The Gunpowder Plot: Exploding The Legend

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The Gunpowder Plot: Exploding The Legend
Gppetl screenshot.jpg
The title screen for The Gunpowder Plot: Exploding The Legend
Genre documentary
Created by Darlow Smithson Productions, Ltd.
Directed by Mike Slee
Presented by Richard Hammond
Theme music composer Richard Attree
Country of origin United Kingdom
Executive producer(s) Richard Battin
Producer(s) Mike Slee
Location(s) UK, Spain
Editor(s) Ross Bradley
Camera setup Lee Butterby
Peter Allibone
Chris Bryant
Mike Craven Todd
Dave Baillie (aerial photography)
Running time 104 min.
Original network ITV
First shown in 1 November 2005
External links
[ Production website]

The Gunpowder Plot: Exploding The Legend was a British television show, hosted by Richard Hammond that recreated elements of the Gunpowder Plot in which Guy Fawkes attempted to blow up the House of Lords.

First aired on the ITV Network in 2005, this £1 million[1] programme centres on a reconstruction of the Houses of Parliament as they were in 1605 (the current ones had not yet been built at the time of the Gunpowder Plot), constructed using period equivalent methods wherever possible. This was stocked with mannequins to represent notable commoners, members and the king before the bomb was detonated. The programme was made to coincide with the 400th anniversary of the plot.


The programme explores through partial dramatization the plot itself, and the persons involved. It also answers the question of whether the plot would have actually worked: the Houses of Parliament would have been completely obliterated, and most of the windows in nearby Westminster Abbey would have been shattered.

The first hurdle to overcome was the actual recreation of the 17th-century Houses of Parliament. As the buildings were demolished to expand the current structures, Simon Carter, the Parliamentary Curator provided drawings of the original structures for the recreated structure to utilise using 650 tonnes of concrete. Explosives expert Sidney Alford helped to determine that thirty-six barrels containing one cubic ton[2] of gunpowder were used in the plot. Alford further proved that the "decayed" powder was classified as such because it was unsuitable for infantry use, but could still detonate.[3]

The dramatic experiment, conducted on the Advantica Spadeadam test site and overseen by Arup, proved unambiguously that the explosion would have, at the very least, killed all those attending the State Opening of Parliament in the Lords chamber,[3] including, according to historical consultant Justin Pollard, King James I and VI of Scotland, Archbishop Bancroft, Lord Northampton and the philosopher Francis Bacon.[4][5]

The blast radius indicated in red would have killed everyone within it, while those in the blue-shaded area would likely be harmed by falling debris.

The power of the explosion, which surprised even gunpowder experts, was such that 7-foot-deep (2.1 m) solid concrete walls (made deliberately to replicate how archives suggest the walls in the old House of Lords were constructed) were reduced to rubble. Measuring devices placed in the chamber to calculate the force of the blast were themselves destroyed by the blast, while the skull of the mannequin representing King James, which had been placed on a throne inside the chamber surrounded by courtiers, peers and bishops, was found far from the site. According to the findings of the programme, no one within 100 metres of the blast would have survived, and all windows within a large distance of the palace would have been shattered, including the stained glass windows of Westminster Abbey. The power of the explosion would have been heard at least five miles away, and seen from much further. Even if only half the gunpowder had gone off, everyone in the House of Lords and its environs would have been killed instantly. The blast would have been mostly directed upwards, Arup blasting consultant David Haddon, pointed out, raining debris in a 200-meter radius.[3]

The later part of the programme addressed the contrafactual historical aspects, had the plot actually succeeded. Pollard notes that the conspirators ideally planned to use the bombing to create a Catholic monarchy, with Robert Catesby and the Catholics in power while James's nine-year-old daughter, princess Elizabeth, sat on the throne. Pollard speculates that English history would have therefore more closely resembled that of France, and a president would ultimately have been living in Buckingham Palace. However, Pollard points out that, in all likelihood, the result would have been much the same as what actually transpired, with the conspirators caught and executed. Additionally, had the plot succeeded, there would have been a massacre of Catholics, who accounted for 5% of the populace, leaving no Catholics in England at all: "In reality, the blast would have sent shockwaves through the Protestant community, bolstering their resolve against the hugely outnumbered Catholics and sparking ruthless revenge." Pollard concludes that the plot was a "stupid" plan, stating that "you can't change the politics of a whole country just by blowing up a few hundred people".[6]


