Sunday, February 05, 2023

Our Flag Means Death

In the winter of 1716 a Barbados plantation-owner named Stede Bonnet abandoned his wife and family, purchased a ship, hired a crew, and became a pirate. Quite a successful pirate: he robbed six or seven ships before accepting a general amnesty, which effectively changed his status from pirate to mercenary, with a licence from England to harass Spanish shipping. But within a few months he reverted to being a mere sea-faring gangster. He robbed at least twelve more ships before the Royal Navy caught up with him. He put up quite a fight; but was taken and hanged in December 1718.

Captain Charles Johnson's General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates was published only seven years after Bonnet's trial. The facts were already well on their way to becoming a legend. But there is no particular reason to doubt that for about three months at the end of 1717, Stede Bonnet formed a temporary partnership or alliance with Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard.

Our Flag Means Death hangs on that slender historical thread.

It's hard to know what to make of the historical Bonnet. Pirates were desperate men -- mutineers and escaped slaves and convicts, who inflicted the most ghoulish tortures on their victims. (The TV Blackbeard forcing enemies to eat their own toes is the least of it.) Most of them were Christians who honestly believed they were going to Hell. Most careers lasted for only a couple of years. A land-owner buying a ship and paying his crew regular wages makes about as much sense as a stockbroker announcing that he's going to go into business as a football hooligan, or a civil servant applying for a transfer to the mafia. People who knew Bonnet thought that he was mad; and Johnson suggests that his sudden career change may have been "occasioned by some discomfort in the married state" (a remark which provides the title for the fourth episode of this series.) He "had no understanding of maritime affairs", although if he'd run a tobacco farm and been a major in the local army he must have had some experience of commanding men. Sad to say, his pirate spoils included tea, sugar, tobacco and "negroes".

If I were going to fictionalise his life, I might imagine him as a kind of nautical Don Quixote, parrot on his shoulder, head stuffed full of pirate folklore, imagining every fisherman to be a gold-stuffed galleon and every lighthouse a sea-serpent. There is some evidence that Bonnet followed the storybooks and literally made his victims walk the plank. Blackbeard himself must have been consciously acting out a fantasy version of a diabolical bad guy. Johnson says he used to burn pistol fuses in his beard to terrify his victims and burned sulphur in his cabin so he'd be used to it when he went to hell. The TV version engages in full-scale stage-conjuring -- "fuckery" -- to convince sea-men that his ship is haunted. I've even wondered if Blackbeard and Bonnet could have been the same person: a millionaire disguised as a notorious psychopath using his plantation to launder ill-gotten gains. I certainly never saw them in the same room.

Our Flag Means Death takes a simpler and more productive narrative route. Stede and Ed became friends; and then more than friends. It's a bromance which turns into a love-story.

My central complaint about the Dreadful Rings of Power -- one of several central complaints, to be honest -- is that it couldn't settle on a consistent tone. It wasn't clear if this was the ancient history of Tolkein's world, or a silly romp someone was playing with Lord of the Rings action figures. People said things like "I have much desireth to speaketh with thee" in one scene and "How's it hangin', elf-buddy" in the next. Our Flag Means Death establishes its register in the opening seconds and sticks with it. Bonnet is a modern office-manager, encouraging his men to talk through their feelings and express themselves through the medium of needlework. During a potential mutiny, he asks the crew to "Reframe that complaint as a suggestion". The crew don't sing shanties so much as modern-sounding pop-songs. "A pirates life, short but nice". (The sound-track is replete with Cat Stevens, Leonard Cohen and Lou Reed.)

Bonnet's ship (the Revenge) comes complete with a fully stocked library, an open log fire, a dinner service (including escargot forks) and, hidden behind a moving book case, a secret walk-in wardrobe full of fine clothes. It hasn't occurred to him that books would fall off the shelves during a storm. He reads to his crew from Pinocchio, even though it won't be written for another hundred and sixty six years. The famous Monkey Island computer game ended with the poignant revelation that the massively anachronistic yarn was only ever a dream in the young Guybrush's head. There is some suspicion that Bonnet's world might similarly turn out to not be entirely real.

It is far from clear what kind of thing Our Flag Means Death is trying to be, or how we are supposed to treat it. It's been compared with Blackadder: a sit-com set in a broadly-drawn olden days setting. And indeed, many of the individual episodes involve classic sit-com scenarios. One week, Bonnet is a fish out of water in a pirate tavern; the next Blackbeard has to hold his own at a sophisticated society soiree. When an old friend, Calico Jack comes on board, Blackbeard reverts to frat-boy antics and Bonnet is left feeling excluded and jealous. The natives who take them prisoner on an island have modern American accents -- the chief talks like a magistrate and the shaman like a psychotherapist. ("Fucking racists" mutters one under his breath when a pirate wonders if they are cannibals.) But it's never uproariously funny: the Guardian critic complained that it wasted the talents of a lot of very good comedy actors. Until the final moments of the final episode, Blackadder was a series of comic turns and skits: Our Flag Means Death demands to be treated as drama. We believe in Edward Teach as a pirate and a sailor, and we care what happens to him. Tom Baker's Captain Rum was only ever a catch phrase and a silly accent. But Our Flag Means Death has are relatively few jokes and no quotable one-liners.

It's also been compared with an adult version of Horrible Histories; but Horrible Histories, despite the silly songs and lavatorial humour, actually bothers to get its historical facts straight. Our Flag Means Death never lets history get in the way of a good story.

