Treasure Island (BBC, 1977) to be released by Spirit Entertainment – 21st November 2016

treasure

I’m delighted to hear that the 1977 BBC adaptation of Treasure Island, starring Alfred Burke as Long John Silver, will shortly be available on DVD from Spirit Entertainment.

Adapted by John Lucarotti, directed by Michael E. Briant and produced by Barry Letts, this has a cast to die for.  The likes of Talfryn Thomas, Patrick Troughton, David Collings, Jack Watson, Anthony Bate, Terry Scully, Stephen Greif, Thorley Walters, Richard Beale, Edward Peel and Brian Croucher all feature.

It’s due to be released on the 21st of November 2016 (pushed back from the original release date of early October).

Treasure Island (BBC, 1977) – Part One

treasure-01-01

Treasure Island, an evergreen classic of children’s literature for more than a century, has generated more film, television and radio adaptations than you could shake a cutlass at.  But even though there’s many versions to chose from, this one (broadcast in four episodes on BBC1 in 1977) has to rank amongst the very best.

Like the majority of the BBC Classic Serials from the sixties, seventies and eighties, the adaptation (this one from John Lucarotti) displays considerable fidelity to the original source material, although Lucarotti is unafraid to build upon the original narrative.  In a way this isn’t surprising, since the book was told from Jim’s perspective it’s inevitable that it has a somewhat restricted viewpoint.

Lucarotti’s additions begin right from the start, as Jim’s father, Daniel (Terry Scully), someone who merited only a handful of mentions in Stevenson’s original, is fleshed out into a substantial character.  Scully excelled at playing people who suffered – he had one of those faces which could express a world of pain – and Daniel is no exception.  Daniel is clearly far from well and concern that he’s unable to provide for his family is uppermost in his mind.  So the arrival of Billy Bones (Jack Watson) seems to offer a chance to extricate himself from his financial problems.

Watson’s excellent as Bones.  With his weather-beaten face and the addition of a wicked-looking scar, he’s perfect as the rough, tough, seaman with a secret.  Bones’ decision to recruit Daniel (an invention of Lucarotti’s) is quite a neat idea, since it explains how Long John Silver and the others came to learn where Bones was (Daniel heads off to secure passage for himself and Bones to the Caribbean, not realising that Silver is monitoring the port for any unusual activity).

Lucarotti also elects to bring Silver and his confederates into the story very early, making it plain that Bones has absconded with something of great value that they’d all like back.  If you love British archive television of this era then the sight of Silver’s gang will no doubt warm the cockles of your heart (step forward David Collings, Patrick Troughton, Stephen Greif and Talfryn Thomas amongst others).

Alfred Burke’s Long John Silver impresses right from the off.  He doesn’t have Robert Newton’s eye-rolling intensity, nor does he have Brian Blessed’s physical presence – but what Burke’s Silver does possess is great charm and a rare skill at manipulating others to do his will.  But although he seems pleasant enough to begin with, it doesn’t take long before he demonstrates his true colours.

Bones’ run-in with Doctor Livesey (Anthony Bate) is kept intact from the original.  Bate is yet another wonderful addition to the cast and Livesey’s stand-off with Bones is a highlight of the episode.  Lucarotti’s subplot of Daniel’s doomed night-time misadventure slots into the original story very well, as it explains why his health suddenly took a turn for the worse, which then resulted in his death shortly afterwards.

A member of Silver’s gang, Black Dog (Christopher Burgess), arrives to confront Bones.  Burgess was a favourite actor of the producer, Barry Letts, so it’s maybe not too much of a surprise that he turns up.  He and Watson step outside (and therefore onto film) for a duel, which leads to Bones’ stroke.  Watson’s particularly fine as the bedridden Bones, suffering nightmares accrued from the horrors of a life spent on the high seas and dreading the arrival of the black spot.

David Collings’ nicely judged cameo as the malevolent Blind Pew is yet another highlight from a consistently strong opening episode.

treasure 01-02.jpg

Treasure Island (BBC, 1977) – Part Two

treasure-02-01

Since Treasure Island is packed with character actors of distinction, it’s easy to overlook the young actor who played Jim Hawkins.  But Ashley Knight more than holds his own amongst such august company, possessing just the right amount of youthful spirit and innocence.

That he’s deceived by Silver shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise, since Long John also managed to fool Squire Trelawney (Thorley Walters).  But, to be fair, fooling the Squire probably wasn’t too tricky for Silver, as Trelawney (as per Stevenson’s novel) is portrayed as the sort of trusting, loose-mouthed individual you really wouldn’t want to entrust with the delicate matter of finding a ship and crew to sail to the Spanish Main in search of buried treasure.  Walters is a delight as the Squire, he may be pompous and vain but he’s also curiously lovable.