Richard Hammond - Host

Historical dramatization[edit]

Henry Douthwaite as Guy Fawkes
Stuart Liddle as King James I
Matt Rozier as Robert Catesby
Jonathan Dunstan as Thomas Winteur
Daniel Hoadley as Thomas Percy
Toby Knight as John Wright
Tallulah Boote Bond as Princess Elizabeth
John Joyce as Father Henry Garnet


Presenter Richard Hammond and director Mike Slee with the cast and crew, shown during filming of the Tavern scene on location at Kentwell Hall, Suffolk.

When approached with the idea of building a full-size replica of Parliament, stuffing the basement with gunpowder and blowing it up, presenter Richard Hammond considered it a hoax.[7] He "simply did not believe that anyone would be crazy enough to recreate the Gunpowder Plot."[7]

Production, historically and scientifically correct, took six months. While historical research was underway in England, Hammond and explosives expert Sidney Alford had to travel to Spain to buy some gunpowder, as not enough was available in the UK. They were stopped at the French border by customs because, as Hammond recounted, "our expert [unsurprisingly] turned out to be contaminated with traces of just about every form of explosive known to man, triggering a security alert."[7]

Hammond recounts that during filming the 2005 London Bombings put the production in a different frame of reference:

The power of the explosion surprised gunpowder experts.

Production designer Jo Manser built part of the House of Lords (the Westminster tower) to scale as it was in 1605, and then "blew it up to see if Guy Fawkes would have succeeded 400 years ago".[2] Manser said the set (11m by 23m and 16m high) required a production crew of 45 people, and cost £200k.[2] The set was built between July and September 2005. AP Structural engineers were consulted to assess the equations used building the structure to ensure accuracy and safety. Despite preparations, Manser noted that while sets are eventually discarded, "this was a more exciting way to dispose of it."[2]

For the interior filming, fifteen small digital cameras were used, including PD150s. For the external shots of the explosion, a slow motion camera was used, not the type typically used in television filming. Advanitca used them to study the explosions frame by frame.[2]


Adam Nicolson of The Guardian wrote in August that the casting of Hammond was "eccentric."[8] Thomas Sutcliffe of The Independent noted with "satisfaction" that the documentary was "irresistible to anyone with a weakness for the delicious combination of immediate spectacle and delayed climax."[9] Sunday Express' Adrian Pettet points out that Gunpowder is "a cross between Mechannibals and Timewatch, it's great fun and there is a bit of proper history smuggled in there too".[9]


  1. ^ Factiva Search
  2. ^ a b c d e "In Profile: production designer Jo Manser". Broadcast Freelancer. 5 November 2005. Archived from the original on 29 March 2006. Retrieved 2008-07-10. 
  3. ^ a b c Adam Sherwin (31 October 2005). "Gunpowder plotters get their wish, 400 years on". The Times. London: Times Newspapers Ltd. Retrieved 2008-07-10. 
  4. ^ The Gunpowder Plot: Parliament & Treason 1605 - People
  5. ^ Francis Bacon: Biography and Much More from
  6. ^ Taipei Times - archives
  7. ^ a b c d Richard Hammond (1 November 2005). "BLAST FROM THE PAST Richard Hammond recreates the Gunpowder Plot .. for real". Daily Mirror. MGN Ltd. Retrieved 2008-07-10. 
  8. ^ Nicolson, Adam (4 August 2005). "Guy Fawkes was also trained abroad". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 25 May 2010. 
  9. ^ a b "Mike Slee Producer / Director / Writer". Retrieved 2008-07-10. 

External links[edit]