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Drunk for a penny, dead drunk for twopence. VICKY LEECH explores the history of gin – the drink that brought down the 18th century, and brought up many stomachs.
IT WAS IN BATTLE that gin was first served to Englishmen. It was with the help of “Dutch courage” that the English fought the Spanish on behalf of the Dutch in the eighty-year war. Holland’s juniper drink has passed through many mythologies from the very noble to the downright dishonourable: passing from battlefield brew to medicine, from a fashion in royal courts to a poison on the streets of London. With every distillation in the history of gin, the drink becomes a little purer and its history a little darker.
Gin is a liquid reflection of Britain’s capital and its rise from squalor to style. A foreign drink that came to epitomise Britain’s capital city…
The Dutch King William of Orange arrived on English shores in 1688 with a malt spirit, distilled with herbs and juniper that soon began to intoxicate England. What had begun as a rural medicine for stomach ailments and ulcers had gradually become popular in Holland’s high courts. A known favourite of the new king and his wife Mary, gin became the drink of choice amongst England’s aristocracy.
In 1689 the increasing religious and political unrest between England and France led to the law and fashion turning against imported spirits, and impoverished drinkers learned to tailor their tastes to substances more readily found at home. Parliament banned imports of French wines and spirits while also cancelling domestic monopolies. One result of the ban was that independent gin distilleries sprang up across London and the price of gin plummeted far below the cost of beers and ale and well into the affordability of the ‘inferior class’. This ban on foreign drinks proved a restriction solely for those who could afford neither to smuggle nor bribe for brandy: cementing gin as the drink of the working class (and latterly those both classless and workless).
‘Geneva’, Gin’s original sobriquet, is produced by pot-distilling a grain mash from barley or offshoot grains before redistilling the mixture with herbs to extract a unique, dry and herbal alcohol. Compounded by fashion and increasingly low prices, the gin craze swept across an overcrowded and impoverished London. As the capital’s penniless underbelly became increasingly down and out, their gin in turn became cruder, and at times turpentine was known to replace juniper as herbs vanished from London’s more and more urban streets.
The Gin Craze coincided with an era of unprecedented poverty and social unrest. Record migration had transformed the city into the largest urban space on the planet, and the reigning political idea that a poor, dependant public made for a biddable workforce made certain that London’s lower classes remained poor. Besotted by Geneva, London’s public became anything but biddable, and unrest bubbled in the streets. Abstracts place the consumption of gin in England and Wales as 1.23 million gallons in the first year of the 18th century, rising to 7.05 million gallons by 1751 – colossal compared to the meagre 3 million gallons of beer (England’s national drink) consumed at that time.
Gin, the opiate of London’s 18th century masses, made for a convenient government scapegoat. Instead of properly addressing the causes of the social turmoil, government passed the Tippling Act of 1751 – England’s first act of prohibition. The Tippling Act suffocated the distilling industry and as the price of gin rose, London’s public became less drunk. It was convenient for the government to ignore the causes of the social unrest that were driving the public to drink, instead blaming gin for the collapse in life expectancy and an increasingly enfeebled English workforce.
Four successive acts were passed after the Tippling Act, but none took real hold or managed to curb London’s taste for gin. The Gin Craze “epidemic” (1720 -1751) was the first time that England’s government felt forced to regulate the sale of an alcohol – a tribute to the way the clear, glassy drink was felt to have on the country.
Like a disreputable twin to Britain’s beloved national drink, beer, gin made use of any poor-quality grain that was deemed unfit for brewing into ale.
Gin has always been different to other drinks. Gin-soaked drunkenness was seen as utterly other to the crapulence brought on by other drinks. Intoxication brought on by beer, an ancient, familiar drink, was long regarded with a wholesome sort of fondness reserved for childishness or well-meant folly: a drink born of England’s rural fields that had quenched public thirst in plague years when water had been deadly to drink. Gin’s own brand of insobriety came to be seen as base and oddly feminine in comparison with its wholesome brother: a creeping, crippling drunkenness that was thought to steal a man’s backbone and a woman’s moral femininity. Gin came to be known as “mother’s ruin” and was closely linked to the growing death count in the city amongst the down and outs. Sold along with gingerbread at public occasions such as parades and executions only furthered gin’s morbid urban mythology. Few spirits have come to possess such a rich reputation (and surely none a character quite as dark).
Furthermore, it took a long time for gin to shake its quality of foreignness: it’s almost as if London, the mongrel, much-conquered city presided over by a foreign king and so far less English than the land that surrounded it, looked into this clear drink and in it saw something of itself which it disliked but could not leave alone.
The surge in gin’s popularity was strictly localised to the capital city – thus another parallel with the more wholesome beer began to arise: gin took on the persona of dank, sullied and knowing urbanity, while ale was free to remain a drink of fields and health.
Rumour has it that it was around the time of “The Tippling Act” (1751) that gin began to be referred to as “Madame Genever” by tavern owners who hoped to avert the attention of authorities from their covert cocktails (a name which persists in historical studies of the spirit to this day but which is ironically enough to drive anyone to drink).
In the latter half of the century, wartime victories and new, imperial wealth led to less fear among the aristocracy of their workforce rising up and new public health measures (such as inoculation and a decrease in the marrying age) led to a newly rising population that dispelled fears about an enfeebled workforce. Jean Jacobe Shweppe began the tradition of ‘long drinks’ when in 1770 he brought carbonated water to the party. As with gin, carbonated water was originally intended as a medicinal aid for digestive ailments, but has, through its combination with the spirit, surely caused more trouble than it’s helped.
