“Remember, remember the fifth of November,” isn’t just a line from V For Vendetta. It’s the beginning of a two-stanza learned by children for centuries:
“Remember, remember the fifth of November, the gunpowder treason and plot; I know of no reason why gunpowder treason should ever be forgot.”
The rhyme celebrates the capture of Catholic activist Guy Fawkes and his associates in the act of preparing to blow up Parliament and its Protestant King James I in what may be considered the first act of modern-day terrorism. And yes, it was at the beginning of the seventeenth century — that’s modern day to us.
Gunpowder is a three-part BBC One drama that began airing this weekend, produced by and starring Kit Harington as co-conspirator Robert Catesby. He’s joined by fellow Game of Thrones-ers Mark Gatiss and Kevin Eldon in a show that not only tells the tale of the Gunpowder Plot from a different perspective, but also encompasses the wider anti-Catholicism and persecution of the time. Take a look inside the first episode below:
However much a significant act at the time, it has become embedded in today’s culture far more than one might expect. Bonfires are lit across the country on November 5th and effigies of Guy Fawkes are burnt, celebrating his capture, his being hanged, drawn and quartered, and burnt. Kids still dress up said effigies in the days before and hand around on streets demanding “penny for the Guy”, though you’d be lucky if you were let go with less than fifty pence. And other figures have become replacement effigies in more recent years, whoever is Prime Minister at the time is often a strong target, but I expect plenty of Trumps this time round.
But the reality of Guy Fawkes has gotten lost along the way. More people are likely to remember the V For Vendetta movie that revived the Guy Fawkes mask business that the political situation at the time. When the best representation of the politics at the time comes from royalist propaganda in Macbeth’s porter speech, the BBC has stepped in.
The first episode of Gunpowder is set in 1603, two years before the planned act would take place. England was at war with Spain, with the bloody persecution of Catholics intensifying into the upper echelons of society. The episode culminates in a scene with a lady of landed gentry stripped naked in a town square, refusing to repent, and being crushed to death by a door placed over her strewn body with heavier and heavier weights placed upon it. A young priest is briefly hanged before being drawn and quartered, grappling with his own intestines. A gruesome site for BBC television, but also justifying the extreme acts of rebellion planned.
While much media reaction has focused on the violence and strength of the drama, it may have missed some people’s eyes that this is being set up as a justification for terrorism against persecution with the reaction from both sides to the other fuelling each other’s actions.
But what it might also do, ahead of Bonfire Night, is add a little context as people prepare to burn effigies of Guy Fawkes. And if nothing else, may help people consider the wider ramifications of such a celebration, before the jacket potatoes come off the stove.
Inform, educate, and entertain, I think someone once said.
The second episode of Gunpowder airs next Saturday on BBC1, and all three episodes are currently available on the BBC iPlayer.