The way that Silver manipulates Trelawney into engaging him as the ship’s cook and then agrees that he can handpick the crew provides us with another opportunity to witness the apparently charming and helpful side of Silver (although he’s only serving his own interests of course).  His charm is seen again when the wily Long John takes Jim under his wing.  There’s no reason why Silver should seek to deceive Jim, which leads us to assume that his friendly stories have no ulterior motive.  But there’s a sting in the tail – at the same time he’s regaling Jim with yarns about the sea, Silver is planning to murder Trelawney, Livesey and Captain Smollett (Richard Beale) and anyone else who stands in his way.

Would he also do the same to Jim?  It’s not explicitly stated, but he does confide to Israel (the ever-watchable Patrick Troughton) that he doesn’t intend to leave any witnesses, so we can pretty much take it as read.  This dichotomy in Long John’s character is what makes him so fascinating – the other pirates make little or no attempt to hide their evil intent, but it’s the way that Silver can wear different masks at different times that makes him such an enduringly appealing creation.  And of course, in the hands of an actor as good as Alfred Burke it’s just a pleasure to watch.

Not all of the crew are content, like Silver, to wait for the right time to make their move, some want action now.  Prime amongst the malcontents is Merry (Roy Boyd) who paces the ship with a murderous look on his face, but you get the feeling that he’s never going to be any sort of match for Long John.

During this era of television, directors tended to have a “rep” of actors who they employed on a regular basis.  If you’re familiar with some of Michael E. Briant’s previous productions then names such as Roy Evans, Richard Beale, Royston Tickner and Alec Wallis will be familiar ones.  Alec Wallis has a nice little cameo as Patmore, a corrupt tailor who Silver deliberately sends along to Trelawney, just so he can denounce him before the Squire and therefore gain his trust.  Beale is suitably upright as the incorruptible Smollett, a man who sets to sea with the gravest misgivings about the crew (a pity nobody listened to him).

Before the ship sets sail there are several scenes which take place within the Squire’s cabin.  Thanks to a very simple CSO effect (bobbing waves outside the cabin window) the illusion at being on the water is created very effectively.  But there’s no substitute for the real thing and it’s the later filmwork aboard the Hispaniola, as it makes it way towards Treasure Island, which really opens up the production.

treasure-02-02

Treasure Island (BBC, 1977) – Part Three

treasure-03-01

Most of the crew have decided to throw their hand in with Silver.  Most, but not all.  One whose loyalty remains undecided is Tom (Derrick Slater).  He knows and respects Silver of old, but will he elect to join the others in mutiny?

The question of Tom’s allegiance brings the character of Silver into sharp focus.  Silver is fond of Tom and seeks to win him over – to this end, along with some of the others they make for the island (leaving Smollett, Livesey and the others aboard the Hispaniola, guarded by a small number of pirates).  Silver believes that away from the ship he’ll be able to talk Tom round.

Given all the quality character actors seen throughout the serial, it’s slightly surprising that the relatively undistinguished Slater was given this role.  True, Tom’s screentime is very limited, but since the confrontation between Silver and Tom allows us – and Jim – a chance to witness Silver’s ruthless side, it’s therefore a pity that Slater’s performance is on the lifeless side.

Tom tells Silver that “you’re old and honest too, or has the name for it. And you’ve money, which many a poor sailor hasn’t. Brave too, or I’m mistook. You tell me why you let yourself be led away by that kind of mess of swabs.”  During this monologue Silver has lain a friendly arm on him, but pulls away once he realises that Tom won’t be won over.  With a horrified Jim watching from his hiding place close by, Silver stabs Tom to death.  Given that the battle seen later in the episode is fairly bloody, it’s interesting that Tom’s murder occurs off camera.  We see Silver stabbing something, but we never see what it is.

Captain Smollett and the others make their way ashore.  Smollett really begins to take charge (Richard Beale is first class during these scenes) and they elect to use Flint’s old stockade as their base.  But even before they’ve secured it there’s a brief battle and Squire Trelawney’s loyal servant, Tom Redruth (Royston Tickner), lies dying.

Tom’s barely had a handful of lines, but he does get a good death scene.  Up until now it seems as if the Squire hasn’t really grasped the reality of the situation – it’s been little more than a game to him (finding a ship, employing a tailor to make him the grandest uniform, etc).  It takes the death of a loyal family retainer, someone uprooted from his settled life in Britain and fated to die a lonely death on a distant island far away from his family, to bring him back to reality.  He asks Tom to forgive him (and is insistent that he does so).  Tom, loyal to the last, insists there’s nothing to forgive and, as Trelawney recites the Lord’s Prayer, Tom gently slips away.  Beautifully played by both Tickner and Thorley Walters.

