Guy Fawkes has long persisted as the outsize boogeyman of the 1605 Gunpowder Plot to blow up England’s Parliament, widely considered the first premeditated, antistate terrorist attack.
The Catholic conspirator joined the plot late in the game, but it’s his name sung in the nursery rhyme schoolchildren still memorize and his effigy that burns each Nov. 5 in bonfires around the U.K. In recent years, he has even become the face of political protest, thanks to a grinning mask of his likeness worn in the 2005 film “V is for Vendetta.”
Now, a three-part BBC television drama, developed by and starring Kit Harington of “Game of Thrones” fame, looks to set the record straight and bring the real-life ringleader out of Fawkes’ shadow.
“Gunpowder,” which premiers on HBO in the U.S. on Dec. 18, tells the story of
a charismatic Catholic nobleman whose faith fomented the failed plot to upend the Protestant monarchy by killing King James I (
). Fawkes (
of “Downton Abbey”) is a relatively minor figure.
The series draws striking parallels between the Catholic plotters of yore and modern-day Islamic terrorists.
“The concept of terrorism did not exist at that time. It was ‘treason,’ ” says screenwriter
“But if something similar was being planned today, then of course you would call it terrorism.”
When Mr. Harington, a descendant of Catesby, began developing the series for his newly formed production company, Thriker Films, he envisaged it as a “historical piece about young, disenfranchised men who were terrorists.”
“These were very fervent religious men whose anger led them to violence,” says the 30-year-old English actor, who plays his ancestor. “We wanted to tell a story about what happens when you persecute these people for too long and they bite you.”
In the series, Catesby’s adherence to unpopular religious views has led to his financial ruin and imprisonment. He is fined for not attending Anglican church services and has fallen out of favor at court, where gentlemen such as himself traditionally furthered their political fortunes. A widower who feels alienated from his young son, Catesby cares little for his life and becomes radicalized.
“He was a desperate man,” says Mr. Bennett, who has a Ph.D. in 17th-century history from Kings College London and wrote “Havoc in its Third Year,” a Booker Prize longlisted novel set during the 1630s.
At one point, Catesby tells
Father Henry Garnet
), a Catholic priest who attempts to dissuade him from his plot, that he is “willing to die for the one true faith” so as to see it restored on the throne of England.
After the series began airing in the U.K. on BBC One in October, it attracted attention for graphic scenes of torture and execution. The broadcasting watchdog Ofcom said it received seven complaints. But for Messrs. Harrington and Bennett, the scenes were key to the story.
“I thought it was really important for the audience to see the kind of persecution Catholics faced to understand the motives of Catesby and his co-conspirators,” says Mr. Bennett.
The show’s parallels with today are also present in the way the government grapples with how to handle those conspiring against it.
“If you bring down the heavy hand, as James was urged by one of his counselors in ‘Gunpowder,’ then you ran the risk of further alienating Catholics and further pushing them to violence,” Mr. Bennett says. “But if you don’t do that and your state is relatively weak, then are you doing enough to defend the state? I think those dilemmas are also the ones that exist today.”
While most of the show is historically accurate, the odd liberty has been taken to give “Gunpowder” a more contemporary feel. In one scene, a wooden box full of iron nails is smuggled, along with 36 barrels of gunpowder, into a warehouse beneath the House of Lords, from where the Nov. 5 attack was to be launched. “The nails were an addition,” Mr. Bennett says. “As far as I’m aware, they weren’t used by bomb makers at the time.”
The scale of the plot was unheard of at the time, and the series shows that the plotters, drawing on a support network in Spain and Flanders, which is now the Dutch-speaking northern part of Belgium, had the capacity to form a small army.
“Had the plot been successful, it would have wiped out an entire political class in one country,” says Mr. Bennett. “It was certainly the most ambitious example of antistate violence there had been.”
Looking back, Mr. Harington has mixed feelings about playing his ancestor. “He was a very charismatic man,” the actor says. “But playing him, I went through a period of really disliking him. I just felt very sad for him and very sorry for the predicament he found himself in.”
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