Paired with tonic, gin once more served the military forces of its adopted country, England, in 1850 as an anti-malarial for the British troops in India. The drink became an unprecedented hit with the troops who immediately began to take their health well in hand. In this way, gin became united with the Empire’s colonial effort, further cementing the drink as part of the British national identity, and slowly rising to the choice of the colonising, patriotic upper classes.
Gin rose to become a drink of both the rich and the poor – a means of escapism across the Atlantic where, in America, it was brewed in secret bathtubs and served as an accompaniment to jazz.
Even amongst Britain’s moneyed, gin retained a measure of its dark beginnings – lending its drinkers a broken, romantic air. Gin became the drink of the tortured, the interesting: the drink of Gatsbys and Bonds. It was, after all, into his “gin joint” that the dashing Humphrey Bogart rues Ingrid Bergman’s intrusion at the very start of Casablanca. Gin went from being regarded as a cure for the body, to a poison for the body politic, to a prescription for social ‘cool’.
A drink made of flawed grain come sophisticated – gin draws on its dark past in its own constant reinvention. It is the drink of timeless, historic characters. Like London.
A lover of history and a good turn of phrase, when not duelling or dressing up with Dandies Vicky likes to pen a novel or two and relax with a little trip to Gin Lane. A notorious libertine, her debauched romances and adventure novels are never found in the possession of a decent lady (indeed, they are often to be found under her pillows).
VOLUME: the SECOND
ENTRY: the FIRST
- being -
‘Death and The Empress’
- or -
‘Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown’
“…and behold a pale horse, and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell follow’d with him.” Revelation 6:8
1st December, 17_ There was no name upon the headstone, simply an ‘H’ – for highwayman. Behind me, the Vicar’s voice broke the silence: “That’s the grave of the Gentleman Highwayman, the one who died in the fire at Seven Dials. Nobody knew his name, so whoever commission’d the headstone, and paid for his grave, just put an ‘H’. Most uncustomary, but I allow’d it.” I did not reply. But had chosen an ‘H’ to keep my true identity hidden. But now that ‘H’ stands for ‘Hell’, as I am in it. Yet it was not my own grave I had come to visit. But those who had been newly buried. Those who, after I penn’d my last adventure, had all been ruthlessly kill’d – because of me. The majority of the P.M. was spent standing in the rain, mourning among the melancholia of the graveyard. Seeing one grave in particular burn’d me more than the flames in Seven Dials could ever have. I read her name upon the headstone, then plac’d a rose upon it.
The Vicar ask’d how well I had known the many deceas’d. My reply was guard’d, but my grief was clearly not, as the Vicar, in an attempt at comfort, stat’d “God said Vengeance is mine. God will bring justice, so trust in that.” He then point’d to my own grave: “He would have sav’d them, he always did, despite what many said about him.” Looking more closely at me, he ask’d what my name might be. I remov’d from my pocket a tarot card, viz. the Empress, and look’d upon the names hand written upon the reverse in a fine script. Turning to the vicar, I answer’d his question: “I am Death, and I ride to vengeance, to drag the murderers back to Hell.”
It is with great pain, and heavy guilt, that I now recount the events leading to the above. Thus I begin the morning that follow’d my fiery ‘death’ in Tyler’s safe house…
SIX MONTHS EARLIER
19th May, 17_ Awoke in complete darkness, the world silent, my arms and legs restrain’d by the sides of the large coffin-like casket that contain’d me. Push’d open the lid, and tumbl’d out upon the stone floor of Tyler’s cellar in Seven Dials. Looking up I could see the grey light of early morning shining through the many gaps in the cellar’s ceiling, the house above having been completely burn’d to the ground. The large trunk in which Tyler had conceal’d his stolen valuables had proven a most successful temporary ‘coffin’, viz. anti-fire strongbox. Taking the many jewels that were contain’d within, including several brooches which had, to my discomfort, harpoon’d me during my hours of seclusion, discretely climb’d from out the cellar, and the charr’d remains of Tyler’s house. Thence to the Bawdy House, there to meet the girls I had sav’d from Tyler and his gang the day last.
Arriv’d at the Bawdy House, jovial and full of my own success. Was warmly welcom’d by the girls throwing themselves upon me. All believing I had died in the fire at Seven Dials. One girl in particular was reliev’d to tears of my survival – my favourite girl of the house, viz. Molly. She being one of the three girls Tyler had held hostage in exchange for the crown he demand’d I stole from the Tower’s Jewel House. Sitting with the girls, Molly’s arms wrapp’d around me, I sipp’d port while regaling them with the finer details of how I had enabl’d their rescue, and had my theft of the crown pinn’d upon Tyler and his gang. The girls enquiring as to their own safety, I assur’d them of it. Tyler being by then arrest’d together with the majority of his gang, and who were now all safely imprison’d pending trial for treason. Having taken some jewels from my ‘fire-coffin’, distribut’d them among the girls. Molly then demonstrat’d the depth of her personal gratitude by practicing her full professional repertoire upon me for the rest of the day… and throughout most of the night. NOTE: The heat of the fire in Seven Dials prov’d cold…compar’d to Molly’s accommodating desire to show her passionate appreciation.
The morning after, explain’d the necessity of keeping my survival secret to all the girls, it being essential to see the last part of my plan to fruition, viz. ensuring Tyler would be of no further risk to them, or any one else.
Before I left, Molly, taking my hands, told me that she want’d no other but me. However much I desir’d to make Molly happy, intimat’d how I could not ignore my ardent amour for the Lady of the Fans. Thus, despite the evident upset in Molly’s moistening eyes, she express’d her understanding. I kiss’d her, and thence depart’d.
