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Sarah Hughes: Avast there, me hearties! It’s the return of the pirate drama


In 2011, a fourth instalment of Pirates of the Caribbean, On Stranger Tides, limped into cinemas – confirming that a franchise which had appeared fresh and funny in 2003 – when Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow first quipped his way into our hearts – had, after eight years, well and truly fizzled out. And with that, also, the pirate genre seemed to have run its course for the time being.

But never overestimate the imagination of television bosses, who are now trying to whip up another pirate craze on the small-screen.

First off the blocks is Black Sails, a prequel to Treasure Island produced by Michael Bay, aka the king of such “crash bang wallop” films as Transformers. US cable network Starz are so pleased with their newest drama (starring Toby Stephens as troubled skipper Captain Flint and Aussie actor Luke Arnold as a young not yet “Long” John Silver) that they commissioned a second season before even one episode had aired, and a number of UK channels are rumoured to be bidding for British rights. That confidence appears justified – the show’s premiere pulled in ratings of almost three million, making it Starz’s biggest ever drama launch. But is it any good?

Co-creators Robert Levine and Jonathan E Steinberg are clearly aiming to produce a down-and-dirty, Deadwood-like series, re-imagining pirates for the gritty cable drama era. Unfortunately, so far, Bay’s influence is equally dominant, and although the male characters are serious thespians, the women have clearly been cast with other attributes in mind and the series is further undermined by relying on female degradation to spice up the plot. Ultimately, while Black Sails looks incredible, it makes a great deal of noise without actually saying much. 

Pirate fans would be advised to keep their gunpowder dry until the arrival of another new drama, Crossbones: starring John Malkovich as Edward Teach, aka Blackbeard. It launches in the US on the NBC network this summer.

The show is based on Colin Woodard’s excellent history book The Republic of Pirates, which looks at how egalitarian pirates set up their own fledgling democracy in the Bahamas in the early 18th century, and is written by Britain’s Neil Cross, the man behind Luther. Cross is clearly at home with complex heroes and ambitious plotting, so will he free pirates from the clichés of eyepatches and parrots? Let’s hope so; it’s certainly about time the pirate drama sailed into fresh seas.