With its explicit scenes of execution and torture, the eagerly anticipated 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.