Black Sails: Buried treasure

Is anybody watching the pirate series Black Sails?

I was thrilled when I discovered the Starz network was creating a television series about pirates. Over the past twelve months I’ve been researching the golden age of piracy for my third novel and have become fascinated with the maritime marauders of the early eighteenth century. Black Sails, I thought, would be right up my alley. I wanted to enjoy this series, and there is a lot to enjoy.

Purportedly, a prequel to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (there is a character called John Silver), Black Sails explores the real lives of pirates. They were dirty, drunk and toothless and swore quite a lot. Apparently, there were none who looked like Errol Flynn or Johnny Depp. They were a lawless brotherhood at war with the world. This theme rings and loud and clear.

Piracy was a business, an extremely ruthless one. Deals and alliances were painstakingly negotiated. Many critics see this as a downfall of the series. Although titled Black Sails, not a great deal of the action takes place at sea, they complain. Of course, there are thrilling sword fights and bloody fist fights, but they are few and far between. This is historical fact, and the producers are sticking to it. Pirates weren’t the merry swashbucklers Hollywood would have you believe.

The series makers have recreated the hectic pirate haven of Nassau beautifully. Its crowded harbour and makeshift settlement where everything and everyone is for sale is brought brilliantly to life. Admittedly, the Michael Bay-produced drama is a confusing mix of action, adventure, soft porn and melodrama. There are even weird moments of comedy where I half expect Jack Sparrow to swing from the nearest mizzenmast. Perhaps the producers are attempting to hook into the Game of Thrones audience. They should realise that pirates don’t need to be sexed up.

I could nitpick. For instance, the show is set in and around New Providence in 1715. In episode one a lewd reference is made to Blackbeard, who didn’t arrive in New Providence until the following year. He came to renown even later than this. Blackbeard is mentioned for the sake of a crude joke. Here the writers are to blame, going for cheap thrills over accuracy. But when you’re creating entertainment there has to be some leeway for artistic licence. This is also the eternal struggle of the historical fiction author – balancing entertaining fiction with historical accuracy. It is a very fine line to walk and occasionally Black Sails steps over the mark.

Nevertheless, I’ll keep watching. If the viewer can delve deeper than the sometimes dodgy script and ill-placed orgy scenes, there are great riches to be found in Black Sails.

What’s your opinion of Black Sails?

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