Toby Stephens avoids cliches on ‘grim’ pirate show

Toby Stephens, second left, in Black Sails. Picture: Eric Magnussen
Toby Stephens, second left, in Black Sails. Picture: Eric Magnussen
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FORGET the camp antics of Hook and Captain Jack Sparrow, Captain Flint of new TV drama Black Sails, is the real thing. Star Toby Stephens puts down his cutlass and reveals all to landlubber James Rampton

The moment I step onto the back lot at Cape Town Studios, I am transported to the Golden Age of Piracy in the West Indies in the early 18th century. Floating on a vast man-made lake behind me are three 150 foot-long pirate ships, their black sails fluttering menacingly in the breeze, as they prepare to attack.

Toby Stephens with his wife, Anna Louise Plowman. Picture: PA

Toby Stephens with his wife, Anna Louise Plowman. Picture: PA

In front of me is the higgledy-piggledy movie town of Nassau, which has been built on sand ferried in by 800 lorries. Strewn with abandoned barrels and wooden wagon wheels, every nook and cranny of this Caribbean enclave feels lived-in. The production department apparently employs a team dedicated to making the set look suitably “distressed.”

The main street of this make-believe Nassau is shaded by palm trees and flanked by tables bedecked with flagons overflowing with grog. The only indication that I’m in the 21st century is a large sign at the entrance to the back lot which reads: “No smoking on set – ever!” Not an injunction any self-respecting pirate would ever obey...

As I wander the oppressively narrow back streets of this astonishingly accurate recreation of a pirate hideout, I swerve out of the way of scary-looking brigands with grimy faces, dishevelled clothes, straggly beards, vivid battle scars and battered tricorn hats. Truly, these are pirates of the Caribbean you would cross seven seas to avoid.

Which is exactly how it is supposed to be. I am on the set of Black Sails, a commendably gritty, down and dirty portrayal of the extremely hard life pirates endured in the early 18th century. This drama sails away from all the traditional, romanticised, pirate clichés. There are no parrots, peg legs or eye patches, and cries of “arrrrrr” and “yo ho ho” have been banned.

Black Sails, whose authenticity is enhanced by the fact that its characters include such notorious real-life pirates as Charles Vane, Anne Bonny, and “Calico Jack” Rackham, conjures up a world of blood and gore where the motto may as well be “live fast, die young”.

The show has already been a huge hit in the US, where Entertainment Weekly declared that it is,”Not even a guilty pleasure, Black Sails is arrrrrr-estingly good”. (The reviewer clearly hadn’t heard of the language ban). The drama is set 20 years before Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic novel Treasure Island. Featuring several characters from that book, including Long John Silver and Billy Bones, Black Sails depicts an era when pirates were complete social outcasts. Even though the British had originally tacitly encouraged pirates to attack their traditional trade enemies, the Spanish and the French, by 1715 the pirates had been pushed beyond the pale. Every civilised nation announced that brigands were “hostis humani generis,” enemies of all mankind. As a riposte to this declaration, pirates were obliged to live by their own credo: war against the world.

In Black Sails, which is executive produced by Hollywood director Michael Bay (Transformers, Pearl Harbor), that war is led by the fearsome Captain Flint. He tells his crew, “There’s a war coming. When a king brands us pirates, he doesn’t mean to make us adversaries; he means to make us monsters. If we are to survive, we must unite behind our own king.”

“We have no king, sir,” pipes up one of the captain’s underlings.

“I am your king!” roars Flint in reply.

Flint’s alter ego is a far less frightening proposition. Actor Toby Stephens certainly looks the part of a terrifying pirate captain with his impressive mane of flame-coloured hair pinned behind his head in a ponytail and luxuriant set of matching whiskers. The look is intimidating, to say the least.

But as he sits opposite me in the Black Sails production office, the 45-year-old actor is charming rather than cutthroat. Following memorable performances as Gustave Graves in the Bond movie Die Another Day, Rochester in the acclaimed BBC1 version of Jane Eyre, Jay in the TV adaptation of The Great Gatsby and Kim Philby in the BBC drama, Cambridge Spies, Stephens has become one of our most in-demand actors. That status is only underlined by his performance as Captain Flint, as he displays a compelling mixture of magnetism and muscularity.

Stephens, who lives with his wife, fellow actor Anna-Louise Plowman, and their three small children in east London, was drawn to the authentically grubby, anti-romantic portrayal of pirates in Black Sails. He says, “I love the way that wardrobe and make-up make the pirates look as if they haven’t washed in a long time!”

The realism of the brutality of the outlaw life in Black Sails has taken some viewers by surprise. “A lot of people thought I had gone off to do a pastiche pirate series. So when I was filming, I thought, ‘This is not going to be what people expect’. And I was right. No matter how many times I’d told them, ‘It’s very gritty,’ they’d just say, ‘Yeah, yeah, it’s Captain Hook meets Captain Pugwash’. Pirates are such a popular subject and so much part of all our childhoods, but the whole genre is barnacled with clichés. That’s why Black Sails is so refreshing.”

Stephens, whose parents, Dame Maggie Smith and the late Robert Stephens, were also acclaimed actors, adds, “We’ve never seen this side of pirates before. We’ve only ever seen the slightly comic book version. But there is nothing glamorous about piracy. It’s grim. They don’t want to be like that. They do it because they’ve got no other way out.”

