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.