A new BBC Four documentary – made by STV Productions and presented by historian Lucy Worsley and artist and materials scientist Dr Zoe Laughlin – explores the fascinating past of fireworks by following an ambitious and potentially dangerous attempt to recreate one of the earliest and most spectacular fireworks displays to be documented in British history.
Lucy Worsley’s Fireworks for a Tudor Queen, which airs on Wednesday 7 March at 9pm on BBC Four, tells the tale of the unique event staged for Queen Elizabeth I in 1575 at Kenilworth Castle in Warwickshire. The fabulous fireworks were the centrepiece of a three-week extravaganza of entertainments laid on by Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, in a last-ditch bid to win the hand of the monarch.
The unique 90-minute film commissioned by Diene Petterle at BBC Four and executive produced for STV Productions by Peter Collins sees Lucy and Zoe joining forces to re-enact the magnificent and momentous show which had the potential to change the course of English history.
Lucy and Zoe consult historical pyrotechnicians and historians of science, study a first edition of Pyrotechnia – the earliest fireworks ‘bible’ and instruction manual in the vaults of the British Library – and seek out information and inspiration in Italy and East Asia as part of their plan to pull off the recreation of the impressive show-stopper staged for the Virgin Queen.
To handcraft authentic replicas of the original fireworks and rockets, Zoe and her technical team combine experimental science and ideas from 400-year-old formulations (which list ‘buckets of urine’ amongst the ingredients!) for the manufacture of Elizabethan gunpowder.
Based on blueprints uncovered by Lucy’s historical research, the team recreate a spinning wheel of fire, a series of fabulous fireworks fountains, a terrifying rocket box launcher, and – the piece de resistance – an incredible fire-breathing dragon.
The painstaking project to re-enact, in all its original glory, what was undoubtedly one of the most magnificent nights in Tudor history turns out to be well worth such extensive efforts. Viewers will see Lucy Worsley’s Fireworks for a Tudor Queen culminate in a truly impressive finale, as the spectacular pyrotechnic event which entertained royalty well over four centuries ago once again delights an audience dressed in 16th century finery within the grounds of Kenilworth Castle.
“Fireworks have been enthralling us for centuries and it was great fun to delve into their history and explore why they played such an important part in Tudor life. The fabulous spectacle staged for Elizabeth I was the pinnacle of the era’s royal pageantry.”
Lucy Worsley, historian and presenter
“Recreating a 400-year-old fireworks display was a fantastic scientific, artistic and technical challenge that produced a truly immersive piece of factual theatre that definitely proved its power to delight a present-day audience.”
Zoe Laughlin, artist and materials scientist and presenter
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