TV UK, 18 March

While Gunpowder, Treason and Plot played fast and loose with history, it did manage a right-on pop at sectarianism.

Dolan Cummings

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The Auld Alliance accent was last perfected by Christophe Lambert in the Highlander movies, but Clémence Poésy gave it extra charm as the Francophone Mary Queen of Scots in Gunpowder, Treason and Plot on Sunday (BBC2), pronouncing Scotlin to go with the bizarre Arlen currently being promoted by the Irish Tourist Board.

The drama featured at least three members of the cast of Small Faces, the 1996 film about Glasgow street gangs, and there was something of the Gorbals in screenwriter Jimmy McGovern’s presentation of sixteenth-century Scottish court politics. Not only did all the lords have chib-scars on their faces, but they seemed to have a chronic shortage of servants, all of which gave the impression that Mary Queen of Scots lived up a close and used the back-court midden for a dungeon.

Scouser and former Brookside hack McGovern is well known for his politically committed dramas like Dockers and Hillsborough, which are often based on real events, and while Gunpowder, Treason and Plot played fast and loose with the facts, he did manage a right-on pop at sectarianism.

Protestant reformer John Knox was presented as a wild-eyed street preacher (perhaps modelled on the late Pastor Jack Glass, who spent his life campaigning against popery and ecumenism), while Mary and the romantic lead Bothwell pleaded for tolerance. As an old streetfighting leftie, though, McGovern isn’t quite at home with the sort of newfangled multiculturalism attributed to Charles II in last year’s BBC drama (1), and all the best lines were chauvinist, like when Bothwell described Lord Darnley as ‘a long streak of English pish’.

Gunpowder, Treason and Plot continues on Sunday at 9pm with Robert Carlyle as James VI/I taking on Guy Fawkes. Apparently McGovern toned down the mad tyrant aspect of James because Carlyle had just played Hitler (2), but he is still a rampant homosexual, and so the drama promises to go on as entertainingly cookily as it began.

The Genius of Mozart (also BBC2, Fridays at 9pm) is less entertaining, if worthier. It’s billed as a personal exploration of Mozart’s music by the conductor Charles Hazlewood, who comes across as a musical version of Channel 5’s art guy Tim Marlow. But like The Divine Michelangelo (3), it is dominated by dramatic reconstruction.

To be fair, the programme uses the form a bit differently, with the costumed characters talking to camera like contemporary documentary contributors (dramamentary?), but the whole thing doesn’t really add up to much. Inevitably, it invites comparison with the film Amadeus, but it isn’t as dramatically involving. And while, unusually, much of the ‘dialogue’ is properly referenced from letters etc in captions, Hazlehurst’s account of Mozart’s life and motivation doesn’t seem any more convincing than any other.

To get more from the series, you have to watch Mozart Uncovered, the follow-up programme on digital ghetto BBC4, in which Hazlehurst goes into more detail about the actual music. It’s ironic when you consider the emphasis the dramamentary puts on Mozart’s efforts to bring his music to the emerging middle class of his time that the secrets of his music should be reserved for the declining middle class of our own time. Maybe the schedulers have taken the whole freemason thing a bit too seriously.

Dolan Cummings is publications editor at the Institute of Ideas, and editor of Culture Wars. He is also the editor of Reality TV: How Real Is Real?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

Read on:

spiked-issue: TV

(1) TV UK, 4 December

(2) TV UK, 9 October

(3) TV UK, 26 February

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