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Less ‘unnecessarily gratuitous’ than historically accurate: Why the TV show ‘Gunpowder is so violent

Viewers have forgotten the bodily brutality that reigned in the seventeenth century, explain the advisers to the BBC show

With its explicit scenes of execution and torture, the BBC drama Gunpowder, starring Kit Harington, has left some viewers shocked.

“Accuracy” is often demanded of dramas and yet in this instance, scenes that had been carefully researched and that are grounded in history have been regarded by some critics and viewers as “unnecessarily gratuitous”.

These debates about Gunpowder’s interpretation of the 1605 plot reveal the distance that often remains between popular and academic perceptions of the past. It seems that despite a high profile afforded to Tudor and Stuart history in the UK’s cultural landscape – in terms of dramas, exhibitions, historic houses, and the school curriculum – many people have cauterised their historical memory and forgotten the bodily brutality of the age.

One way to try and bridge this gap is the involvement of historical experts in such dramas, both prior to and during filming.

Questions of the past

As historical advisers to Gunpowder, we met key members of the crew and some of the cast to address any emerging questions or concerns before the start of filming. Overall, the nature of our involvement on the show was pretty typical of most dramas. We read the scripts shortly before filming and sent in notes and thoughts about points of detail – including some supporting contextual information and suggestions of more unusual historical specifics that could be used to enhance visual or narrative details.

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Gunpodwer.

In the case of the Gunpowder scripts though, we barely had a chance to remove the lid from our red pens, as the scriptwriter’s own expert knowledge was very evident – Ronan Bennett holds a PhD in 17th-century history. He is also the author of a historical novel set in the same period.

Grant Montgomery’s immersive production design also helped Gunpowder to reach some history high notes. Montgomery is the brains behind numerous striking period visuals in recent years and his genuine passion for history and scrupulous research is worked through every element of his designs.

Period detail

The role of a historical consultant can sometimes feel like sitting a surreal exam. One that tests all of your knowledge and command of the period – from milestone political events to everyday personal interactions and gestures such as bows, nods, handshakes and winks.

Why did Fawkes fight in Spain? Were only women burnt at the stake? How diverse was London society? How did someone pray, take a seat, pay for something, greet a friend or cold shoulder a rival? Who removes the royal poo? How do you pronounce Anne Vaux’s surname? For reference, as “Vorx”, but pronounced as “Vaugh” on screen in this production to prevent any distracting confusion with “Fawkes”.

These kinds of questions are typical of the queries that pop up both before and after cameras start to roll. Such testing, though, is itself a useful academic exercise. It makes us think carefully about what we already know, why we know it, what we don’t know but should know and, perhaps most importantly, where the gaps still reside in broader historical knowledge.

It is also rewarding to be able to share some of the latest academic research and see elements of that work unfurling on screen. For Gunpowder we could provide access to a recently completed digital reconstruction of the interior of the House of Commons. This was researched and developed at the University of York, and has given historians a much richer understanding of the appearance and layout of the Palace of Westminster.

Horrible history

Yet Gunpowder has shown that the line between fact and fiction is not easily drawn. The much discussed opening scene of the execution of Lady Dorothy Dibdale is a case in point.

Dibdale is a fictitious character, and so some might say “inaccurate”. And yet she is representative of real women of this period – most famously Margaret Clitherow of York. She was slowly, painfully and publicly crushed to death in 1586 for her refusal to testify when accused of harbouring Catholic priests. Dibdale’s character is therefore richly informed by historical “fact” while also being a fiction.

An execution scene from Gunpowder. Image courtesy BBC.
An execution scene from Gunpowder. Image courtesy BBC.

In this way, the discussions about accuracy that instantly begin to swirl after the screening of a drama rarely get to the “truth” about the historical content – or point toward a more sophisticated understanding of history. They are, however, a useful barometer of how a contemporary audience perceives the past. And in the case of Gunpowder, it is clear how uncomfortable viewers can become if their collective certainties are challenged or unsettled in some way.

Hannah Greig, Senior Lecturer in Early Modern History, University of York and John Cooper, Senior Lecturer in History.

This article first appeared on The Conversation.

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“My body instantly craves chai and samosa”

German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

Consequently, Ilka feels India is “so full of life. The social life here is more happening; people smile at you, bond over food and are much more relaxed.” Isabelle, too, can attest to Indians’ friendliness. When asked about an Indian characteristic that makes her feel most at home, she quickly answers “humour.” “Whether it’s a taxi driver or someone I’m meeting professionally, I’ve learnt that it’s easy to lighten the mood here by just cracking a few jokes. Indians love to laugh,” she adds.

Indeed, these Germans-who-never-left as just diehard Indophiles are more Indian than you’d guess at first, having even developed some classic Indian skills with time. Ilka assures us that her husband can’t bargain as well as she does, and that she can even drape a saree on her own.

Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

Like the long-settled German expats in India, the German airline, Lufthansa, too has incorporated some quintessential aspects of Indian culture in its service. Recognising the centuries-old cultural affinity between the two countries, Lufthansa now provides a rich experience of Indian hospitality to all flyers on board its flights to and from India. You can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalized by Lufthansa to the extent that they are More Indian Than You Think. To experience Lufthansa’s hospitality on your next trip abroad, click here.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.