Our Flag Means Death, review: yo-ho-ho! – Blackadder-ish pirate sitcom hits the spot
The second series of Blackadder contained a memorable episode called Potato. In it Blackadder (Rowan Atkinson) tried to impress the Queen by outdoing Walter Raleigh and sailing round the notoriously dangerous Cape of Good Hope. As Blackadder knew nothing about boats or the squally seas he enlisted the “help” of Captain Redbeard Rum, played by a totally barmy Tom Baker (with “a beard you could lose a badger in”). The joke was that though he looked like a seadog and drank his own urine out of preference, Rum was in fact the worst mariner in history.
Aside from being set a hundred years later, Our Flag Means Death (BBC Two/iPlayer), a new comedy written by David Jenkins, appears initially to be Potato in series form. It’s gilded by the presence of Taika Waititi both as director of episode one and star turn as the famed bloodthirsty pirate Blackbeard, but the foundation of all the humour is very Blackadder-ish with modern sensibilities imposed on historical clichés.
Rhys Darby, the magnificent Murray from Flight of the Conchords, plays Stede Bonnet, a wealthy English landowner (based very loosely on a real figure) who swaps the life of a gentleman for one of a swashbuckling buccaneer as captain of the pirate ship Revenge. Stede is an entirely useless pirate who tries to marshal a ragbag crew using progressive modern management techniques such as asking them where their anger comes from.
Although it’s set in the early 18th century, Our Flag Means Death is a very modern comedy in that it takes its time, rolling the dice that as a series of half-hours many viewers will watch several episodes at once. As a result, the first hour or so is gigglesome but hardly transcendent: Darby as Stede offers a few character fragments as to why this lily-livered rich boy might have chosen to go to sea, while making hay with the base joke that he really shouldn’t have. Waititi as Blackbeard, the bums-on-seats casting, is held back until episode three.
We recommend you stay for the voyage, because once the easy gags about a progressive pirate captain several fathoms out of his depth have all been used up, Our Flag Means Death charts a slightly different course. Though it’s never too clever for a slapstick or sight gag (usually involving the magnificent Ewen Bremner with his trousers off) the relationship between Stede, the gentle man who wants to be a tough guy, and Blackbeard, the tough guy who wants to be a gentler man, is developed with surprising tenderness. There’s even an element of Mad Men’s fixation on how everyone wants something in their life, where “wants” holds the tragic double-meaning of both lack and need.
By the end of series one I still found myself thinking of Tom Baker as Redbeard Rum, but not because Our Flag felt like a knock-off. In Blackadder, it turned out that Redbeard had never sailed further than round and round the Isle of Wight for the duration of his lauded voyages: people just assumed he was one thing when he was another. That’s the same story for Stede Bonnet and Blackbeard in Our Flag Means Death. People are never quite what they seem.