Treasure Island (BBC, 1977) – Part Three

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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 ….

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Treasure Island (BBC, 1977) – Part Two

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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.

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