INTANGIBLE LEGALITY: In order to ensure that Tyler could never again harm, or be any form of threat to anyone ever again, it was necessary to ensure his conviction. As the ‘King’ of Seven Dials, his criminal network was far reaching, and I strongly suspect’d it extend’d into the higher reaches of society. Although he was not directly responsible for the treason he was currently charg’d with, viz. stealing the crown, he was undeniably guilty of the deaths of countless innocents. His rule of the criminal world was harsh, ruthless, and completely uncompromising. He deserv’d his conviction, and I would ensure it was fully realis’d.
Arriv’d in Bow Street, spoke to F & F. They having once contract’d me to rescue the daughter of one of them from Tyler (which I achiev’d). It took little to convince them of my request to lift my reward, deny any reports I had surviv’d the fire in Seven Dials. Thus publicly maintaining I had died in blaze. During that time, I agreed to uncover who Tyler was bribing within government, and prevent any acquitting evidence from reaching the court room. Doing so would ensure Tyler’s conviction, together with the seven men arrest’d with him.
Having identifi’d Tyler’s lawyer, viz. a Mr. Sebastian Constantine, set about leaving him to build his case, and compile Tyler’s defense. I want’d him to use up his time, and his resources, viz. to put all his eggs in one pudding. Throughout the summer months I was presum’d dead, Bow Street did their best to keep my exploits as quiet as possible. Each report that appear’d in the news sheets regarding my survival, Bow Street denied. Thus, by late Autumn, it was time to start extracting any evidence and legal documents from those defending Tyler and his men.
In the LONDON EVENING POST:
‘ROBBERY in Hyde Park! On TUESDAY night last, Mr. Sebastian Constantine, a lawyer, was robb’d in his coach around midnight while travelling through Hyde Park. He was stop’t by a mask’d man on horseback, who robb’d him of thirty guineas, a gold watch, a gold ring, silk handkerchief and a large folio of paperwork. Mr Constantine declar’d the man a blaggard, causing the mask’d highwayman to strip him semi-nak’d and then tie him to a nearby tree, much to the shock of a passing coach of ladies the following A.M. One lady describ’d Mr. Constantine in his nak’d form and freezing state as “a great mountain of lard, quivering like a poorly turn’d out jelly from its mould”. Mr. Constantine had of late been defending a Mr. Tyler who is currently imprison’d within the Tower on charges of treason. The folio of paperwork stolen by the highwayman was, according to Mr. Constantine, essential evidence in Mr. Tyler’s defence, and he has demand’d that Bow Street make immediate efforts to recover it, together with the other items he was robb’d of. It was also stat’d to Bow Street that the highwayman closely resembl’d the late GENTLEMAN HIGHWAYMAN also known as the RAKISH HIGHWAYMAN, and who reputedly died in a fire in Seven Dials. Bow Street deny the possibility, declaring the aforemention’d highwayman dead, and that this robbery was ‘surely just another rogue trying his luck upon the road.’
The folio I stole from Constantine prov’d a vast proportion of evidence for Tyler’s defense. The majority of it being falsified, and includ’d statements given by men and women either brib’d, or more commonly, beaten into signing them. Yet they also reveal’d a name, that of the man in Government who Tyler was bribing, viz. Lord Porthbugh. In exchange, Porthbugh was keeping Tyler’s reign in London as free from Bow Street’s interference as possible.
Porthbugh, I had learn’d, was responsible for managing Tyler’s London imports from the Counties of Devon and Cornwall. Among some of the paperwork I extract’d, there was also reference to someone else, but no name was mention’d, but simply referr’d to as ‘SHE’. Whoever ‘SHE’ is, she appear’d to have a great hold over Tyler and Portbugh. Yet I could find no means of identifying her.
Requiring further information about Porthbugh, visit’d an aged friend of mine at his estate outside London, thus also providing a welcome break from the city. Arriv’d at the seat of Lord Carbuncle. Was shown in by his butler, viz. Borage. Borage, even older than Carbuncle, is a frail yet dear old gentlemen, who moves about the great house bent double. His spectacles having the inimitable habit of falling off mid conversation, follow’d by his wig when he tries to catch them. Knowing this I present’d him with several new pairs, feeling it politic for him to have a supply of spares. Carbuncle provid’d me with as much information as he could regarding Lord Porthbugh, including how he kept the key to his strong box hidden within his wig. As Carbuncle’s guest, spent several days indulging in claret, beef, pies and a few hunting trips. The former being the cause of Carbuncle’s large red nose. Thence I return’d to London. NOTE: One of Porthbugh’s young kitchen maids provid’d a most admirable and regular service each night and early A.M. NOTE: Particular favourites of mine were her sweet buns.
In the LONDON EVENING POST:
‘THEFT FROM THE PALACE OF WESTMINSTER! On Thursday morning last, a mask’d man was seen climbing from a window at the Palace of Westminster. The eminent whig politician, Lord Porthbugh, fir’d a pistol shot after the man, missing him narrowly. According to Lord Porthbugh, the thief stole documents relating to a legal cafe Lord Portbugh has a personal interest in. Since the robbery in Hyde Park of the lawyer Sebastian Constantine’s papers, the documents stolen from Lord Portbugh, were, according to Portbugh, the only evidence left to acquit a man currently held in the Tower under charges of treason. It was also report’d that the thief stole Lord Portbugh’s whig, declaring it “so full of mice I intend to give it to my most frequent’d bawdy house to feed their cat”. The mask’d man’s description matches that of the highwayman who robb’d Sebastian Constantine, causing further speculation that the GENTLEMAN HIGHWAYMAN, also known as the RAKISH HIGHWAYMAN, is still alive and did not die in a fire at Seven Dials, as previously assum’d.’
