Black Sails review: It’s the wire on the waves

‘Black Sails’ is a pirate drama for grown-ups and reflects a sea change in the way we watch television, says James Rampton

I am standing behind the wheel on the deck of The Walrus, a mighty, full-scale replica of a 1715 pirate ship that took 300 men six months to construct.

Bristling with enough cannons to sink the whole British Navy, the vessel seems to be challenging any enemy man’o’war  sufficiently foolhardy to appear on the horizon.

The 140-feet ship is kitted out with no fewer than 20 tons of rope and rests on a  15-axle, mobile cradle that can control all its movements. It is floating in an enormous, 10 million-litre, man-made lake at a studio just outside Cape Town, which is standing in for the lawless Caribbean town of Nassau.

The Walrus is the grand stage on which Black Sails, a new pirate drama, is played out. In this prequel to Treasure Island set in the Golden Age of Piracy, the ship is commanded by Captain James Flint. Flint is a man who exerts a reign of terror over his crew. He is a ruthless maverick who unleashes war on England after the civilised world declares that pirates are “hostis humani generis”, enemies of all mankind.

Black Sails is shown exclusively in the UK on Amazon Prime Instant Video. It is another example of the current popularity of drama series, such as House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black, broadcast by online streaming  services. Last month, it was announced that Netflix had commissioned The Crown, a  gargantuan new drama costing a reported £100m. This epic 20-part series covers the Queen’s entire reign and is written by Peter Morgan, previously responsible for The Queen, and directed by Stephen Daldry.

It reflects a sea change in the way we watch TV drama. No longer content to wait a whole week for the next episode, we prefer to buy a series in its entirety and “binge-watch” it in one sitting. This development also allows dramas to paint a more complex picture. Knowing that its audience has 24 hours to get to grips with its narrative – as opposed to a mere two in a movie – the producers of these mammoth new streamed series can afford to create characters who are as nuanced and contradictory as any real human being. 

Is it just a longer version of Pirates of the  Caribbean then? “This is a completely different show from Pirates of the Caribbean,” argues Chris Symes, the show’s executive producer. “This is much more adult. Those films are PG13, and they’re Disney. Black Sails is as un-Disney as you can get.” Instead, Black Sails is a dark and complex tale that is not afraid to explore why these pirates are so desperate. “Our view of pirates is not romanticised in any way. It reflects the way TV is going these days. You can do shows like this. You can make grown-up shows about serious subjects.” 

In other words, it is closer to The Wire than to Captain Pugwash. The renegades in Black Sails don’t just sit around swigging from bottles of grog, singing sea shanties and shouting, “Avast, me hearties!” Stephens, son of Maggie Smith and the late Robert Stephens, says that, “We’ve never seen this side of pirates before. We’ve only ever seen the slightly comic-book version. There is nothing glamorous about piracy. It’s grim. They don’t want to be like that. They do it because they’ve got no other way out.”

Black Sails goes to great lengths to avoid prettifying pirates – except on one key point. “The New York Times commissioned an expert in piracy to watch each episode of Black Sails four times to check its accuracy. The only thing he could find to criticise was the fact that all our pirates still had their own teeth. They wouldn’t have had any in 1715,” says Symes. “But I think asking the actors to have their teeth pulled out for this drama would have been pushing method acting too far.”

Season one of ‘Black Sails’ is available exclusively on Amazon Prime Instant Video

Arts and Entertainment
Will there ever be a Friends reunion?
TV
News
Harry Hill plays the Professor in the show and hopes it will help boost interest in science among young people
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
A Van Gogh sold at Sotheby’s earlier this month
art
Arts and Entertainment

MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word

Arts and Entertainment
'Africa' will be Angelina Jolie's fifth film as a director

Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
One Direction go Fourth: The boys pose on the cover of their new album Four

Review: One Direction, Four

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
'Game of Thrones' writer George RR Martin

Review: The World of Ice and Fire

books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Bean will play 'extraordinary hero' Inspector John Marlott in The Frankenstein Chronicles
tvHow long before he gets killed off?
Arts and Entertainment
Some like it hot: Blaise Bellville

music
Arts and Entertainment
A costume worn by model Kate Moss for the 2013 photograph

art
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Len Goodman appeared to mutter the F-word after Simon Webbe's Strictly performance

