Tag Archives: Gunpowder

Blast from the past

Kit Harington stars in and exec produces BBC1’s Gunpowder, which dramatises the plot to kill King James I. Alongside co-star Liv Tyler and the show’s writer and director, he reveals his very personal reason for getting involved.

Most people have at least one black sheep in their family tree, a relative who perhaps earned a less-than-honest living or brought dishonour to the family name with their actions or lifestyle.

However, very few of us can claim to be related to someone who tried to kill the king of England. Step forward Game of Thrones star Kit Harington – a direct descendant of the chief conspirator in the 1605 Gunpowder Plot to assassinate King James I.

For anyone thinking that means Jon Snow himself is related to Guy Fawkes, think again, as while Fawkes was the man caught red-handed guarding the gunpowder under the House of Lords, it was Harington’s “great, great, great, great, great something-or-other” Robert Catesby who actually spearheaded the plot.

As such, it’s Catesby, played by Harington, who is at the forefront of BBC1’s three-part miniseries Gunpowder, which aims to be a faithful dramatisation of the events now marked across the UK every November 5 with fireworks and bonfires.

Gunpowder stars Kit Harington as his ancestor Robert Catesby

The Game of Thrones star also executive produced the show, which launches this Saturday at 21.00 – “the Taboo slot” – and was produced by Kudos. Endemol Shine International is the distributor.

Discussing the appeal of the programme, Harington says he “prefers to avoid the term ‘passion project,’” but admits: “Really the idea spawned from a piece of family curiosity, which is that my mother’s maiden name is Catesby, my middle name is Catesby… I was always told, ‘Did you know you were related to the leader of the Gunpowder Plot?’

“More than that, me and Dan [fellow exec producer Dan West] couldn’t really work out why it hadn’t been dramatised. It’s such a significant piece of typically English folklore and we mark it every year, so it seemed odd.”

Indeed, while the gist of the Gunpowder Plot is one of the best-known slices of history in the UK, the facts and detail behind the story are much less widely understood.

With a PhD in history, writer Ronan Bennett is surely better equipped than most TV scribes to bring a truthful account of the events to the small screen. Yet even he admits that, upon being approached to pen the series, “I had forgotten if I ever knew about Catesby; that Catesby was actually the real mastermind of it.”

Liv Tyler also has a major role in what is her first UK television series

Bennett adds: “If you ask most people what they know about the Gunpowder Plot, they’ll go, ‘Guy Fawkes tried to blow up parliament’ – something like that – and everything else is empty. People don’t really know anything about it.”

Making the show, therefore, became something of a history lesson for all involved, including the impressive cast, which also boasts Hollywood star Liv Tyler, Sherlock’s Mark Gatiss and Downton Abbey’s Tom Cullen, who plays Fawkes.

“I think I knew more than some people about the Gunpowder Plot, but not a lot,” says Harington. “It was only by doing some research into it that I started to understand who [the conspirators] were.

“[Catesby] is a widower, he doesn’t connect with his son, he’s experiencing huge persecution and he’s a very proud man,” he says of his ancestor who, along with his accomplices, attempted to take drastic action against the king’s discrimination against Catholics. “In some ways, he’s on some kind of a death wish and he pulls a lot of people – some innocent people – with him into this plot.

“It was just fascinating learning about this piece of history.”

Guy Fawkes is played by Tom Cullen

Harington also reveals that, as the production went on, his feelings towards the plotter changed significantly, adding that what was once almost a sense of pride over Catesby shifted to feeling “desperately sorry for him.”

“As you will see, he was a deeply sad man who botched the one thing he wanted to do. He fucked it up. Deep down, he was tortured.”

Securing Tyler’s services marked something of a coup for the production, with the high-profile actor only having one other TV series to her name, HBO’s magnificent Damon Lindelof drama The Leftovers.

Now living full time in the UK, having moved to London last year, Tyler’s first UK series sees her play Anne Vaux, who assisted Catholic priests when practising the religion was outlawed.