The gritty action role of Captain Flint is a bit of a departure for Stephens, who is perhaps best known in the UK for his distinguished career in the theatre. He collected the Sir John Gielgud Prize and the Ian Charleson Award for his performance in the title role of Coriolanus with the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1994, before moving into film.

Of course it’s a gripping historical yarn, but Stephens believes that Black Sails makes an impact today because it contains many contemporary echoes. “A pirate ship is a very political environment. There is a strange democracy to piracy. If a captain isn’t delivering, the crew can vote him off the ship. The pirates are constantly vying for supremacy and thinking, ‘I’ll have to align myself with that guy I don’t like if I want to get ahead’.”

He adds, “They are also constantly troubleshooting. Not every scheme will go according to plan. That’s like the real world. There’s no drama if it all works out fine. Also, there is a constant threat of the English or Spanish coming over the horizon. The feeling is that piracy worked politically for the English government because it created an unseen enemy, much like the War on Terror.”

Not all of the action is set on the high seas. Stephens says. “In the second season we take the audience to London, which is at the heart of the whole thing. London is where piracy originated and where the authorities came for retribution. We recreate a scene where they hanged pirates by the docks in Wapping as a deterrent.

“Originally, piracy was not discouraged by the English government – after all, it started with Sir Walter Raleigh. As long as it was directed against the French or the Spanish, it was OK. But as soon as it turned against the English, it became a problem. The English government had created a monster, but they didn’t know how to deal with it.”

From Robert Louis Stevenson to The Pirates of the Caribbean, we have long been fascinated by brigands. Stephens believes tales of adventure and hidden treasure tap into an abiding love of storytelling.

“There appears to be something romantic about these guys at the borders of civilisation,” he says, “They were privateers and adventurers on the very edge of society. And they committed incredibly audacious crimes. Look at Captain Blood. He sailed up the Thames and brazenly stole the Crown Jewels from the Tower of London. He even bent the coronet so he could stuff it down his trousers!

“There was a bravura bravado to those sort of acts. The pirates were fighting the system. But the reality is not that romantic, and that is what we’re showing. Piracy may appear romantic, but it’s actually very brutal. It seems glamorous, but then it catches you short. You think, ‘I like Flint – he’s cool’. But then he does something appalling.”

For Stephens, the only downside of helming Black Sails has been prolonged periods of absence from his wife and children. When we meet, the seven-month shoot for the second season is nearing its end, and the actor can’t wait to be reunited with his family.

“It’s very grounding and very necessary to get back into the parental routine,” he says. “When you’re away on a long shoot, you feel out of the family loop, and now I really want to be there for them.”

Stephens feels very lucky that he was able to have his family out in South Africa with him for several weeks in the middle of the shoot. “What can happen on a set is that you get tunnel-visioned about the project. But it is very good to be reminded that there are other things in the world which are much more important. One can think work is all there is, especially in the pressure-cooker of a big production.”

He’s good company today, but Stephens has run into difficulties with the press. “The only problem has been when it comes to personal stuff,” he sighs.

He’s particularly fed up with answering questions about his parents. “I don’t mind saying it once, but when you have to say it a hundred times ... I wouldn’t want my background to be any other way, but sometimes I do envy people who don’t have that baggage because every article is purely about their work.”

He adds: “But I really only want to talk about my work. I’m a 45-year-old man. I don’t need to be talking about my parents any more. But generally I don’t have a problem with the press. Most of the stuff I do, I’m very proud of. So I want to talk about it.”

Black Sails has navigated its way into a very high-profile position on the other side of the Atlantic. Does that mean that we’re likely to lose Stephens to Hollywood? “I’ll go wherever this takes me,” he says. “I’m so happy doing what I’m doing. I just want to try to do stuff of the same level. But one never knows. I feel incredibly lucky to be in this situation, but I’m not expecting anything. I’ve been in the game too long to think, ‘This is suddenly going to make me a huge star’.”

For the time being, Stephens does not want to look any further than the next series of Black Sails. “We know where Flint ends up, as a totally demented, utterly ruthless pirate. But the journey there is going to be very interesting indeed. I’m so excited about going on that journey. We’re dealing with the Golden Age of Piracy, so we can be sure that the English and the Spanish will do their very best to stomp on him.”

With Stephens at its helm, Black Sails looks set fair to keep swashing its buckle in the most viscerally entertaining manner. It has already established new standards of piratical authenticity. There is just one quibble. The New York Times asked an expert on 18th-century piracy to view each episode of Black Sails four times to check for any possible historical inaccuracies. He could find fault with only one detail: all the pirates boasted a full set of teeth.

Stephens chuckles into his beard. “We can’t be that authentic, or people wouldn’t watch. They’d say, ‘No, thank you’. Who wants to watch a bunch of people with no teeth? Did we ever consider having them removed on the grounds of absolute historical accuracy? No! I think that would be taking Method acting a bit too far, don’t you?”

And with that, Stephens laughs as heartily as a pirate who’s just unearthed a glittering trove of buried treasure.

• Season One of Black Sails is available exclusively on Amazon Prime Instant Video, for more information see