Shiny Shelf


Blackbeard

By Eddie Robson on 14 September 2006

The latest ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ film has just entered the exclusive club of films to have grossed more than a billion dollars worldwide (only two other members, one of which also stars Orlando Bloom – an unlikely candidate for the most commercially successful actor of all time), demonstrating that our obsession with pirates shows no sign of slowing down. Everybody wants to get in on the act, and the beauty of the subject is that it’s such a rich vein of material (anybody who’s interested in my proposal for a comics series about the exploits of legendary female pirate Cheng I Sao, get in touch at the usual address – no timewasters please).

‘Blackbeard’ is a quintessentially BBC response to the craze, returning to all the historical source material it can find to dramatise the last two years in the life of Edward Teach, the most famous pirate to have actually lived. Yet its attempt to present itself as a light educational piece is compromised by some of the liberties it takes with this material. As a picture of how pirates emerged and fitted into the economy of the New World it works well, even if it would have been nice to have some account of Teach’s first ventures into piracy. Many of the events depicted conform, as far as I can tell, to historical record.

However, in the depiction of Teach himself the programme takes some liberties, drawing in part on Daniel Defoe’s account – which began the legend, and is known to be partly fictionalised, especially in its outrageous depiction of Blackbeard’s character. Yes, Teach was known for being a charismatic leader who managed his crew well, and his strategies generally minimised combat and avoided bloodshed, in contrast to the murderous creature of legend. But in terms of his appearance, the production draws heavily on Defoe’s arresting description of Blackbeard – the twists in his beard, the pistols slung across his chest, the lit matches sticking out from under his hat – which nobody who met Teach ever mentioned (and you’d think at least one of them would have passed comment). His multiple wives are mentioned – this also appears only in Defoe’s version. In addition, the drama plays up the success of Teach’s career, matching him to his legend.

Given that my fact-checking for this review revealed these fudges after a few minutes’ consultation of a reference book on the subject, I think this is rather poor. The use of Defoe’s material is understandable, but it undermines the programme’s attempt to present itself as hard fact. Fair enough, we don’t know that Teach never dressed this way, and it’s very visually arresting and adds much to the production – but why not be upfront about the use of what is probably a fictionalised source in the absence of a conclusive factual one?

Additionally the dialogue is, in places, rather poor. Given the presence of a documentary voiceover and on-screen maps to explain the factual side, there’s no reason for the clunky expository lines which afflict several scenes, especially the ones with the boring governors and their plots to spoil the pirates’ fun. In places it’s predictable, and one scene is a slightly bizarre homage to the ‘How am I funny?’ scene in ‘Goodfellas’.

Yet in spite of all this, the programme remains enjoyable and exciting. This is through a combination of good subject matter, impressive production values (considering the automatic comparison is with a movie that cost about $150 million) and the tangible sense of fun that everybody had making it. None of the cast go too far over the top, but they all do a bit: what’s the point of playing pirates and being restrained about it? James Purefoy, who adds Blackbeard to the amazingly diverse array of historical figures he’s played recently (Mark Antony and Beau Brummell are also on the list), puts in the subtlest performance and even he spends most of his time growling and going ‘Arrrr’.

Next week’s concluding part deals with Blackbeard’s ‘retirement’, during which he indulged in piracy on land. What kind of piracy is that? It’ll be interesting to find out, anyway.


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By Eddie Robson




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