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Blast from the past; Richard Hammond recreates the Gunpowder Plot .. for real.

Byline: Richard Hammond

IT had to be a hoax, I thought, as the TV guy on the phone outlined a plan to build a full-size replica of Parliament, stuff the basement with gunpowder, light the fuse and stand back.

It may be exactly 400 years since Guy Fawkes first tried it but I simply did not believe that anyone would be crazy enough to recreate the Gunpowder Plot.

But six months later, the entire Plot team waited on an observation platform nearly a kilometre away from the blast site.

The final 10-second countdown lasted hours... I could hear the people around me sweating with the tension. But then, this was the end of a long and difficult journey.

We were about to take months of hard work and blow it sky high - with any luck.

We were, in fact, about to make history. And we genuinely had no idea what would happen when we pressed the button.

It could have been the biggest, damp squib in history but the blast was absolutely astonishing.

All that remained inside the building were lumps of concrete as big as your thumb and splinters the size of toothpicks.

Thinking about what would have happened to any people inside gave me goosebumps - there is no doubt they would all have been killed. When we superimposed the blast on an image of 17th century London, the devastation it would have caused was clear.

This may be a TV show but every detail was accurate, both historically and scientifically.

We started with a full-size replica of the 1605 House of Lords, built from 650 tonnes of concrete - the closest modern approximation to the original stone - at the Spadeadam RAF base on the Scottish border.

Then we got hold of a tonne of gunpowder, stored it in barrels of the same number and type that Guy Fawkes used 400 years ago and put it in exactly the same place he had - directly under the King as he sat on his throne.

The only difference was that whereas Guy was caught before he lit the fuse on November 5, 1605, we were going one step further.

In order to make the experiment as accurate as possible, we also had to find out as much as we could about the plot and Fawkes himself.

BORN in York, he witnessed religious persecution of his fellow Catholics from an early age. When he was 16, a local woman was "pressed to death" for her religious beliefs.

This form of public execution involved the condemned lying on the ground under a wooden door on to which were piled rocks until he, or she, was crushed to death.

Scenes like this hardened Fawkes and gave him a warped sense of the value of life.

With the historical research under way, I travelled to Spain with an explosives expert on the trail of our gunpowder, only to be stopped at customs in France.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, our expert turned out to be contaminated with traces of just about every form of explosive known to man, triggering a security alert.

Half a day of desperate negotiations meant we avoided jail but lost a lot of valuable time. And then, mid-way through filming in July, the terrible events around London put everything in a very different light.

Modern-day terrorists were killing innocent people in explosions all over the capital.

There were those who said we should stop our project, that it was insensitive. I disagreed. This is, after all, the story of a young man who felt persecuted in his country, who travelled abroad to learn how to use explosives and returned prepared to perpetrate an appalling act of terrorism - and if that rings a bell, so it should.

For many of us, who don't share or understand the sort of religious conviction that could drive a man to such an act, it is almost impossible to look objectively at recent acts of terrorism.

But with the benefit of four centuries of space between us and the Gunpowder Plot, and because he never got to see it through, this story gives us a chance to gain an insight into the mind of someone prepared to do something no less awful than today's terrorists - without us immediately recoiling in horror and disgust.

DESPITE the security alerts, the endless research and huge logistical problems, we got there. And making this show will change the way I think about November 5 for ever.

When I stare into the flames this bonfire night, I shall see just one, stark image.

After he was tortured, Fawkes was forced to sign a written confession. It still exists and at the bottom, next to an example of his usually strong, confident signature, is scratched a pathetic, almost cartoon-wobbly version.

This was the last, pitiful scratching of a broken man signing his name to a document that would condemn him to be publicly hung, drawn and quartered in front of a baying crowd.

He may be a name familiar to every school child but he tried to change the world by killing the King and he paid the price.

So watch this show on whatever level you like. It's a great adventure with an explosive conclusion. It's a history programme, casting light on turbulent times. It's a chance to look into the mind of a terrorist whose story is as familiar today as it was 400 years ago.

And it's a scientific experiment that settles the big question once and for all.

THE Gunpowder Plot: Exploding The Legend is on ITV1 tonight at 9.45pm; Preview: Page 37

CAPTION(S):

EXPLOSIVE: Richard inspects the gunpowder barrels; PERSECUTED: Guy Fawkes; BIG BANG: The parliament explodes; HISTORIC: It's used in computer scene; BLOWN TO BITS: Assessing the damage
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Nov 1, 2005
Words:960
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