We meet Ben Gunn (Paul Copley).  He’s Irish and speaks in a remarkably high pitched voice, which is a little odd.  But then Ben Gunn’s supposed to be odd (what with his cheese fixation) and after a while his voice lowers a little, so a little bit of normality is restored.  His cave – a studio set – looks very good (another design triumph for Graham Oakley).

John Dearth was one of those utility actors who was always worth watching, even in the smallest of roles.  He was a regular during the first series of the ITC Richard Greene Robin Hood’s, playing a different role each week (and sometimes two in the same episode!)  Various personal problems meant that he later sometimes found work hard to come by, but he was lucky to have several loyal supporters – one of whom was Barry Letts.  Both Briant and Letts had directed him in Doctor Who, so like many of the cast it’s not unexpected that he turns up here.  Dearth’s character (Jeb) mainly seems to exist in order to stress how dangerous Silver is – Jeb states that the only man the vicious Captain Flint ever feared was Long John Silver.

I’ve already touched upon how good Richard Beale has been and he’s never better than in the scene where Smollett and Silver face off.  Both have their own set of demands and neither is prepared to give the other any quarter.  Alfred Burke switches from smiling affability to snarling disdain in a heartbeat.  This then leads into the sequence where the pirates attempt to storm the stockade.  It’s slightly jarring that the outside is on film whilst the stockade interior is on videotape – the rapid switching between the two is a slight problem.

But no matter, Michael E. Briant still manages to choreograph a decent action sequence with a liberal dose of blood (nothing explicit, but it still manages to create the impression that a short – and brutal – battle has taken place).  The pirates are beaten back, which infuriates Silver – so he elects to send for reinforcements from the ship ….

treasure-03-02

Treasure Island (BBC, 1977) – Part Four

treasure-04-01

Once again, the Squire is forced to count the human cost of his quest for gold, since all three of his servants now lie dead. “Old Redruth. Joyce. And now Hunter. Loyal souls, all of them, who served and trusted me. I have much to account for, Livesey.”

The Doctor offers a brief word of comfort, but maybe Livesey’s gesture here is just an automatic one. It’s certainly debatable that Trelawney’s escapade can be judged to be an honourable one – as his intention was to keep the plundered gold for himself (after, presumably, sharing out a small portion to the others) he can hardly claim the moral high ground over Silver and his men.

Jim decides to take Ben Gunn’s boat and return to the Hispaniola. It’s a brave, if foolhardy venture, since it brings him into contact with the murderous Israel Hands. Patrick Troughton once again is on good form as Israel, reacting calmly to Jim’s statement that he’s returned to take possession of the ship.

Exactly why Jim decided that the pirates onboard would be happy to receive him is a slight mystery. True, Israel seems harmless enough to begin with (he’s incapacitated after a fight to the death with another pirate) but Jim wasn’to know this. You’d have assumed that after the horror of the stockade battle, with death all around him, Jim would have been a little more cautious. But if Trelawney has begun to learn the true cost of adventure, maybe Jim hasn’t.

All that we’ve seen of Israel has primed the audience to expect that he’ll turn on Jim when the moment is right, and so it proves. Israel’s pursuit of Jim is a nicely shot sequence from Michael E. Briant, especially as the pair climb the rigging to face their final reckoning.

The ever resourceful Jim returns to the island, only to find that Silver and the others have taken possession of the stockade. Alfred Burke is at his most affable, as Silver appears delighted to see the boy and offers him a chance to join them. Jim refuses and furthermore tells them all that they’ll never see the Hispaniola again.

This is something of a turning point – Jim’s life should now be forfeit, but Silver won’t kill the lad, which displeases the others intensely. Silver has been tipped the black spot, but even with his back to the wall he’s still able to run rings around the rest of his crew.

Silver, with his keen sense of self preservation, is looking to change sides and Jim is an important part of this. Ashley Knight is never better than In the scene where Livesey attempts to forcibly remove Jim from the stockade. Jim refuses, biting the Doctor’s hand at one point, because he gave Silver his word he wouldn’t attempt to escape. This action bounds Silver and Jim even tighter together.

The sting in the tail – the treasure is gone from its resting place – is the prelude for the final (albiet brief) bloody battle. Ben Gunn, of course, found the treasure nine months ago and brought it back to his cave. The reveal is done in a highly theatrical manner – a seemingly never-ending stream of coins gush out onto the cave floor as the faces of Silver, Livesey, Ben, Trelawney and Jim are overlaid. It was surely intentional that Livesey’s face was impassive whilst both Trelawney and Jim showed great pleasure.

As I said earlier, it doesn’t get much better than this. It’s something of a mystery why this excellent version of Treasure Island hasn’t appeared on DVD before, but it’s something that any devotee of this era of British television should have in their collection.

treasure-04-02