I have a place in my heart for alternative sources of TV or movie entertainment. However, long before this current environment was what it is, there was the BBC. Even before the time of cable TV, we here in America looked to BBC-created productions as an option, whether more intellectual or just a different brand of funny, to what we got here at home. These days, I don’t know how productions get funded under their auspicious, but it seems to be a variation on that national-government-supported production theme that has produced foreign titles we’ve previously enjoyed. Still today, the BBC output trends toward a cultural or educational merit that the open market may sometimes neglect.
We are reminded of this as the BBC miniseries Gunpowder, Treason & Plot is being removed from Netflix. This compelled me to watch it before it goes away. It’s a two-part, made-for-TV piece, with each of the two episodes being movie-length. The mini-series of years gone by.
My first impression was that it was made for a particularly British (or maybe Scottish) audience. The opening scenes consisted of a year and a date and then a few quick lines of dialog, followed by a hard cut to the next scene. I felt as though I should have known what the date/city combinations meant, had only studied harder in school. I was beginning to wonder how much more of it I could take when the show settled into a more comfortable pacing.
Episode 1 begins with the death of Mary of Guise, Queen Consort to James V of Scotland and mother and Regent for Mary, Queen of Scots (aka Mary Stuart, Mary I of Scotland). It also begins with a twisting of historical facts to support the simplified version of history used to build Gunpowder, Treason & Plot. The implication from the show is that Mary of Guise was actually Scotland’s queen and had spirited her daughter and heir away to France in order to protect her from political dangers while a mere princess. Neglected is that fact that Mary Stuart already was Queen of Scotland from her father’s death, only six days after her birth. Also ignored is that fact that Mary was, at the time of her mother’s death, Queen consort of France.
The first episode spans the seven years until Mary’s capture after the Battle of Carberry Hill. The series rephrases the events of that time in terms of Mary attempting to solidify the claim of her line to the English throne and Elizabeth I attempting to foil that effort. More specifically, the fight for control over the succession of the English throne is portrayed as one of sexual politics. Although her marriage to Francis II of France is ignored, her marriage to the soon-to-be-murdered cousin Henry Stuart, subsequent marriage to James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell are central to the show, events which did, indeed, cause Mary’s downfall.
As the relationship between Bothwell and Mary began its development, I started to think that this was lifted from Game of Thrones. Specifically, the story seemed to be following fairly faithfully the non-love affair between Ser Jorah Mormont and the Dragon Queen. This is aided by a not-so-passing resemblance between Clémence Poésy (15 years ago*) and Emilia Clarke. Problem with this theory is that Gunpowder, Treason & Plot preceded Game of Thrones by seven years. Now, I wouldn’t discount the possibility that George R. R. Martin based his fiction, in part, on this historical episode. It’s even possible that the Martin’s books influenced the on-screen portray in Gunpowder, Treason & Plot, the book being out four years before the show.
Conveniently, the book Moment of Battle which provides a relevant overview to the strange religious bedfellows of this time. Mary I (of England, this time), a devout catholic, had taken the English throne upon the death of her (Protestant) half-brother. As part of her efforts to return England to the Roman Catholic Church, she married the soon-to-be-King Philip II of Spain. After Mary’s death, Philip began to consider an invasion of England to depose Elizabeth I, again a Protestant. England had become both a commercial as well as military rival of Spain, the latter primarily through piracy. In addition, Philip saw himself as the defender of the Catholic faith and ridding England of Protestantism would be seen as a righteous crusade, particularly after England had joined with the Netherlands in a protestant alliance and armed rebellion against Spain. After Mary Stuart’s imprisonment, she became a focus for Catholic rebellions in England. The idea was that freeing her and replacing Elizabeth with Mary on the throne would restore Catholic rule while not upsetting the succession apple cart. While it would seem natural for Philip to back this plot, there was a problem. Mary’s family, the Guise, were also maneuvering for the throne of France. Philip was concerned that backing Mary Stuart in England would only strengthen the power of the French throne, who remained his main rival for power in continental Europe.
Back to Gunpowder, Treason & Plot, the second episode begins with the betrothal of James VI of Scotland to Anne of Denmark, anachronistically interposed with James visiting his mother just prior to her execution. It also introduces having characters narrate the story, which has just picked up again more than 20 years later, by turning and speaking directly into the camera and to the TV audience. This begins with James VI himself and would have been considerably less jarring if it hadn’t been introduced as a narrative technique halfway through the course of the film.
Like the first episode, history has been recharacterized as sexual in its nature. James is a thoroughly unpleasant man and a homosexual. This combination directly leads to the Gunpowder Plot, after mixing with a desire for higher tax revenues. He is portrayed as having a severe physical deformity, a la Shakespeare’s Richard III, such that his inner ugliness is foretold by his physical ugliness. While James had severe health problems late in his life, I am unable to find consistent information about any significant physical issues at the time of his coronation. I have found a modern analysis that suggests a diagnosis of Asperger Syndrome. Of note in terms of today’s politics, this one of the few diseases to which it is still politically correct (in some circles) to affix with stigma.
Last, I’ll comment on the lack of favors that Netflix did in how it listed this work. The preview image for the show is taken from the second episode. It shows a scene where the three main plotters (Guy Fawkes, Thomas Percy, and Thomas Wintour) are in their undershirts preparing to test the efficacy of their gunpowder. Wintour wears a red felt hat that doesn’t look too out of place on the characters when fully dressed but sits oddly on a man lying in the grass in his underwear. In this context, it looks like a setup for some slapstick comedy. Because this was what I saw every time I scrolled by the listing on Netflix, I always decided that this night would not be a good night to watch it. Until it expired, of course.
Ignoring for the moment the departures from historical fact, the show is mildly entertaining. It’s a made-for-TV BBC production, which give some implication as to its quality, both pro and con. The shift in focus from the national and religious to the person and, well, sexual helps to limit the scope to something that can be portrayed on the small screen. While sometimes I feel that all of the outdoor scenes were shot in the same 1 1/2 acres in Romania**, it mostly does a reasonable job within its limits.
Perhaps this is more interesting as a preview of what was to come. As I’ve said before, Game of Thrones indicated that there was an appetite for historical fiction on the television. The Tudors has run concurrently with Game of Thrones, dramatizing many of the same characters albeit in the previous generation. Reign focused on Mary, Queen of Scots, but more on her time in France. Seasons 3 and 4 cover the same timeline as that of episode 1 of Gunpowder, Treason & Plot. Just to make clear the nexus with Game of Thrones, 2017 saw the TV series Gunpowder released, with Kit Harrington in the producer’s seat as well as staring, in this case, as his own ancestor, Robert Catesby. While I know nothing about Gunpowder, I suspect that the anachronisms in the first two will make Gunpowder, Treason & Plot look like a documentary.
*Oddly enough, the two actresses are only, themselves, four years apart in age. Poésy was 22 when she played the, initially, 18-year-old Queen (aging to 24 over the course of the show). Clarke was 25 when she first appeared as the 13-year-old heir to the Iron Throne.
**One particularly strange choice is that all the scenes showing horseback riders traveling across country has them make a 90-degree turn when they reach the middle of the shot. It was odd even the first time I saw it. Why did they half to turn? Then I noticed that they did it in shot after shot.