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T makes his long-awaited return to the London stage
musicReview: Alexandra Palace, London
Arts and Entertainment
S Club 7 back in 2001 when they also supported 'Children in Need'
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Bruce Forsyth rejoins Tess Daly to host the Strictly Come Dancing Children in Need special
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan plays Christian Grey getting ready for work

Film More romcom than S&M

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

Review: The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
The comedian Daniel O'Reilly appeared contrite on BBC Newsnight last night

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
The American stand-up Tig Notaro, who performed topless this week

Comedy...to show her mastectomy scars

Arts and Entertainment

TVNetflix gets cryptic

Arts and Entertainment
Claudia Winkleman is having another week off Strictly to care for her daughter
TV
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Children in Need is the BBC's UK charity. Since 1980 it has raised over £600 million to change the lives of disabled children and young people in the UK

TV review A moving film showing kids too busy to enjoy their youth

Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his winning novel

Books Not even a Man Booker prize could save Richard Flanagan from a nomination

Arts and Entertainment
Bryan Cranston will play federal agent Robert Mazur in The Infiltrator

Books
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    US immigration: President Obama ready to press ahead with long-promised plan to overhaul 'broken system' - but will it get past a Republican-controlled Congress?

    Immigration: Obama's final frontier

    The President is ready to press ahead with the long-promised plan to overhaul America's 'broken system' - but will it get past a Republican-controlled Congress?
    Bill Cosby rape allegations explained: Why are these allegations coming out now? Why didn’t these women come forward earlier? And why has nobody taken legal action?

    Bill Cosby rape allegations explained

    Why are these allegations coming out now? Why has nobody taken legal action? And what happens next for the man once thought of as 'America's Dad'
    Four years of excruciating seizures caused by the 1cm tapeworm found burrowing through a man's brain

    You know that headache you’ve got?

    Four years of excruciating seizures caused by the 1cm tapeworm found burrowing through a man's brain
    Travelling to work by scooter is faster than walking and less sweaty than cycling, so why aren’t we all doing it?

    Scoot commute

    Travelling to work by scooter is faster than walking and less sweaty than cycling, so why aren’t we all doing it?
    Paul Robeson: The story of how an American icon was driven to death to be told in film

    The Paul Robeson story

    How an American icon was driven to death to be told in film
    10 best satellite navigation systems

    Never get lost again: 10 best satellite navigation systems

    Keep your vehicle going in the right direction with a clever device
    Paul Scholes column: England must learn to keep possession and dictate games before they are exposed by the likes of Germany and Brazil

    Paul Scholes column

    England must learn to keep possession and dictate games before they are exposed by the likes of Germany and Brazil
    Michael Dawson: I’ll thank Spurs after we win says defender as he prepares to return with Hull

    Michael Dawson: I’ll thank Spurs after we win

    Hull defender faces his struggling former club on Sunday ready to show what they are missing. But he says he will always be grateful to Tottenham
    Frank Warren column: Dr Wu has big plans for the professionals yet he should stick to the amateur game

    Frank Warren column

    Dr Wu has big plans for the professionals yet he should stick to the amateur game
    Synagogue attack: Fear unites both sides of Jerusalem as minister warns restoring quiet could take 'months'

    Terror unites Jerusalem after synagogue attack

    Rising violence and increased police patrols have left residents of all faiths looking over their shoulders
    Medecins sans Frontieres: The Ebola crisis has them in the headlines, but their work goes far beyond West Africa

    'How do you carry on? You have to...'

    The Ebola crisis has Medecins sans Frontieres in the headlines, but their work goes far beyond West Africa
    Isis extends its deadly reach with suicide bombing in Kurdish capital

    Isis extends its deadly reach with suicide bombing in Kurdish capital

    Residents in what was Iraq’s safest city fear an increase in jihadist attacks, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Underwater photography competition winners 2014 - in pictures

    'Mysterious and inviting' shot of diver wins photography competition

    Stunning image of cenote in Mexico takes top prize
    Sir John Major: Negative West End portrayals of politicians put people off voting

    Sir John Major hits out at theatres

    Negative West End portrayals of politicians put people off voting
    Kicking Barbie's butt: How the growth of 3D printing enabled me to make an army of custom-made figurines

    Kicking Barbie's butt

    How the growth of 3D printing enabled toy-designer to make an army of custom-made figurines