Having retriev’d from Porthbugh further paperwork concerning Tyler’s defense, rummag’d within his wig to find the key to his strong box. But with no luck, he had remov’d it some time before.
In THE LONDON EVENING POST:
‘HIGHWAY ROBBERY! Lord Porthbugh robb’d by mafk’d highwayman on Hounflow Heath.
Three nights last, Lord Porthbugh was robb’d in his coach while travelling upon the Bath Road. Whereupon, during their traverse of Hounslow Heath, the coach was stopp’d by a mask’d highwayman who immediately demand’d him to “stand and deliver” his valuables. Lord Porthbugh, recognising the fellow from the theft of his private papers at the Palace of Westminster, insist’d the coachman shoot the rogue with his blunderbuss. The coachman, being weak will’d of disposition, instead dropp’d the blunderbuss upon the floor. This caus’d it to discharge, and some shot to shallowly penetrate the rump of Lord Porthburgh – apparently to great amusement of the highwayman. After robbing Lord Porthburgh of his valuables, and his wig, (being the second instance of the latter), the Highwayman made his retreat. Lord Porthburgh has since insist’d to both Parliament and Bow Street that it was the GENTLEMAN HIGHWAYMAN, viz. RAKISH HIGHWAYMAN, that denials of his return should cease, and the reward on his head be unfrozen and rais’d to 300 Guineas. Bow Street, however, continue to deny the possibility, leading to further mystery surrounding the highwayman’s death. Some more esoteric observers have speculat’d, however, that the man is in fact a ghost of the late highwayman, that being the reason he can be neither kill’d nor captur’d.’
Despite the belief by some that I was still alive, Bow Street continu’d to keep my path clear of too much suspicion, maintaining I was dead.
‘STATEMENT FROM BOW STREET
Concerning the GENTLEMAN HIGHWAYMAN
THE INCREASE in both highway robbery and debauch’d activities currently being report’d in London and its environs, and connect’d to a highwayman, are little more than further examples of ever increasing crime within the Capital. Despite reports that the late GENTLEMAN HIGHWAYMAN, also known as the RAKISH HIGHWAYMAN, did not die in the fire at Seven Dials in May last, we have, as yet, seen no evidence to support them, and he is still confider’d deceas’d. The crimes thus far committ’d, and which the populace appear eager to place his name upon, are, from the evidence we have thus far seen, but an assortment of unconnect’d malefactions and sporadic breaches of morality. As such, the reward of 200 Guineas formerly on his head is still frozen, and unable to be earn’d until convincing evidence of his survival is present’d to us. F.& F’
Having stolen Porthbugh’s wig, remov’d the key to his strong box he kept hidden inside, then gain’d entrance to his home. Found his strong box, and remov’d all the paperwork therein, together with close to one thousand guineas. It was the remaining documents that he and Constantine could have used to acquit both Tyler and his gang members. Within the documents were further references to the mysterious ‘SHE’. Whoever this ‘she’ was, it is clear she possesses formidable and utterly ruthless power over many in England.
Desiring my greatly miss’d excitement of the road, against the wishes of Bow Street, still undertook the occasional highway robbery. unconnect’d to my current task in hand… even if they did not always go quite according to plan.
In THE LONDON EVENING POST:
‘HIGHWAY SEDUCTIONS! Three young women debauch’d by a highwayman while en-route to church!
ON SUNDAY last, a coach containing three young ladies bound for church was stopp’d by a mafk’d highwayman. According to the coachman, upon realising there were no male passengers aboard, the Highwayman apologis’d for the inconvenience he had caus’d. It was upon delivery of his apology, that the three young ladies, desirous to know the highwayman better, invit’d him into their coach. To this he happily accept’d, exclaiming ‘It being Sunday, it would surely be heresy to turn down an opportunity to worship three such beautiful examples of God’s creation.” The coachman was order’d to drive on, and has since stat’d that during the journey, he could hear many sounds of worship, including ‘speaking in tongues’, and at one point the highwayman’s voice exclaiming “absolutely, madam, prostration is indeed you bent forward in front of me,” All of which apparently culminat’d in a merry madrigal of euphoria. Upon arriving at the church, the highwayman, thanking the young ladies for the ride, was likewise thank’d in return for opening them up to deeper learning. The coachman report’d how the highwayman closely resembl’d the Gentleman Highwayman, viz. the RAKISH HIGHWAYMAN, who he had formerly seen among the want’d posters. Despite Bow Street denying he surviv’d the fire in Seven Dials, speculation surrounding the return of the GENTLEMAN HIGHWAYMAN appear to be ever increasing.’
With all the evidence having now been collect’d, Tyler’s trial went ahead. So it was, to my great relief, and doubtless to many others, he was successfully found guilty of treason. Together with seven of his men.
In THE LONDON EVENING POST:
‘NOTICE OF EXECUTION: ON THE MORNING of the 13th November, seven male malefactors are to be hang’d at Tyburn, having been try’d and condemn’d to death for ‘Crimes against the Crown’. From seven o’clock of the aforemention’d morning, they shall begin their departure from Newgate Prison to Tyburn. Their bodies thereafter to be sent to Surgeon’s Hall for the purpose of learning, viz. anatomisation. A MR. TYLER, found guilty of Treason, will be execut’d upon the same morning within the confines of the Tower. His dead body to be hung in iron chains outside the Tower and within view of the Jewel House ‘until such time that the ravens have remov’d both his dead eyes’. MR.TYLER’S sentence, it has been announc’d, will be privately execut’d and ‘without audience or spectacle’. It is currently unclear of what treasonable activities these eight men have been found guilty of, as they were try’d and sentenc’d within a Clos’d Court. Yet it has been report’d that the seven men were close associates of MR. TYLER, and were each responsible for countless violent crimes against both men and women within the Capital.’