“I don’t think these guys would have been thinking of me at all for this part, but I read it and I loved it,” she says. “I was really drawn to it. As an American, I know a little about the story but I don’t know everything, and it’s always nice to be learning something.”

The show’s first episode depicts executions in graphic detail

As for her convincing English accent, Tyler, who previously had to lose the American twang to play Arwen in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, says it “kind of just came back – it’s like skiing.”

Gunpowder also marked a first for J Blakeson, who became the latest in the ever-growing line of film directors to try their hand at TV when he signed up for the show.

Having helmed features such as The Disappearance of Alice Creed and The 5th Wave, Blakeson says the involvement of big names like Harington, combined with the subject matter, meant it was an “easy decision” to board the project.

“You get a lot of scripts and read them, but very rarely are they ones you want to do. But this one… to read a script where you’re 25 pages in and you’re still in the first scene, it’s a rare thing.

“It was incredibly well written and it had that dream thing for a project, which is that people think they know [the story] and there’s recognition of it, so people are interested in it, but actually you have a story to tell that’s interesting and enlightening and people don’t know it. So there’s a real opportunity there.

Derek Riddell as King James I, the principal target of the Gunpowder Plot

“But primarily it was just a really good script and I really liked it.”

A strong sense of authenticity runs through the production, not least in the language, with Bennett explaining that many lines in the script were lifted directly from historical accounts.

That realism also extends to the depiction of the harsh era in which the story unfolds. One scene begins with King James defecating into a bucket just inches from his bed, with the royal stool then being carried away by an unfortunate servant.

But what really stands out in the first episode is the explicit portrayal of capital punishment. Indeed, a grisly and prolonged execution scene is as graphic as anything you’re ever likely to see on the Beeb.

Warts-and-all representation of the era was key to Blakeson, who says: “We have this very nostalgic view of the past, of it being this lovely place, but one of the great things about Ronan’s script is it’s not described as that at all. There’s no indoor plumbing, there’s no sewer system. People would die in the street – death was everywhere. It’s a horrible place.

“So showing the history as being like that – being textured, being lived-in – was quite important. It was like a living, breathing version of history.”

Gunpowder’s story is obviously not one that lends itself to a sequel, but having clearly enjoyed his first taste of exec producing, could more work behind the camera follow for Harington after Game of Thrones concludes?

“Yes,” is the resounding answer from the actor, who has launched prodco Thriker Films along with West and describes Gunpowder as being “like a tester” for projects to come.

“We very much want to continue looking for things, sourcing things, producing things. We’re looking for that next thing now,” he explains. “This was a test to see if, on a personal level, this was something I enjoyed doing, and I did enjoy it very much. I felt so proud of it all the way along, in a way that I find much harder to do as just an actor.”

Still, with Harington’s Catesby bearing Jon Snow’s trademark curly locks and beard, no one could blame the actor for seeking something totally different next time out. “Why I keep desiring to film in cold, muddy places on horses, I have no idea,” he jokes. “It must be something built into me from a past life.”

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Gunpowder, treason and plot

Kit Harington and Liv Tyler travel back in time as the stars of historical thriller Gunpowder. Production designer Grant Montgomery tells DQ how he recreated 17th century England for the three-part miniseries.

Grant Montgomery

It’s one of the best-known stories in the UK – but a three-part drama aims to shed new light on the people and the politics behind the Gunpowder Plot of 1605.

Every year on November 5, Guy Fawkes Night is marked with bonfires and fireworks to celebrate the discovery of the conspiracy to kill King James I by blowing up the House of Lords during the state opening of parliament in 1605.

The festivities take their name from the man who, having been caught red-handed guarding the gunpowder, became most strongly associated with the plot. But as forthcoming BBC1 drama Gunpowder depicts, Robert Catesby was actually the lead conspirator.

Kit Harington takes the lead as Catesby – of whom the Game of Thrones star is a direct descendant – in a cast that also includes Peter Mullan, Mark Gatiss and Liv Tyler.

