Daniel Defoe is often considered the Father of British Journalism and also, as the author of 'Robinson Crusoe,' the Father of the British Novel - a combination that explains a lot about British journalism. He certainly kept very busy: some scholars reckon he might be the principal writer, or at least the editor, of up to 500 works, possibly including 'A General History of the Pyrates,' which was published in 1724 under the name of Captain Charles Johnson.
Whether or not Defoe deserves a Writers Guild credit for it, there is a definite authenticity about the 'General History,' and it was obviously bedtime reading for the producers and writers of Black Sails, at least in the beginning. That was one of the greatest strengths of the series, which got weaker as it moved further away from this thrilling primary source.
The basic historical facts are that a lot of seamen were unemployed after the end of the War of the Spanish Succession and turned to piracy out of desperation, using New Providence in the Bahamas as a base. This was the culmination of the so-called "Golden Age of Piracy" but in truth there was rarely much gold involved: it was a miserable existence and most were only too happy to accept the offer of a Royal Pardon when it was delivered by Woodes Rogers, himself a successful privateer during the War. "Calico Jack" Rackham is not too far from the truth in Black Sails when he says that all Rogers had to do to end piracy was walk up a beach.
A handful of hard cases refused the Pardon and much of the 'General History' is a description of how they were nearly all tracked down and killed over the next few years. Black Sails basically steals their names and at least bits of their stories. It also "borrows" the backstory from Robert Louis Stevenson's 'Treasure Island' and puts flesh on the fearsome Captain Flint. Indeed, the show seems to have been pitched as a prequel to 'Treasure Island' but soon went beyond that.
It got off to a splendid start with a terrifying introduction to the pirates from the point of view of a merchant ship attacked by them. Yet within minutes, the perspective changes completely, and it becomes clear that the pirates are not doing well and the stone face of their leader, the appropriately named Captain Flint (Toby Stephens), hides a very worried man.
Indeed, the more we see of Flint, the more we realise he is not at all what he seems. Stephens does a wonderful job, balancing the ruthlessness required in a pirate captain with the sensitivity of the extraordinarily vulnerable human being he is desperate to hide.
The whole cast is very watchable. Luke Arnold plays a young John Silver - yes, the future Long John Silver - as a clever con man rather than the grizzled sea dog he appears to be later in 'Treasure Island.' Toby Schmitz is great fun as "Calico Jack" Rackham, another fast talker who realises he lacks the presence to lead hard men and so relies on his superior intelligence. The difference between Silver and Rackham is that the latter is not quite intelligent enough to stop rubbing it in how intelligent he is, very much like Wile E Coyote.
Having negligible fighting skills of his own, Rackham relies on two people who have them in abundance, his mistress Anne Bonny (Clara Paget) and his mentor Captain Charles Vane (Zach McGowan). Vane's is the most credible portrait of pirate chief in Black Sails, a physically tough and imposing animal who gets others to follow him by sheer force of personality. He is the alpha male on New Providence until we meet his own mentor, Edward Teach (Ray Stevenson), Blackbeard himself no less - alpha plus.
Sadly, after a strong introduction, Blackbeard is rather thrown away. So is Billy Bones (Tom Hopper), who is set up as a rather likeable working class hero, only to undergo a fairly unconvincing personality transplant for the sake of dramatic conflict. The greatest waste of all is the early departure of Mark Ryan, still remembered with affection as Nasir in Robin of Sherwood, who gave the show some much needed down to earth humanity as Flint's first Quartermaster, Mr Gates.
In general, the show lacked a sense of direction. With a strong production based in South Africa, and deploying CGI as revolutionary on the small screen as 'Lord of the Rings' in cinemas, its set pieces are truly magnificent. The problem is how to fill in the long gaps between those expensive showstoppers?
With most of the budget visibly gone - happily all there on the screen - the writers were reduced to scripting hours of "rogues a-plotting," to quote Blackbeard's actual log. In 'Black Sails,' as opposed to the 'General History,' where it was far more fun, this takes the form of long dialogues on the nature of power and money.
While this does not usually make for exciting television, it might still have retained some dramatic tension in the hands of a George R R Martin. The writers of Black Sails, however, show little grasp of the realities of economics, politics, and psychology. Doubtless with an eye on the American market, they turn Flint into a proto-Tom Paine who dreams of "freedom" from the British Empire. Apart from the obvious anachronism - there was no possibility of any of Britain's colonies abandoning her protection before the 1760s nor any widespread desire to do so until later - one has to ask what sort of "freedom"? Apparently no more than the freedom for pirates to plunder the shipping lanes undisturbed and strangle trade, not the most noble of causes.
Even more grating is how schemers insist on having these frank conversations on the nature of power, often including their own feelings about it, with each other - the very people with whom they should not be sharing. One feels that was not how it was when the rogues were a-plotting on the historical Blackbeard's ship. In addition to its Sailing Master, its Quartermaster, its Boatswain, and its Surgeon, the 'Walrus' should have sailed with a Ship's Psychotherapist.
The greatest irritation is that Black Sails perpetuates the false glamour of piracy. While it is not as bad as the Errol Flynn film 'Against All Flags,' which implied that a penniless sailor could pick up a wardrobe of fancy outfits from some Rodeo Drive on the Madagascar Coast, it fails to convey the squalor and desperation of a life most pirates were glad to leave when they could.
All that said, Black Sails was a hugely entertaining show with a talented cast and good production values that pushed the boundaries of what could be done on television, especially in the battle scenes. If it dragged a bit in places - and in fact could have been half as long without much loss - then it was still worth sitting through them to get to the really good parts.
About the reviewer: John Winterson Richards
John Winterson Richards has a law degree from the University of Bristol, an MBA from the University of Wales Institute of Science and Technology (UWIST), almost 30 years' experience as a management consultant, and a fascination with organisational structures. An experienced freelance writer as well as a consultant, John has been commissioned and paid to write over 500 articles in print and online. He was a regular guest on the Mind Your Own Business podcasts and a major contributor to that website's blog.
John has also written The Xenophobe's Guide to
the Welsh: A guide to understanding the Welsh that explores their nature and
outlook with benevolence and humour, and How To Build Your Own Pyramid: A
Practical Guide to Organisational Structures for Managers. Both are available
from Amazon (see above).
Published on December 6th, 2019. Written by John Winterson Richards for Television Heaven.