Disguising myself as a yeoman warder in order to be fully convinc’d of his death, observ’d Tyler’s execution within the confines of the Tower. While he stood, waiting to swing, he appear’d to recognise me, or at least met eyes with me. He said nothing, but instead smil’d. It was a cruel smile, suggesting he had some dark knowledge that I did not possess. He was pull’d up to the gallows, and took but little time to stop kicking. Tyler was finally gone. I let out a great breath of relief, the man who had been a constant threat to both myself, and many others, had finally gone. Yet Tyler’s last smile concern’d me greatly – did he have but one last plan up his sleeve?
In the LONDON EVENING POST:
‘On the morning of the 13th November, Mr. Tyler, having been found guilty of treason, was hang’d within the confines of the Tower. Upon the same morning, seven other men, formerly under the employ of Mr. Tyler, were hang’d at Tyburn also on charges of treason. The bodies of those seven men were thence remov’d to Surgeon’s Hall for anatomisation, the body of Mr. Tyler can currently still seen hanging in chains at the Tower. As all eight men were tried in a clos’d court, the particulars of their crimes are not known. It is believ’d, however, that Mr. Tyler was responsible for countless crimes within the Capital, and that was the individual at the centre of London’s criminal activities, the man known as ‘King of Seven Dials’.
The Lady of the Fans, as with the rest of London, was still under the impression I was dead. Once again secure in my own safety, thence to visit her. There to announce my survival, and express the true depth of my feelings towards her. Regretfully, it prov’d to be in vain.
IN THE LONDON EVENING POST:
‘23rd November. The night last, a ‘mask’d man, whose general demeanor suggest’d he was a gentleman, was seen leaving the residence of one of London’s most celebrat’d ladies of quality. The lady in question, being well known among London society, had, by the conversation overheard, spurn’d her mask’d suitor in favour of another. In response to an apparent challenge, the lady’s words “he will never duel you” were heard shout’d from her balcony window. This in turn distract’d the mask’d man, causing him to narrowly miss being run down by a speeding carriage. His response being – “then good luck with your wealthy lover from the Play House!” The mask’d gentleman was then pursu’d across London by ten members of Bow Street. Due, according to one report, on account of his threat to steal her lover’s velvet coats to give as gifts to the inmates of Bedlam.’
NOTE: Bow Street swiftly call’d off the pursuit after they realis’d my identity.
Thence to visit my prize agent, viz. Johann Rueben, there to deposit the money I had taken from Lord Porthbugh. Was welcom’d warmly, and serv’d several large brandies, together with a cornucopia of bak’d goods from Rueben’s lover, viz. Madame Pavot.
From thence to the Bawdy House, wherein Molly, reiterating her desire to be kept by me and me alone, was made happier by my agreement to maintain her, thus removing her need to work for another. The following morning, breakfast’d with all the girls at the Bawdy House, they each reiterating their thanks for my constant defense of their safety, and my efforts in ensuring Tyler’s conviction. Thence to my official residence to announce my survival to Penny Puddings. She being most happy to see me, bouncing up and down and declaring how her apple dumplings have never been so enjoy’d by anyone as they had by me.
DARKNESS REIGNS: I have always attempt’d to create my own justice where possible, albeit while breaking a plethora of laws myself. Yet I was to abuse my own power, and embrace, to my deepest regret, the power of others. I was to become a tool of another’s hand, and an instrument of my own rage.
That evening, was on the point of leaving to meet John Crow, the Chimera and Charles Blood, when the door bell rang loudly. It was a young man, pale, shaking and soak’d through from the rain that was beating down like nails being hammer’d into a coffin lid. Penny Puddings show’d him to my study. It was a young steward from the bawdy house. Broken, tearful, practically unable to speak and clutching his stomach. It was apparent he had a wound, and before he could speak he collaps’d upon the floor. Call’d for Penny Puddings, and tearing his shirt, reveal’d what appear’d to be a deep knife wound to his stomach. We dress’d his wound, and he lay upon a day bed, his life fading.
Briefly regaining consciousness, he began to speak. He had come directly from the bawdy house, it being storm’d by many men, one of whom had stabb’d him, leaving him for dead. His voice almost a whisper, he explain’d how he manag’d to get to me, hoping he could survive long enough to tell me what happen’d. His life almost gone, his voice practically inaudible, he stutter’d his final words. “They’re dead, all of them. Tyler’s men kill’d them all, He order’d it. All of them, every last girl, Molly includ’d. They’re all dead.” With a choking and bloody cough, while Penny held one hand, and I his other, he pass’d away.
My emotions are almost impossible to describe. A dark veil was pull’d over me, a great thundercloud of pain, rage and guilt. They had died because of me – of what I did to Tyler. I had fail’d to protect them, all of them. As it sunk in, I confess at the time I knew not what to do. I could not stand; I could not sit; I walk’d this way and that within the room, trying to believe it was not true. I was shock’d to my very core. My mind was a turmoil of confusion. Trying to understand what I had just heard, it was clear that murdering the girls was Tyler’s last order before he was hang’d. His revenge against me for his death. That was the reason behind for his cruel smile the moment before he swung.
I fell to my knees. All that I had upheld, my efforts to protect so many innocents from Tyler, had all been in vain. That is when it began, the change that came upon me. A darkness of cold resolve as I made my decision: I would find out who those men were, and bring them all to justice.
