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The BBC’s new show has been criticised for being “unnecessarily gruesome and brutal,” with some viewers saying they became physically ill due to the graphic torture and execution scenes. Is portraying such violence necessary to better understand the historical context of 17th century England, or simply too much for Saturday night primetime television?

Tonight is Bonfire Night! The “Gunpowder Treason Plot” of 1605 was a failed mass assassination attempt against King James I of England and VI of Scotland and the House of Lords. A group of English Catholics planned to blow up the Palace of Westminster, following which the Protestant King James would be replaced by a Catholic monarch. When Guy Fawkes was discovered guarding 36 barrels of gunpowder beneath the palace, the plot was foiled and the conspirators were subsequently executed.

Londoners celebrated King James’s survival by lighting bonfires around the city, as a “public day of thanksgiving.” Although it’s no longer an official holiday, there are still bonfires and fireworks around the country to remember remember the fifth of November.

The BBC’s Gunpowder follows the story of Robert Catesby, whose plot to blow up Parliament and and kill the king is remembered each year on November 5th. 

As an American, I knew nothing about Guy Fawkes prior to moving to London six years ago, but have since learned a bit about the gruesome history behind this annual celebration. The BBC’s new three-part miniseries Gunpowder provides a good overview of the historical and social context which drove the Catholic insurgents to such extremes.

However, the show has been criticised for being “unnecessarily gruesome and brutal” with its graphic scenes of violence. Headlines included “Gunpowder: Viewers left stunned by grisly torture scenes,” “BBC defends gory new Game of Thrones-style drama after viewers left traumatised” and “Violent Guy Fawkes drama sparks complaints.” In the first epsisode, a Catholic priest was hung, drawn and quartered, and a Catholic noblewoman was stripped naked and crushed to death.

Hoping to capitalise on viewers who are increasingly put off by the nudity, language and violence of shows like Gunpowder, Apple will spend $1 billion next year on comedies and family-friendly television dramas. But in sticking with mainstream shows, Bloomberg suggests Apple could miss out on viewers who favour edgier fare. Some television producers have labelled the tech giant as “conservative and picky,” with a cautious approach to the television industry.

Indeed, while there were many tweets complaining of the “disgusting” Gunpowder scenes that made viewers want to “vomit,” others praised the show for its historical accuracy and depiction of what life would have been like in the 1600s.

Crowds cheered the torture and hanging of Catholic “traitors,” who suffered under King James simply for following their religion. Showing such scenes on television allows us the opportunity to better understand why Fawkes, Catesby and the others felt it so necessary to resort to terrorism in their plans to blow up Parliament.

Writing for the Guardian, 17th century historian Rebecca Rideal noted that “dramas such as Gunpowder provide a crucial insight into a violent past that modern Brits need to confront.” Kit Harrington, a producer and star of the show, added that it would be wrong to shy away from the reality of torture or execution. “You need to feel the reasons why the characters do the things they do,” he explained, noting that “audiences will accept a greater level of violence as long as it’s justified.”

Defending the content from a regulatory context, a BBC spokeswoman stated that the scenes aired after the 9pm watershed for adult content, “with a clear warning given to viewers before the episode started.”

“Programmes must not include material which, taking into account the context, condones or glamorises violent, dangerous or seriously antisocial behaviour and is likely to encourage others to copy such behaviour.” – Ofcom Broadcasting Code

Having seen the miniseries in its entirety, I believe the torture and death scenes in Gunpowder were both justified and appropriately depicted. In respect of violence on television, what I take issue with are drawn-out warfare or “action” scenes, or shoot-outs in crime dramas and police procedurals.

By contrast, I consider that Gunpowder simply utilised scenes of torture and death to highlight the seriousness of oppression founded on religious intollerance. For me, the societal implications were more upsetting than the execution scenes themselves: people were made to live in fear and hunted down simply because they didn’t worship the “true” god in the “correct” way. If anything, it reminded me of how important it is to maintain separation of Church and State.

Gunpowder also stars Liv Tyler as Anne Vaux, a wealthy Catholic recusant

I have critique for Gunpowder. It appeared to be a vanity project for Harrington, who is himself related to Catesby. The dialogue was a bit blasé and unsophisticated, and the characters themselves were rather undeveloped. But to its credit, I think Gunpowder reminds us that national festivites can have disturbing subcontexts – take for example Columbus Day in the States, or Zwarte Piet in the Netherlands. If ever we as a society are to learn from the mistakes of the past, it’s important that the brutal reality of everyday life isn’t always shown through the rose-tinted camera lens of romantic period dramas.

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