MARY QUEEN of Scots may seem a strange subject for Jimmy McGovern’s new BBC drama. McGovern is well known for writing that exposes prejudice and oppression. He has consistently championed left wing causes, while at the same time becoming a highly successful writer on series like Cracker.
McGovern’s politically committed writing means that Gunpowder, Treason and Plot: Mary Queen of Scots is no ordinary English heritage costume drama. It rings with blood and guts, war and assassinations, ruthless scheming and deadly plots. It shows kings and queens prepared to slaughter for their ambitions, English and Scottish courts mired in bloody plotting, barbaric lords and utterly ruthless religious leaders.
McGovern relished the prospect of writing a historical drama. He said, ‘Historians will put the boot in, of course. They hate historical drama because it simplifies things. I have written history before. Sunday was about Bloody Sunday in Derry in 1972. Hillsborough was about the 1989 football disaster and Dockers was about the Liverpool dock strike of the mid-nineties. Writing about the Stuarts is much easier. They have all been dead for 400 years. Nobody is going to get hurt by what I write, and nobody knows the truth.
‘Where the facts are known I have stuck to them. But where there is room for embellishment, I have embellished. But that’s what Shakespeare did.’ McGovern uses the story of Mary Stuart and her son, James I of England, to explore themes like kingship and tyranny, religious bigotry and how repression drives people to terrorism.
The drama opens with 19 year old Mary returning to Scotland in 1561 after spending her childhood in France. Mary was a Catholic ruling a Scotland that had been converted to Protestantism by John Knox, in a Europe riven by religious conflict. McGovern’s drama shows that Mary’s own brother was prepared to betray her to the English queen, Elizabeth I.
It also shows how everything about Mary’s life, including her most intimate relationships, were shaped by political manoeuvrings and violence. The real events of Mary’s life were more dramatic than most fiction is, and the series portrays them in a suitably vivid and gripping way. Mary’s secretary was murdered in front of her by her husband Darnley.
When Darnley was himself murdered, Mary married the man widely believed to have killed him. She was forced to abdicate and was captured by the English. After spending 17 years locked away, Mary was executed for plotting against Elizabeth I.
The second two episodes of the series promise to be better than the first two episodes available for review. They focus on Mary’s son James’s deeply unpopular reign as king of England and how people were driven to try and overthrow him in Guy Fawkes’s Gunpowder Plot. McGovern gives the story believable characters, a cracking pace and draws out themes that make it relevant for today.
Gunpowder, Treason and Plot: Mary Queen of Scots, Sunday 14 March, 9-10.40pm, BBC2.
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