Return’d to my study, there to enter my armoury. Partially removing one of the books from the shelf, viz. ‘A Complete History of the Life of James Maclean’, the shelf click’d, mov’d forward slightly, then slid open. Stepping inside my armoury, to my surprise, in the middle of the room upon the floor, was a card. Picking it up, I observ’d it was a tarot card – the Empress. Upon the reverse, in a fine handwritten script was a list of names, twelve men in total. Above them was written the following.
‘I did not order their deaths. Had Tyler not hanged, I would have killed him myself for it. Below are the names of the girls’ killers – execute them.’
I knew not who or what had left that tarot card, yet I suspect’d it to be the very ‘She’ that I had so recently seen references to. Neither myself nor Penny Puddings knew how someone had gain’d entry to my home or my private armoury, yet I cared little; I had the names of the murderers. At that time, all I want’d was revenge and I could see but no other path to follow. By then I was blinker’d, staring down a dark tunnel with little light at the end. That subtle light ahead was my guide to vengeance, and I depart’d toward it immediately. The tarot card I receiv’d was the Empress, and thence it was, now to my eternal regret, that I became ‘Death’.
Left immediately, and although I recognis’d many of the names on the list, spent most of the night confirming them via my own network in Seven Dials. Thence I made my way straight to Bow Street. Upon arrival, discover’d they had already learn’d of the killings. Explain’d I had the names of their murderers, and demand’d F & F give me warrants for each of the men on my list. They agreed. In return, they request’d that I must allow each of the twelve men to be tried in open court. So, upon being found guilty, they could be publicly execut’d at Tyburn. My reply, “I give you my word they will all hang for what they did.” I was responsible for the death of the girls and of the steward. I had already decid’d to hunt these men down, and I myself would be their judge, jury and executioner. We all in agreement that Bow Street would maintain my anonymity, and continue to allow London to believe I was dead, depart’d to ensure the respectful burial of the girls.
1st December, 17_ Earlier in the year, I had ensur’d a coffin was buried and my own headstone commission’d, thus maintaing the belief I was dead. Now, however, it was real graves I paid for, ensuring each girl was respectfully interr’d, and also the young steward. I visit’d them the morning I set out to find the first man. I felt brutally wound’d upon seeing them all, and believ’d vengeance to be my only cure. Placing a rose upon Molly’s grave, silently swore I would avenge them all, despite the Vicar’s consolation that God would bring vengeance.
DEATH RIDES FORTH: Purchas’d a new ankle length coat – in black. Thus with my black three corner’d hat, black gloves, black boots and mask, I had become a wraith. Most of London still believ’d I was dead, and those who I would hunt down soon learn’d to fear my ghost. In truth I was indeed little more than a ghost, possessing no feeling of life within me. All I then possess’d was but my desire to bring death upon those twelve men.
ONE: 2nd December, 17_ The first man on my list open’d his eyes. To his surprise, he saw standing above him a highwayman, dress’d all in black, a ghost of the former Gentleman Highwayman, viz, myself. While he rest’d in his drunken slumber, I had plac’d a noose around his neck. The moment he open’d his eyes I show’d him my warrant which I then pinn’d to the front of his waistcoat. Below the authorising signatories, I had add’d a large ‘H’, for Highwayman, or for Hell. The end of the noose already tied off, dragg’d him out of bed and along the floor. Without hesitation, push’d him from the window. He fell, the rope tighten’d, and a crack announc’d his end. Depart’d the building to see a shock’d crowd gather’d below his motionless body.
TWO: 3rd December, 17_ Much as the first, despite his struggle, which creat’d a necessity to shoot him in the upper thigh. His repentance was ignor’d while I dragg’d him to the window, his cries reaching an abrupt stop when he ran out luck…and slack rope.
THREE, FOUR & FIVE: 5th December, 17_ These men, each of them having heard of the ghost that was now haunting their kind, had gone to ground together in an ale house cellar. Needing them to surface from their lair, they having barr’d the door from the inside, I lit a small fire in a lantern. Allowing the smoke to drift under the cellar door, shout’d “fire!” It was a short wait before they came fleeing from the cellar like rats from a sinking ship. There they met me, a blunderbuss peppering the legs of two, a pistol shot bringing the third to his knees. Each one did their best to crawl away, yet the butt of my blunderbuss render’d each one temporarily motionless. Dragging them to some scaffolding built around the house opposite, I plac’d a noose around each of their necks. Throwing the end over the scaffolding, tied it to a cart that had but recently deliver’d some ale to their place of hiding. With a warrant pinn’d to each of their chests, with my addition of an ‘H‘ upon them, I wait’d till they gain’d conciseness. The moment their eyes open’d, whipp’d the horse into motion, and pull’d them up to their deaths. Nobody stopp’d me; nobody want’d to, nor would anyone have dared.
In THE LONDON EVENING POST:
‘THERE have been a large number of unusual deaths of late. Each victim it appears has been kill’d by being hang’d. The number increases each day, the count now being 5. According to reports, each victim was under the employ of a certain Mr. Tyler, who was lately execut’d within the confines of the Tower on charges of treason. Upon each body has been found an official warrant of arrest, with the addition of a large ‘H’ written below the official signatories. Bow Street confirm the warrants are official, but will not comment upon the executioner besides stating: “All these men have been found guilty of multiple murders, and it is the task of Bow Street to employ anyone who will bring them to justice.” The rumours that the Gentleman Highwayman is alive appear now to be confirm’d by the many who claim to have seen his ‘ghost’, and that he has return’d to pursue some form of justice. The reward on his head is still not officially reactivat’d, nor are Bow Street making any further comments on that matter.’
