The Adventures of Ben Gunn

1958 | United Kingdom

Written as a prequel by R.F. Delderfield to Treasure Island, this BBC production follows Ben Gunn from parson's son to pirate and is narrated by Jim Hawkins in Gunn's words, Gunn having died some eight months before.

Ronald Frederick Delderfield was born in Bermondsey, London, in 1912. At 17, he became editor of the country paper his father owned and remained its editor — and reporter and columnist — until World War II, during which he served on the Air Ministry Staff. His first play was published in 1936 but it wasn't until 1949 that he started novel writing beginning with Seven Men of Gascony. Several of his books were adapted for television in series form and the first Carry On film, Carry On Sergeant, was based on his play The Bull Boys. The 1961 film On the Fiddle starring Sean Connery was based on his novel Stop at a Winner.

The Adventures of Ben Gunn relates how Ben met Nick Allardyce, son of a local parson, who hungered for a life of adventure. Although Nick had quit medical school before gaining his formal qualifications, his knowledge was deemed good enough to be appointed surgeon on a transport vessel, the Walrus (later to become Captain Flint's pirate ship), and tells how Nick and Ben met John Silver and others from Treasure Island. It also reveals where the buried treasure in Treasure Island came from, how John Silver lost his leg, and how Nick ended up being the pointing skeleton discovered by the treasure hunting party at the conclusion of Treasure Island. The story also tells how Ben came to be marooned on the island years after he had fled the Walrus.

The television series, which starred Peter Wyngarde as John Silver and John Moffat as Ben was a six-part serial which began at 5.35 pm on 1 June 1958 with The Parson's Son. Subsequent episodes were titled The Taking of the Walrus, The Winning of the Treasure, How the Treasure Was Buried, The Honest Seaman and Marooned. The last episode was broadcast on 6 July.

For the series the BBC took the unprecedented step of lavishing large amounts of money on the production, including the biggest film location yet devised for the Corporation, complete with a giant wave machine and a Spanish galleon for the scenes on board the ship. No doubt the Beeb, mindful of the success of the numerous swashbuckling series then being played out almost daily on Independent Television, felt the extra expense was more than justified. The difference between those ITV series and this was that they were shot on film with an eye on foreign sales (particularly the USA), whereas The Adventures of Ben Gunn were broadcast live from Ealing Studios, which the BBC had acquired just a few years before.

The danger of broadcasting live was clearly illustrated during a sword fight between Peter Wyngarde and Olaf Pooley, when the latter accidently plunged his sword into the former's knee! Being a live show, the production team must have been counting their blessings that the accident happened in rehearsals and not during the broadcast, although the site of Wyngarde being carted off to hospital with the offending sword still protruding from his leg would not have calmed many of their fears.

Wyngarde and Moffatt in Ben Gunn for BBC TV

Wyngarde played John Silver as a younger man and without the traditional west country accent as favoured by previous actors such as Robert Newton, who had only just finished, as far as British audiences were concerned, playing the role on television the year before (The Adventures of Long John Silver was actually made in 1954 but not broadcast in the UK until 1957). Wyngarde himself stated that "I played Long John absolutely straight. In this series he was a young man – about 30 years before the Long John of Treasure Island." And neither was Silver portrayed as the ne'er-do-well of countless tellings. According to this account he came from a good family and was well educated, and it was only his own sense of adventure that led him to become associated with pillaging pirates. According to the star: "It was only subsequently when Long John became greedy for money that he also became gross and uncouth. That was my interpretation of the situation anyway."

Buy or Download from Amazon

Peter Wyngarde went on to be a huge television star as Jason King in both Department S and Jason King while John Moffatt went on to a varied career as a fine character actor appearing in Love in a Cold Climate, Crown Court and Maigret in a 1992 revival, among many other roles. Talking of Maigret, Ruper Davies, who is probably best remembered as the definitive French detective also starred here as Captain Flint. Richard Coleman (And Mother Makes Three) starred as Nick Allardyce and Peter Vaughan (Harry Grout in Porridge, among countless other roles) was seen in an early role as Sergeant Hoxton. Vaughan would eventually return to Treasure Island in a 1968 BBC version of the original tale as none other than Long John Silver, himself. 

Published on June 19th, 2019. Written by Marc Saul for Television Heaven.

Previous post The Adventures of Black Beauty
Next post The Adventures of Aggie