Beginning with a certain ship’s cook, John Silver, stealing a Spanish treasure galleon’s schedule from a certain Captain Flint, Black Sails plunges us into the broiling thieves’ den on New Providence Island (Nassau) in its pirate heyday.
As Nassau’s time as a pirate haven is coming to an end and the British and Spanish navies close in, Black Sails is a heady mix of betrayal and violent death, somewhere between Game of Thrones and Grand Theft Auto. Starz network steps up from it’s campy CGI schlocktacular Spartacus to a high-production value serial with a serious International cast headed by Toby Stephens’ as Flint. A familiar cocktail of blood, swearing and sex means you can forget the Pirates of the Caribbean pantomime; this is Deadwood on the high seas.
Creator Jonathan Steinberg plays fast and loose with historic buccaneers to construct a backdrop for his prequel to Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel Treasure Island. Set in 1715, the obsessed Captain Flint – a disgraced British naval officer – with crew including Billy Bones and a two-legged, parrot-less chancer John Silver, chases down the real Spanish treasure ship Urca de Lima, alongside historic rivals Calico Jack, Ann Bonny and Charles Vane.
With the venture underwritten by local smuggler’s daughter Eleanor Guthrie (Hannah New), Flint’s obsession drives his crew to the verge of mutiny, Black Sails plays out on a big, ahem, canvas.
For all it’s tight plotting of intrigue, mystery and back-stabbing, it’s not afraid to indulge in bone-crunching, bloody fist-fights and sea battles, where the claret flows as copiously as the rum; nor is it shy about putting plenty of boobs and bums alongside the prodigious swearing. Be warned, for all it’s strong women, this is not a feminist piece – even the murderous Ann Bonny (Clara Paget) has to back down from a fight – and there’s plenty of female nudity and faux-lesbianism just to add some titilation.
While the early episodes drag on land, later on there’s a cunning sea chase, a tense ship-board siege and a myriad of alliances, affairs, back-stabbing and murder. And like Game of Thrones, it’s also not afraid to kill off leading characters you expect to make it through a few seasons, even to Treasure Island itself.
While you may not like any of the characters (I don’t), the cast portray a complex assortment of desperately flawed, and downright desperate human beings, and you may just find yourself swept along in their wake. There’s plenty of talk of pieces of eight, Spanish gold and the skull and crossbones is stamped over everything. Sadly nobody cries ‘aarrr!’ RC