SIX AND SEVEN: 8th December, 17_ By now, many in London were convinc’d I was a ghost, either that of the Gentleman Highwayman, or of some vengeful spirit come to take revenge upon the men I was hunting. Yet these two men, confident in their own safety, were still surpris’d to see me standing in front of them when they awoke one morning, they having shared a room to watch each other’s backs lest I came for them. Yet there was little surprise from the crowd that gather’d below their motionless feet, as they hung there from an upper window, cluster’d together like ripening game birds.
EIGHT: 9th December, 17_ This one ran the moment he saw me at distance. It took some time pursuing him. I hunt’d him through the streets of Covent Garden, Seven Dials and finally to St Giles where my pistol shot in his back brought him crashing to the ground. Strung him up, and as he danc’d his jig, was set upon by a group of men arm’d with cudgels. Presumably those he had paid to protect him. They last’d but a minute or two, then left them behind me, each with a sword wound preventing their further pursuit of me, or saving their employer.
NINE: 12 December, 17_ Flight was pointless, but it did not prevent this one from attempting it. He commission’d the fastest coach in London, and tore though the streets. I caught up with him near Hounslow Heath. It was a hard chase, yet my horse gather’d speed and eventually clos’d in enough to to place it within pistol shot. Shooting the driver, the coach eventually lost some of its control, and I clos’d in. By then, my prey had climb’d out and attempt’d to take control of the reins. Once in range, I jump’d from my horse onto the carriage, my target joining me upon the roof. The fight was short, despite us both having to avoid several low branches as the coach sped its way pell mell along the road. As I held him down, my spurr’d boot upon his head, tied the rope to the top of the carriage and plac’d the noose around his neck. Thence slung him overboard. Taking the reins, I drove the carriage on for another mile before bringing it to a stop. Pinn’d the warrant to his now dirty and blood stain’d chest, and meeting my own horse, gallop’d back to London.
TEN: 13th December, 17_ A simple job. He had taken refuge in a church. The following morning, when the congregation arriv’d for worship, to their surprise they found him hanging below the belfry.
ELEVEN: 14th December, 17_ Feeling nowhere in London was safe, he had hand’d himself into Bow Street. Thus myself arriving, F & F threaten’d me with pistols. Declaring I was not operating within the law, and as such would not let me have him. I remind’d one of them that he owed me the life his daughter. That this man had murder’d a woman, and may even have murder’d the daughter had I not once sav’d her from Tyler. They turn’d away, unable to pull the triggers. Dragg’d the man from his cell, and after rendering him unconscious, took him to the nearest point I found. Strung him up, my warrant with its ‘H’ upon his chest.
TWELVE: 19th December, 17_ By now, knowing he was the final man on my list, he had vanish’d. It took me some time to discover his whereabouts, but eventually found him hiding in an attic above a small shop in Seven Dials, dining on some anemic looking broth.
Deathly pale, clammy, he knew he was going to die, and had the face of a man that had accept’d it. As I stood before him, noose in hand, he then spoke. “You may kill me. but she will find you.” Not knowing to whom he referr’d, I ask’d him to enlighten me. His only response was a loud laugh. “SHE! Did you really think Tyler ran all the crime in London? He was a puppet, nothing more! SHE runs the criminal world in England, SHE appoints the King of each city, SHE appoint’d Tyler!” I replied. “Who! Who is this She?’ With a smile, he simply replied…“The Empress! Tyler met her, he knew who she was, but he is now dead! So you’ll never know.” Taking the tarot card from my pocket, hand’d it to him. He look’d at it, and then read the reverse. If there was any colour left in his face, it immediately drain’d from it. “She order’d this?”
I answer’d his question: “I am doing this for the ones you murder’d, not for the Empress.” At this point he tried to run past me, forcing me to thrust my sword into his gut. As he collaps’d upon the floor, plac’d the noose around his neck, then dragg’d him to the window. Opening it, I look’d once more upon him, regret at my actions beginning to build. I hesitat’d, and sensing this, he quickly pull’d a knife from his boot, stabbing me in the thigh. I pull’d out the knife, and stabb’d it through the ‘H’ I had written upon the warrant pinn’d to his chest. Pushing him out of the window, I look’d below to see several people staring at his swinging body. They look’d up, observ’d me at the window, then ran swiftly away. Finally, it was over.
The days that follow’d were ones I find hard to remember, but I do know they were fill’d with regret, and with pain. I mourn’d the loss of those murder’d at the bawdy house, and also accept’d my departure from that which I believ’d to be good. The faces of those kill’d because of me will forever be imprint’d upon my mind’s eye, reminding me of my failure to protect them.
Several days later, feeling in need of something free from darkness, went to call upon the Lady of the Fans. There to make my peace with her after our last eventful meeting, and to wish her well with her new gentleman. Arriv’d, but to my surprise and sadness, found her home lock’d and board’d up, with nobody at home. A member of her former staff arriv’d and hand’d me a small box, saying “before she left, she instruct’d me to give you this”. I open’d it, and within was a bright blue and pink fan, upon which was written: “Good luck on the road, Highwayman, I shall be watching your exploits closely. Remember, fortune’s wheel is always turning”. Where she has mysteriously gone, or why, I know not, but I am certain our paths will one day cross again, and soon.
Met with John Crow, the Chimera and Charles Blood. They knew of my survival at Seven Dials, and of the events that had unfold’d over recent months. Yet I had kept them at distance for their own safety. We all embrac’d, and they hearing of my regrets, we toast’d the lives of those lost in the bawdy house. The Chimera, however, appear’d strangely distant throughout the evening. It almost appear’d to be some unknown coldness towards me, yet also a subtle hint of admiration. It was impossible to deduce what it was, yet it was clear she was withholding something from me. Put it down to shock from recent events, and spoke not of it.