If you go in expecting pirate adventure, you'll be annoyed by the sheer volume of silliness: but many of the buccaneering tropes are played surprisingly straight. The tavern in the Pirate's Commonwealth is as cool and atmospheric as anything in Pirates of the Caribbean, and by episode ten some pretty enjoyable swashes have been buckled. Spanish ships are boarded, Royal Navy ships are evaded. There are hairbreadth escapes from nooses and firing squads. Blackbeard tells the story of the terrible kraken which killed his father. There is a massive revenge sub-plot and some ninja nuns. 

The silly characters are very silly indeed. When Frenchie (the singer) and Wee John (a bit of a pyromaniac) find they have a cabin to themselves, they start arranging it like two pals in their first rented apartment; while first mate Buttons baths naked in the moonlight and communes with seagulls. But the serious characters -- Blackbeard himself, first mate Izzy Hands and the mysterious mute Jim -- are played entirely straight and with a fair amount of piratical panache. The storylines may at times aspire to a Roadrunner cartoonish level of absurdity; but the one thing no-one takes the micky out of is the idea of piracy. People lose teeth, toes and fingers but there are no peg legs. Blackbeard is Bristolian born and bred, but he resists any temptation to Talk Like a Pirate.

It's a cliche to damn your favourite streaming show with faint praise, saying that it only "gets good" on episode five. Our Flag Means Death "gets good" from episode one. But there is no doubt that it assumes you are going to binge-watch the ten half-hour episodes, and takes its time to get to where it is going to go. I've spent eighteen years moaning about the pacing of modern Doctor Who: characters are introduced in one scene and discarded in the next, providing excellent raw material for fan-fic and Big Finish, but very little reason for the ordinary viewer to care about what happens. So it would be fairly hypocritical of me to complain that Our Flag Means Death spends ninety minutes on a slow-burn introduction to the ensemble cast. But it certainly comes into focus in episodes three and four when Blackbeard meets Bonnet and the bromance starts to simmer.

History be damned, it's a splendid set up for a character piece. Bonnet is a gentleman who wants to be a pirate; Blackbeard is a pirate who wants to be a gentleman. Blackbeard is rather bored with pirating: his reputation is such that everyone surrenders to him and it's no challenge any more. Bonnet was bored with his wife and kids and longed to go to sea. Blackbeard was born poor; and envies people with fine things. Bonnet was born rich, and mocked by his parents and school fellows for being a weakling.

But there's the show's problem. If you came expecting history, you'll be disappointed: it's not that historical. If you came expecting comedy you'll be disappointed: it's not that funny. But if you come expecting a rom-com (which is how the Beeb billed it) you may also be disappointed. Ed and Stede are the narrative backbone, but they aren't the be-all and end-all of the show.

Best go in with no expectations at all. Best not read any reviews at all, including this one.

You know what it feels like to me? Like a role-playing game from the Good Old Days. Characters; on a boat, encountering other characters on boats and islands and towns. Sword fights and escapes and scrapes and cool paraphernalia; perils avoided by the copious expenditure of preposterous Luck Points. Death an ever-present threat; but not one to take quite seriously. Coming back every week because we've come to like these characters. A bit silly, a bit camp, and we can never quite forget that these are modern people pretending to be pirates. A game. The group more important than the adventure. What's it about? "Us."

Or maybe a bit like the Princess Bride, book, film and radio show. A story which knows it's a story and knows that you know it's a story. A story which can be twice as much fun as real life, because it's not pretending to be real. 

I'm a sucker for anything piratical; but on its own merits this is the nicest piece of TV since The Good Place, which it has nothing whatsoever in common with. Except, in one respect: it offers a racially and sexually diverse cast; with absolutely no sense of points being scored or axes being ground. This isn't a rum, sodomy and the lash view of life at sea; Seaman Staines, Roger the Cabin Boy and all that that entails. But no-one minds who falls in love with who. Izzy snarls that the great pirate Blackbeard has been reduced to a weakling pining for his boyfriend. Stede's wife is pleased that he has found a lover.

History is intersected with: there certainly was an Act of Grace; and Blackbeard probably did have a first mate named Israel Hands who sustained a gruesome leg-wound. And Bonnet's men were marooned at one point. But one hopes that Series Two is going to find some way to spare the fictional pirates the fates of their historical prototypes. Unless we are heading towards the Blackadder ending.


I'm Andrew.

I am trying very hard to be a semi-professional writer and have taken the leap of faith of down-sizing my day job.

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g said...

True Fact: "swashbuckler" is like "turncoat": bucklers are swashed rather than swashes being buckled.

(I strongly suspect that in fact Andrew knows this well but finds it funnier to pretend not to.)

Michael said...

I first heard of this story as an unproduced screenplay by William Goldman - he made it sound like a hell of a movie, but unfortunately budgets intervened...

Andrew Rilstone said...

The trouble is, relatively few swashbuckling stories are set in eras where anyone actually duels with a buckler.

Idea for mash up: Jeeves goes undercover to rescue Russia aristos from the Bolshevics. Working title: Swashbutler.

Andrew Rilstone said...

Yes, I know, but Swashgentlemensgentleman wouldn't have worked, and he could buckle with the best of them when the need arose.

Louise H said...

It certainly is neither fish, flesh nor fowl. I confidently expected to like it but by ep 4 I found that I was rather hoping that all the ships would just sink with all hands so I gave up. Found families aren't really my cup of tea.