I didn’t watch Gunpowder, the latest big Saturday-night drama offering from the BBC. I’ve no intention of seeing it either. Those who did and were riveted by it might well be the sort to raise an eyebrow and ask how I feel qualified to write about it after merely hearing it discussed on television and radio afterwards. Well, I’ve never been to a bear-baiting, but I’d be keen to share a view about it.
Social media, apparently, has people reporting feeling ‘traumatised’ and ‘sickened’ by the scenes of barbarity put before them in the name of entertainment. I don’t doubt it. I’m not going into details about some of the things I quickly scanned; the interested can look it up for themselves. It seems, however, that writer Ronan Bennett really enjoyed getting stuck into his stuff and making as realistic as possible the various horrific 17th century punishment and persecution scenes. Or to be clear, the execution scenes. On BBC Radio 4’s World at One on Monday, Bennett, a committed Irish republican who once worked as a researcher for Jeremy Corbyn, was interviewed by a reverential Martha Kearney. He explained that all the explicit brutality was ‘totally necessary’ to provide the right kind of ‘world view’ of the era, to deliver viewers a ‘participatory’ and ‘immersive’ experience.
So a bit like going to Alton Towers, then? On that ride that gives you a one-in-two drop several hundred feet towards something that looks like a guillotine? Essentially, Bennett’s market, his audience, is a certain kind of thrill-seeker. People without sufficient imagination to discern the requisite horrors (or possible horrors on a day at a theme park) for themselves and need to have it all set out before them courtesy of overpaid actors and industrial amounts of stage blood. Or perhaps Bennett and the production team, in the name of even greater truthfulness and authenticity, like to get themselves down to the abattoir or the hospital and rustle up some real blood. He did, after all, assert that he wanted viewers to be able to ‘feel as well as to see’ and yes, he wanted those watching ‘to like it’, given that his first job was to entertain.
Entertainment, then. At least Bennett was honest about that. He’s a writer, he can write what he wants and doubtless there’ll be some outfit happy to make it and screen it to make a buck out of the audience it knows it will find. Because there’s an audience for everything. That much we do know, sadly. What is objectionable is for the licence-fee-funded national broadcaster to be in on the act, actively aiding and abetting this ramping up of gore, as if it’s good for us, as if we need to know how it really was, blood and horror-wise. Heaven forbid we might have to read a book to learn more. Well, we don’t. We don’t need to have every crunch, every busted sinew before our eyes. We get it. OK? We get it. It’s perfectly possible to convey narrative, drama, suspense, terror, mood by editing, by doing cutaways to onlookers’ faces. The final moments of Anne Boleyn, for instance, need very little on screen. Less is more, Ronan.
Except nowadays, for those in charge at the BBC, it’s just the more simple-minded and cynical more is more. None of us needs to sit through and count the minutes given over to scenes of sickening violence; we know it has been escalating in recent years, whether it’s the increasingly explicit close-ups on the slab in the BBC’s Silent Witness, the recent BBC period drama Taboo with its brutal scenes of rape and violence or the second series late last year of The Missing on BBC1, which featured a sickening scene of murder using a drill. All drew protests from viewers. Versailles, another BBC period piece, drew criticism for what was felt to be gratuitous violence (torture scenes again), as well as its explicit sex scenes. It is as if the BBC is trying to compete with the likes of the AMC zombie series The Walking Dead, which triggered an Ofcom investigation following viewer complaints about the level of violence. If viewers want to sit through those levels of barbarity and depravity, they should have to pay for it. It is not part of the BBC’s remit to be competing for the Game of Thrones audience. Or rather that element of the Game of Thrones audience which watches because of the horror rather than in spite of it. Staggeringly, Sally Abbott, creator of the BBC1 crime drama The Coroner, felt the need to switch over from the gruesome Gunpowder only when it showed a woman being stripped and tortured. She said this made her ‘heart sink’ in the context of actors being sexually harassed by Harvey Weinstein. So it’s OK, Sally, to see shocking imagery of torture so long as it’s on a man, is that it? Is that where we’re now at? Terrific. Beggars belief.
Bennett’s response is casually dismissive and witheringly scornful. He feels it is not his business to concern himself with the minority of viewers ‘who don’t know how to use the off button’. Maybe this is the kind of unsentimental hard line we should expect from a man who was wrongly imprisoned for killing an RUC officer in the mid-1970s, and in 1979 acquitted of conspiracy to rob, handling stolen goods and possessing an explosive substance. Maybe even having to grow up around the men and women of violence during the Troubles makes you pretty phlegmatic when it comes to either penning or watching eviscerations and suchlike. We don’t know.
What we do know is that yes, if you’re telling a story, there may well be violence. If it’s a story set in Tudor times, there is going to be a bloodthirsty aspect in all likelihood. We know about Titus Andronicus, we know about the scene with Gloucester’s eyes. Directors, however, don’t need to have theatregoers vomiting in the aisles. Violence need not be explicit or graphic; it can be implied. Silence in drama, as in music, can be loaded with meaning, with tension. Or is that too subtle? Does the digital world which is already sated on imagery of porn now also have to gorge itself on horror?
The more people see extreme violence, the more they become desensitised to it. Is it really a good thing that we should become so accepting (and from the BBC) of such images of human suffering? Is that what we want as entertainment? I can see plenty of images of human suffering if I watch the BBC news, lunchtime, early evening, late night. It’s all there. Human tragedy. Human misery. Man’s inhumanity to man. What Ronan Bennett and those colluding with him at the BBC need to understand is this: if at any point that gets to feel like entertainment, that – to use Bennett’s word – we ‘like’ what we see, then that’s the moment to hit the off button. ‘Bleeding’ obvious really. Unless you just ‘like’ the whole cruelty and suffering thing. Shame on all of them.