The drama is nei­ther pro-catholic nor pro-protes­tant. It’s about what peo­ple will do for their fam­i­lies. It’s about how far we will go in the ser­vice of be­liefs and the nar­ra­tives we tell our­selves to jus­tify what we have done. And there is, of course, a clear rea­son why pro­duc­ers are in­ter­ested in telling this story now. ‘In no way are we con­don­ing the ter­ror­ist ac­tions th­ese men tried to carry out,’ says Mad­den. ‘But we do think there is a con­tem­po­rary res­o­nance in try­ing to un­der­stand what leads des­per­ate peo­ple to try to do that kind of thing.’

Tues­day, 11 April: a back­lot near Dal­ton Mills, Keigh­ley, West York­shire. Kit Har­ing­ton is com­plain­ing of an itchy beard. Un­like most of the whiskers on set (and the 17th cen­tury was rich in beards), Har­ing­ton’s are real. In fact, Har­ing­ton as Catesby looks ex­actly like Har­ing­ton as Jon Snow, bar an up­ward curve to his mous­tache (a pe­riod de­tail achieved with co­pi­ous amounts of wax).

‘I would have loved it if Catesby had had short hair,’ says Har­ing­ton, who speaks of wanting to try a dif­fer­ent look from the one he’s had in Games of Thrones for the past six years. ‘But he didn’t. He had long hair and a beard, so I wasn’t go­ing to fight against it.

‘ I love my char­ac­ter in Game of Thrones,’ he con­tin­ues, ‘ but he’s a pretty solid per­son and I wanted to do some­thing a bit dif­fer­ent from that. Cat es by is some­one who is do­ing some­thing re­ally, re­ally bad, but he thinks it ’s right and there’s a fa­nati­cism to that, which I en­joy.’

With his role as co-ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer and the ‘face’ of Gun­pow­der, Har­ing­ton has bro­ken new ground. ‘I’ve turned to Dan at times when we’ve both been on the back of a horse and we’ve whis­pered to each other, “We’re mak­ing a TV show!” What­ever hap­pens to this piece, I am re­ally proud that we’ve got it on telly.’

Liv Tyler isn’t an ac­tress you as­so­ciate with a Bri­tish pe­riod drama. She first show­cased her English ac­cent in One­gin (1999), and again when play­ing Ar­wen, an el­ven princess in the Lord of the Rings tril­ogy (2001-03).

‘I moved to Lon­don last Au­gust,’ she ex­plains, when we meet in a break be­tween film­ing. Her part­ner, Dave Gard­ner, a sports agent, is Bri­tish. They have two chil­dren to­gether, Sailor, two, and Lula, 15 months. (Tyler also has an older son, Milo, 12, from an ear­lier mar­riage.) ‘And I was get­ting ex­cited to be in Lon­don, then this came up and it was ex­actly what I needed. A per­fect amount of work, a lot of sub­stance and some­thing that in­ter­ested me. As an Amer­i­can I don’t know very much about Bon­fire Night, but I also don’t think English peo­ple know that much about it ei­ther.’ As Anne Vaux, Tyler’s beauty is hid­den un­der a bon­net, ruff, col­lar, corset and far­thin­gale (hoop skirt). She has an aus­tere cen­tral part­ing in her hair.

But she has been most chal­lenged by the set: about 75 per cent of the eight-week shoot has been in Dal­ton Mills, an aban­doned tex­tile mill. Plus there have been many tons of fake mud im­ported to cap­ture the filth of 17th-cen­tury Lon­don. She says the ‘scut­tling crea­tures’ liv­ing in the mill in­cluded feral cats. ‘We’re all sick,’ says Tyler. She coughs. ‘That is my mud cough.’

For Grant Montgomery, the pro­duc­tion de­signer, the mill is per­fect. He first dis­cov­ered it three years ago when he worked on Peaky Blin­ders. ‘It ’s got this in­cred­i­ble scale and you can graft things into it,’ he ex­plains. Which is much needed, as Gun­pow­der as­pires to be cin­e­matic and fea­tures mul­ti­ple lo­ca­tions. ‘We’ve cre­ated 100-plus sets in the mill,’ says Montgomery. Ev­ery­thing from the Duck and Drake tav­ern to the Queen’s cham­ber; even Bel­gium and Spain. ‘He uses the mill like a big Lego set,’ says Blake­son. ‘He’ll build some­thing, take it to pieces and then build some­thing en­tirely dif­fer­ent, but with the same pieces.’

When I leave, the team are shoot­ing the scene where Guy Fawkes ( Tom Cullen) first ap­pears at the end of the first episode. ‘It ’s quite bold to do a third of a drama about the Gun­pow­der Plot with­out show­ing Guy Fawkes,’ Blake­son ad­mits. ‘When he does fi­nally ap­pear, in a dark al­ley, you get this chill on the back of your neck… Ah, here we go.’ Gun­pow­der starts on 21 Oc­to­ber on BBC One

‘I wanted to do some­thing dif­fer­ent to Jon Snow. Catesby is some­one do­ing some­thing re­ally, re­ally bad’

Pre­vi­ous page Kit Har­ing­ton as plot­ter Robert Catesby and Liv Tyler, who plays his cousin Anne Vaux.

Above The two with Sian Web­ber (Lady Dorothy Dib­dale)

Left Har­ing­ton on set with Tom Cullen (Guy Fawkes) and Ed­ward Hol­croft (Thomas Win­tour)

Left Derek Rid­dell por­trays the tar­get of Catesby’s plot, King James I

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