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Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Talk like a pirate

Tasker Dunham wishes he hadn’t wasted his childhood watching so much television

405 line X shape VHF TV aerial
We weren’t the last by any means. The physics teacher’s family held out Canute-like against the incoming electromagnetic tide for at least a decade longer, his children pitied in their Dark Age deprivation. But we were still late enough for my schoolmates to gasp in incredulity “What! You don’t have a television!”

It wasn’t that we couldn’t afford one – they were cheap enough to rent – it was because my dad thought them a mindless, brain numbing waste of time. After long hours talking with endless numbers of people at work, he settled down in contented tranquillity, lost in poetry, history or the bible readings from church, or occasionally the B.B.C. Home Service. My mum, when housework was done, would be knitting, gobbling novels from the library or learning lines for her twice-yearly parts with a local drama group. I got through two or three books a week too and still had time for constructive, creative and educational hobbies, not to mention homework. No one ever really needed a television, there was always plenty to do.

The outcome was that ours was just about the last house in the street to have an X- or H-shaped aerial on the chimney stack. So my earliest viewing memories are all on other peoples’ sets: the neighbour who usually invited my mum, with me in tow, to watch ‘Val Parnell’s Sunday Night at the London Palladium’; my grandma’s cousin who let me watch F.A. cup finals on Saturday afternoons; the occasional glimpse of the Lone Ranger at friends’ houses. I remember the now forgotten Don Arrol’s brief stint as the Palladium compere in 1960, and the 1958 F.A. cup final when Bolton Wanderers beat a tragically depleted Manchester United just after the Munich air disaster, the only two goals scored by Nat Lofthouse, the second when he controversially bundled goalkeeper Harry Gregg over the line, for which these days he would immediately be sent off.

My only regular television was the one day each week I went after school to my mother’s aunt’s house and watched adventure series on Granada which was then the ITV provider across the whole of the North of England. Escapist adventures were very popular in the early days of children’s television – I’m sure everyone then around will remember The Adventures of Robin Hood, William Tell and Rin Tin Tin, to name but a few. On the day I watched it was either Long John Silver or my particular favourite, The Buccaneers. I can still sing you the theme tunes and the music Granada used to play before the early evening programmes started.

‘The Adventures of Long John Silver’ was made in 1954 in colour in Australia for television, but by the time it appeared on our screens three years later, Robert Newton, the actor who played the title role, had died from a heart attack at the age of only fifty, a consequence of chronic alcoholism. His portrayal of the character, both in the series and in the 1950 film Treasure Island, was so memorably idiosyncratic, he became the much-parodied, stereotypical pirate for the next half century. The wild eyes and oddly exaggerated, throaty West country accent can still be seen as an influence in some of the performances in the 2003 film Pirates of the Carribean. Two Americans even thought it fitting to declare September 19th each year to be ‘International Talk Like A Pirate Day’ (earlier site) when everyone should greet each other with phrases such as “Ahoy, matey!”, and liberally sprinkle their speech with the pirate growl “Aaarrrh”.

Adventures of Long John Silver
The opening titles of the series had Newton, as Silver, reciting the first verse of Robert Louis Stevenson’s epigraph ‘To The Hesitating Purchaser’ from the beginning of ‘Treasure Island’* over a skull and crossbones flag and map of The Spanish Main. Thanks to the wonders of YouTube we can remind ourselves of it today, although an even better use of the lines is for practising your own pirate voice. The words are perfect. Just growl them out, rhoticising and stretching the ‘r’s, missing the ‘d’ out of ‘adventure’, and you’ll sound pretty authentic:

                              If sailor tales to sailor tunes,
                              Storm and adventure, heat and cold,
                              If schooners, islands, and maroons,
                              And buccaneers and buried gold,
                              And all the old romance, retold,
                              Exactly in the ancient way,
                              Can please, as me they pleased of old,
                              The wiser youngsters of today:
                              So be it (Aarrrh Aarrrh), and fall on!

I preferred the less eccentric protagonist, Captain Dan Tempest in The Buccaneers. As its title implies, this was also set in the sixteenth century age of pirates. Tempest was an ex-pirate, pardoned by the King and turned privateer, a naval mercenary, to fight other pirates and the despicable Spaniards. He never caught the imagination in the same way as Long John Silver, perhaps because he lacked the Newton and Stevenson credentials, or more likely because he didn’t actually sound like a pirate in the way that Newton had taught us they should.

My dad eventually surrendered to the inevitable and bought a television during 1961 or 1962. I know we didn’t have one at the beginning of 1961 because I watched Bruce Forsyth do a routine about the new year on the next door neighbour’s set (I’m sure it was Bruce Forsyth, although archives suggest he was taking a rest from his role as compere of the Palladium show at that time). Aided by a printed card, he explained that 1961 looked the same if you turned it upside down, that he had last used the same gag in 1881, and would show us it again in 2002 – the ‘2’ being drawn in a flippable font. I don’t know whether he did, but if not then it would be great to see it again, and we should certainly remind him not to miss the opportunity in 2112.