But long before the cameras began rolling, it was production designer Grant Montgomery who was tasked with recreating 17th century England.

The series was filmed predominantly at Dalton Mill in Keighley, Yorkshire, where Montgomery also recently recreated Victorian London for horror film The Limehouse Golem.

Gunpowder stars Kit Harington and Liv Tyler

“The problem with a lot of Elizabethan or Jacobean properties is you can’t recreate them, there aren’t many streets left,” he says. “They don’t really exist. We looked at The Shambles [a period street] in York but to close that down and physically take it over on the budget we had was probably nigh on impossible.

“So essentially we built a backlot at Dalton Mill. Then we built the Tower of London set inside that as well, a cavern where they plot, houses, plus a section of the Palace of Westminster, which is what they were trying to destroy. That was all built in there, we took it over.”

The seven-week shoot took place between February and April this year, but Montgomery estimates just seven or eight days were spent filming on location during that period. The reason, he reveals, was somewhat unusual: “We found that at a lot of locations, we couldn’t burn enough candles. There are a lot of restrictions on a lot of these properties, especially [those owned by the] National Trust. We went to one and we were told we could only light 25 candles, and we wanted to light 150.”

L-R: The set for King James’ extravagant bedchamber and a platform for public executions

That meant sets were built for Baddersley Clinton, a manor house that served as a refuge for Jesuit priests at the height of Catholic persecution, the king’s bedchamber and spymaster Robert Cecil’s (Gatiss) war room. In total, about 80% of the shoot was filmed on set, which was first built to represent London and was later redesigned as Warwick, where the plot began.

Locations used included Fountains Abbey, in North Yorkshire, which served as both the undercroft beneath the House of Lords where the gunpowder was stored and the exterior for Baddersley. Hadham Hall in Hertfordshire was used for Catesby’s family home.

Location scout Nick Marshall had scoured great swathes of northern England looking for suitable filming sites, but when few possible places turned up, Montgomery and producers Kudos and Thriker Films decided to build the sets instead. That convenient and cost-effective decision also turned out to be a creative masterstroke.

Harington, who plays Robert Catesby, on set

“The more research I did, the more I realised that a lot of the panel work [inside these houses] had been decorated. If you were rich, you painted your panels,” he explains. “So while we didn’t necessarily colour-code them, we started to paint the interiors. It gives it such a distinctive look and the audience also knows where it is at any one point. That’s really important because it’s quite a convoluted plot – it feels like a John le Carré spy story.”

Some sets couldn’t be built, however. The River Thames, for example, was recreated by adding CGI to a section of water in York. “We cheated a bit,” admits Montgomery, whose other small-screen credits include Peaky Blinders, Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands, Jamaica Inn and Brontë sisters drama To Walk Invisible. “I like to do everything I’m able to [on camera] but as long as you blend live with CGI, you get something that looks interesting. It’s complete CGI shots that have to be really well done [if they are to look believable].”

Throughout the project, authenticity was a keyword for the design team. Montgomery even joined a tour of the Tower of London to ensure the show was as true to its period as possible – even if the truth is sometimes stranger than fiction.

The producers were keen for the show to look as authentic as possible

“It has an authenticity because it was there in the language and embedded in the script when I first read it,” the designer says of the show, which is distributed by Endemol Shine International. “It was great to be able to get that muddy London look and to try to keep away from it being super clean. You even see a scene where the king is at his toilet and you just think this must be a really filthy world, even at the court. No wonder they didn’t live long!”

Despite the BBC series, which launches on October 21, not falling on a particularly notable anniversary, Montgomery says the ever-present threat of terrorism in modern-day Europe means this 400-year-old story remains hugely relevant.

“It’s still contemporary,” he concludes. “The questions it asks you are still pertinent – what does the government do to control you? How does it rule? Does it take away people’s liberties? All those questions are bound up within the script.

“I don’t think it’s black and white; it’s much more complex than that, and that makes it a very relevant piece of television. Even though it’s a period piece, it still has something to tell us from the past.”

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