Sunday, 1 June 2014

A Tale of Two Pirates (tv shows): "Black Sails vs Crossbones"

"Who Shall be Captain" - Howard Pyle, 1908, oil on canvas.

As a writer of Authentic Historical Pirate Fiction, and a lover of all things piratical, I was excited last year by the promise of not one but TWO new television dramas all about pirates to screen early 2014.

I read every scrap of information I could find about BLACK SAILS and CROSSBONES. Interviews with the cast, snippets from the writers, and it seemed maybe - just maybe - the producers and directors would depict realistically the Golden Age of Piracy.

I'm not one of those people who allows Hollywood's lack of authenticity to spoil my viewing entertainment (William Wallace in kilt and woad? HA!) - even though VIKINGS does make me grimace every time I see the crazy wizard in an 18th century frock coat and Ragnar in a Karate gi. So when I compare and contrast these two pirate programmes, and look at real pirate history, I'll do my best not to become too entrenched with the costume anachronisms... Honestly, I'll try really really hard.

BLACK SAILS - Start: Pirate attack on the sea, blood curdling cries, snaps of flintlocks, imposing boom of guns and splintering wood - the pirates board a vessel to take some information of great importance.

CROSSBONES: - Start: Pirate attack on the sea, some custard curdling calls, pee-shooter strength muskets go off, guns rattle lazily in their carriages (instead of flying back with full limb-tearing force) - the pirates board a vessel to take some information of great importance.

BLACK SAILS: One of the captives steals the information first, thus preventing the pirates from getting what they are after. Later - back in the pirate haven - he memorises the said information so that the pirates can't kill him, and so he becomes more valuable.

CROSSBONES: One of the captives steals the information first, thus preventing the pirates from getting what they are after. Later - back in the pirate haven - he memorises the said information so that the pirates can't kill him, and so he becomes more valuable. Yes. You just read that paragraph correctly. I did just copy and paste it word for word.

So maybe this is just coincidence. I don't know how Hollywood works. Maybe the writers sent emails back and forth to each other. Who knows.

So where do the shows differ?

Well BLACK SAILS takes place in 1715 on a pretty epic scale, and in the very real pirate haven of Nassau. In reality, Nassau was technically under British rule, but pretty much left to its own devices. It eventually became a lawless town where the likes of Blackbeard, Hornigold, Charles Vane, Calico Jack and Anne Bonney operated from. The last four feature as pretty prominent characters throughout BLACK SAILS. Nassau is colourfully portrayed with markets of pilfered goods, grounded pirates without credit, wenches aplenty, and taverns brimmed with pipe-smoking, rum-swilling blaggards.

Nassau remained a pirate haven until 1718 when Woodes Rogers turned up, replanted the British flag, offered clemency to all pirates, hanged some more, and stayed there as governor. In the same year, Blackbeard was finally hunted down, shot, stabbed and decapitated.

CROSSBONES is set after the Golden Age of Piracy, several years after Blackbeard's death (so 1721?). It's perhaps meant to be a big surprise to us that Blackbeard, this notorious man of Bristol, this elite mariner and veteran of the War of the Spanish Succession, is still alive. And apparently living in the notorious pirate haven of Nassau... Hey! Hold on there Nick! Didn't you just say that piracy had ceased in Nassau and that the whole island of New Providence had fallen back under British rule in 1718? Yes I did. Minus one point to CROSSBONES for failing history. Naughty CROSSBONES. Also, the Nassau featured in CROSSBONES feels much smaller in terms of budget and scale than BLACK SAILS...

All right, that's the setting dealt with, what about how the stories develop? What about the characters?

Good question - BLACK SAILS is sort of a prequel to R.L. Stevenson's Treasure Island. We meet familiar characters like Long John Silver, Captain Flint and Billy Bones. Their story lines are perhaps not so cunningly entwined with the very real pirates of Nassau mentioned above. The characters goal is to keep Nassau as a pirate republic, for which they require a lot of booty. Yarr! The whole series is about trying to find the Spanish treasure galleon the Urca de Lima.
The actual wreck of the Urca de Lima : Florida Division of Natural Resources

In history, the Urca de Lima was a real galleon. It was wrecked off the East coast of Florida in 1715. The Spanish salvage operation was discovered by Nassau pirates Charles Vane and Henry Jennings - and some of the gold must have gone to improve Nassau (well done BLACK SAILS  - Plus one point for using actual historical events. Huzzah!).