We definitely had a set by the 23rd July, 1962, when the first live images were beamed into European homes from America by the Telstar satellite. The first scheduled pictures at 8.00 p.m. were to have been of President Kennedy’s regular weekly news conference, but the connection to the satellite was established a couple of minutes early, and so we were treated to a far more interesting and all too brief section of baseball. The Chicago Cubs fielder George Altman was amazed to discover he had been seen “... all the way from Wrigley Field in Chicago to the Colosseum in Rome” catching a hit from Tony Taylor of the Philadelphia Phillies.

In Britain we were told the signals had been caught all the way from Andover, Maine, via Telstar, by the Goonhilly station near Helston in Cornwall, but it later transpired that what we saw had been relayed from the French receiving station near Lannion in Britanny because the Goonhilly reception was of poor quality. The despicable French had been much better at tracking the satellite to within the required one third of a degree of arc from the first experimental transmissions on July 11th, the day after Telstar was launched. How dare they! Captain Dan Tempest would soon have sorted them out.

By the end of the decade we were watching live transmissions from the moon, but perhaps my dad’s concern that we would waste our lives watching drivel turned out to contain more than just an element of truth. The rot set in pretty quickly. On the 22nd November, 1963, I was watching the indisputably mindless quiz show ‘Take Your Pick’ presented by ‘your quiz inquisitor’, Michael Miles. This was the show that included the ‘Yes-No Interlude’ in which the host tried to trick contestants into saying the word ‘No’,** and another section in which he tried to persuade them to sell ‘the key to Box 13’. I know the exact date and time because at around ten past seven the programme was interrupted with the news that President Kennedy had been shot, and I rushed into the kitchen to tell my mother.

The following day I saw the very first episode of Dr. Who, ‘An Unearthly Child’, and yes Ron Grainer’s theme music from the B.B.C. Radiophonic Workshop was truly frightening, and yes I did hide behind the settee. The programme made such impact nationally that the first episode was repeated the following week immediately before the second episode, but the aspect of the story that caught my imagination most was that part of it took place in a school science laboratory.

From then on the reading and the hobbies gradually dried up. I eagerly looked forward to favourite shows: it wasn’t long before Thursday evenings were the non-negotiable preserve of ‘Top of the Pops’ and ‘The Man From U.N.C.L.E.’

As a nation, we really did spend excessive amounts of time watching television. We planned our time around the weekly schedules and measured our lives against world events shown on the news. Some programmes, watched by just about every other person in the country, would have regular audience figures of over twenty million.

A survey in 2005 found that children typically watch three to four hours per day, more time than on any other leisure activity. Reading now hardly gets a look in. If you add it all up, as many as three out of the first eighteen years can be spent in front of the television. If that alone doesn’t alter the way we think about the world, we are likely to see more than twenty five thousand adverts per year, even more in America, all cleverly designed to manipulate our desires. Even if television more recently has been displaced by social media and so on, I doubt the total number of hours spent in front of screens has gone down at all.

Admirably, my dad remained a bastion of common sense. As soon as the television was turned on, he retired to his books and radio in the other room. I wouldn’t go so far as saying that all television is bad, but it pains me to think of the skills and knowledge and educational attainments I might have had by following my dad’s example. But as if to show what goes around comes around, while I sit here trying desperately to improve my writing skills and perfect my pirate voice, the rest of the family are in the other room watching that embodiment of ephemeral triviality, ‘the X factor’. 

* During the course of looking up the epigraph at the beginning of Treasure Island, I started reading the book and didn’t want to stop. I read the whole thing over three or four days. What an exciting story it is, and so readable you would never believe it was first published in 1883. I've now started reading Andrew Motion’s recent sequel “Silver: Return to Treasure Island” and going by the first few chapters it is every bit as good, possibly better, and I’m not saying that just because I remember him as a young lecturer in Hull in the 1970s, before his stint as Poet Laureate. LATER: I have to say I enjoyed the first half of “Silver” more than the second - I feel it becomes too tied up in its plotlines, and the ending could be more cheerful too, but on the whole it's worthwhile read.

** I may be denigrating ‘Take Your Pick unfairly. Some politicians were clearly big fans of the ‘Yes-No Interlude’. In the recent referendum, they tricked the Scots into voting ‘No’ and then banged a big ‘gong’ at them.


  1. Good account. Do you remember 'The Golden Hind'? I can't remember not having a television but my friend Tony Gibbard and his family only had BBC which I always thought was rather unlucky!

    1. I'm afraid I don't remember that at all. I've just looked it up and can only find a series called Sir Francis Drake aired 1961-62 possibly before we got a television. It sounds great. If that's the right series then there is another good Dr. Who trivia connection there - Roger Delgado played a Spanish villain.


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