'Black Sails' not your typical pirate story (with video)

The Fresno BeeJanuary 24, 2014 

PASADENA — If your idea of a pirate is the befuddled Captain Hook of "Peter Pan" fame or even the slightly effeminate Captain Jack Sparrow from the "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies, then you're in for a surprise with the new Starz series "Black Sails." There's never been a more cutthroat and greedy group of scalawags than the pirates who sail these cable seas.

Set in 1715, the golden age of piracy, New Providence Island is a lawless territory controlled by notorious pirate captains. The most feared is Captain Flint (Toby Stephens), who finds himself in a battle with the British Navy set on redeeming its land. Only an uneasy alliance with Eleanor Guthrie (Hannah New), daughter of the local kingpin, gives Flint the means to find a treasure that could mean survival for the buccaneers.

Stephens knew little, mostly clichés, about pirates before signing on to the series. That's why he was caught off guard when he read the first script for "Black Sails."

"It was the exact opposite of clichéd," Stephens says. "It was very pragmatic in giving me a sense of the time and also a sense that there's an economic urgency to what they are doing. There's also an economic structure to what they are doing. I found the economic part of the story to be fascinating. We deal with themes that resonate in today's world."

The way the script unfolds, the basic story could be about any high-pressure group — stock brokers, bankers, lawyers — who become ruthless in their attempts to get ahead. Those groups don't end up in sword fights, but the greed factor doesn't change.

According to Stephens and executive producer Jonathan E. Steinberg, the series is also like a Western in that the stories unfold in a frontier town where laws are made to be broken. Everyone who lives in this world must face the reality that each day is a struggle to survive because social conventions don't exist.

Stephens wanted to make sure that his performance was as original as the story, which meant avoiding all of the elements he says make every pirate look the same. You won't here a single "arrrrgghh" from him or any other member of the crew.

"Every pirate in this show is definitely an individual. They have reasons for what they do, their own methods for what they do," Stephens says. "Hopefully, you'll get a sense that a crew on these ships is like an office. I'm the CEO and these are all my workers. They are different constituents and they are all disgruntled because they don't like the working conditions and the food is bad."

A big part of making the series different is making New's character so strong — and colorfully vocal. She might be working in a world of killer men, but her character never backs down. New found the project compelling because it takes place in a world where sexuality and boundaries have been completely broken down. She loves that she plays a young woman who doesn't have social restrictions put on her, who is free to use her sexuality.

"We are looking at a part of history that's never really been explored," New says. "Because the men are at sea, the towns were run by women. And, when the men come back to port, the women continue to do their jobs. There's a lot of mutual respect for what the women have to do and what the men have to do. They end up working together."

That means that in a place where pirates rule the seas more equality among the sexes existed than in the rest of the world.

New agrees that in one way the series has the feel of an office-based drama, but she adds that there are so many elements going on that it can also be seen as a crime-based drama, a political drama, romance or simply an action series. The workplace elements fascinate her because of how all of the historical elements become intertwined with an intimate story.

Show info

"Black Sails": 9 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 25, on Starz.


Watch "Black Sails" cast members Toby Stephens and Hannah New talk about the series and view the official trailer at fresnobee.com/life.


TV and movie critic Rick Bentley can be reached at (559) 441-6355, rbentley@fresnobee.com or @RickBentley1 on Twitter. Read his blog at fresnobeehive.com.

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