There are many colourful characters and side plots in BLACK SAILS. Flint's relationship with a once-rich Lady on New Providence is intriguing, as is his difficulty at abating his crews ferocity, and managing to stay voted in as captain despite capturing few vessels. That is pretty inline with actual pirates, who had a democratic process for choosing officers (see this post for information on the Pirate Code).
Toby Stephens as the complex "Captain Flint" : STARZ

There's also the unofficial boss of Nassau - Miss Guthrie. She controls all the trade of the pirate haven, and sells on the pilfered goods to the Americas. As a character she's likeable enough. She has an abusive relationship with Charles Vane, and a less abusive relationship with a local whore (lots of nudity - can't have a historical TV show without it these days).

Then there's Long John Silver - the anti-hero / sometimes antagonist of Treasure Island. He attempts to be all charming and cheeky, trying to find his way in the world of pirates, where he doesn't particularly want to be, but he ends up looking like some UK boy band member.

The whole show is filled with backstabbings, under-handed activity, and people clamouring over each other for power, gold and girls. The many characters of BLACK SAILS are pretty good all in all, even if it was some pale imitation of the court intrigue we have come to love from GAME OF THRONES. The mostly British cast are excellent, and the dialogue both natural and amusing. Even if the show can be a little slow and frustrating at times, I still think it's well worth the watch - especially if you are interested in the period.

Now, back to CROSSBONES. So having been let down by the setting and historical background, let me explain the premise: Blackbeard, who the authorities believe is still alive, but could be hiding anywhere (yet they forgot to look in the biggest pirate republic ever), and is seeking a chronometer - a device that was yet to be invented, but which can pinpoint both a vessel's latitude and longitude. The show is correct here - the race to invent such a thing was very important indeed, and the British really did have a Longitude Act of 1714 - and offered a monetary prize for whoever could create a device to measure it first.

Captured physician / spy Tom Lowe (no doubt influenced by Patrick O'Brian's Maturin character) has two tasks: stop Blackbeard from capturing a chronometer, and assassinate the notorious pirate. The character is played Richard Coyle, who I'm a big fan of from BBC's sitcom Coupling (incidentally, his Coupling costar Jack Davenport was Commander Norrington in Pirates of the Caribbean... Yarr! Pirate connections!). He's a good actor, but the character wasn't too convincing, nor was his bumbling whining assistant that he reveals all his secret plans to - what a rubbish spy.
Richard Coyle as "Tom Lowe" British physician / spy : NBC

Blackbeard himself is played by John Malkovich, who I personally reckon is extremely overrated as an actor (Cyrus the Virus anyone?). He has the strangest accent ever... in fact I'm struggling to describe it. Perhaps a demented posh Englishman trying to put on a French accent whilst both drunk and stoned? Oh, and also, he doesn't have a black beard...

The other main character is strong female lead Kate Balfour who is in charge of all the island's commerce. She seems quite interesting, and I'm sure more about her will arise as the series progresses. At the moment though, she plays a pretty similar role to Miss Guthrie in BLACK SAILS.
John Malcovich as "Blackbeard". Can't you tell? By the black beard...? : NBC
There are far fewer characters in CROSSBONES, and at the moment I don't particularly care very much about any of them. The script of CROSSBONES tries to be too clever. The characters stop to have in-depth intellectual conversations (or at least pale imitations of them) in the middle of conflict. It felt a little forced and unnatural.

The action in BLACK SAILS has a bit more limb-tearing realism and excitement about it : STARZ
Looking at the action - the choreography was pretty poor in CROSSBONES, and looked to be acted out by a GCSE Drama class. BLACK SAILS' sword fighting wasn't perfect, but it was visceral and bloody.

All in all, despite the sometimes bizzare costume choices in BLACK SAILS - I found that production far more entertaining than CROSSBONES. Of course, it's unfair to judge CROSSBONES too harshly. Only one episode has aired so far. Perhaps it will pick up? But I doubt Malkovich's bizzare accent will...

If swashbuckling tales of blood and gold are your thing, you could do far worse than to read my novels ROGUES' NEST and the brand new release of GENTLEMAN OF FORTUNE - I assure you that there are no Victorian waistcoats or boy band haircuts in either.