Arriv’d home, and was on the point of pouring myself a glass of claret when I notic’d something upon my desk. Upon close inspection it prov’d to be another tarot card… The Empress. Upon the reverse was written the following… ‘Your skill exceeds that of all who I have thus far seen, as does your ruthlessness. I have been closely observing you since first you took to the road, closer than you could possibly imagine. Tyler was a fool. I allow’d you the deaths of his men. I now offer you the rule of London, and all the power that provides. I appoint you as the new King of Seven Dials, and of London. Refuse my offer, however, and the instant you interfere with my world again, you will die. You will not be safe anywhere in England. Its criminal populace are under my control. I am the Empress, and you are a Knave if you refuse what I am offering you.’
To accept her offer was to accept rule over all the violent crime in London. It would bring riches, power, and a dark form of freedom. Yet with it would come the inevitable loss of many lives. Perhaps, had the Empress offer’d the position to me during my ride of vengeance, I may have accept’d such a responsibility? I truly hope not. Yet now my mind is clear, and I have return’d to who I really am, though I shall never be the same again. I am now sharper and far more calculating than ever before. She may be the EMPRESS, but I am no KNAVE. I am no longer DEATH…but a KNIGHT.
I drew my sword, and look’d upon the words I had engrav’d upon its blade when I first took to the road all those years ago:
‘Rob those who deserve poverty,
Reward those who deserve riches,
Punish those who deserve vengeance,
And love those who deserve affection.’
Thus my choice was made, and decid’d NOT to accept her offer. Tearing the card in two, I threw the pieces out of the window. While I watch’d the falling halves of the card, my eyes being as sharp as my wits, notic’d a woman observing me closely from a coach window…her face partly hidden by shadows. Her face vanish’d back into the coach, the driver shook the reins, and the coach sped off at an angry speed. It was the Empress herself, I had absolutely no doubt of that. NOTE: Why did her face, despite the shadows, appear peculiarly familiar? Who IS she? NOTE: Despite the inevitable danger, potential death, &c., it is going to be a damn’d fine adventure trying to find out…and even more fun overthrowing her!
According to a wanted poster outside a charming little bawdy house…I’m dangerous, unapproachable and worth 200 Guineas to swing. According to others I’m a rogue, a rake and libertine. The truth is I am a gentleman, and I extract guineas, jewels and valuables from those who don’t deserve them. Gin Lane and Beer Streets are my locals, the road is my office, the 18th century is my home.
HOLD FAST! Treasure, tattoos, swashbuckling pirates…and a replica 18th century town complete with bawdy houses. Rob Lucas interviews British actor Mark Ryan about his role as pirate Quartermaster Gates in forthcoming pirate TV series BLACK SAILS.
TWENTY YEARS before Long John Silver and Jack Hawkins set sail in search of Captain Flint’s treasure, another adventure was being fought out by Captain Flint and his pirate crew. The TV series BLACK SAILS, set to premiere in January 2014 on Starz, is a new prequel to Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic novel Treasure Island, set on the rolling high seas of 18th century piracy. I was fortunate enough to catch up with British actor, fight choreographer and author Mark Ryan to chat about his role as pirate Gates, Quartermaster of Flint’s ship.
My first memory of Mark Ryan was in the highly successful 1980s TV show Robin of Sherwood, in which he played the two-sword wielding Saracen Nasir. Since then he has worked on films such as First Knight, King Arthur, The Prestige and all four Michael Bay directed Transformers blockbusters.
While I sat in Oxford, England, with a tankard of English ale, via the marvels of 21st century technology (aka. Skype) Mark began to tell me about the show from his home in LA.
MARK: BLACK SAILS, without doubt, is one of the biggest television productions I’ve ever seen mounted. It’s massive. The production values are epic. If you put Michael Bay [Executive Producer] together with Starz you get a production on the scale of this. It’s set in 1715, the golden age of the pirates, twenty years before Captain Flint appears in Treasure Island.
Mark is no stranger to blending historical legend with historical fact, and BLACK SAILS does just that.
MARK: What they’ve done is quite brilliant in a way, because they’ve mingled, as we did in the past with Robin of Sherwood, legend with history. Such as Flint, Treasure Island, John Silver and Billy Bones with real people – real pirates. Like Calico Jack, Anne Bonny and Charles Vane. It’s a classic and popular universe sprinkled with historical figures. That makes it easily accessible to an audience but gives it a grounding in reality. It also gives the writers space to go off in different directions with characters, their facets and their relationships, and explore the psychology of why they were rebelling against the British.
Being a lover myself of tall ships, and especially 18th century ones, just how did they go about recreating the wooden world of an 18th century pirate ship?
MARK: They actually built two full scale ships. I’ve never actually seen anything like this. Or rather one and half ships! We had one full-scale ship complete with rigging, cannons, gun decks, cargo, and captain’s cabin.
We had the same again but only half the ship, so we could shoot in it from deck to deck, and have two ships side by side. Both the boats were set in a special tank, which was 15 foot deep in parts and were locked upon a pivoting gimbal, very similar to how they did Titanic. That way they could roll the ships in the tank, which made it look like they were rocking in the water.
But no pirate world is complete without a town to go and spend your hard earned spoils, drink rum, and seek the distracting company of beautiful women.
MARK: Well, they also built the town of Nassau as it would have been in the 1700s, complete with wave machines and beach, docks, forts, taverns, pirate camps, brothels, storage rooms and so on – everything you can think of. So you literally walk through this town in 360 degrees, and you’re in a complete universe. It was really quite extraordinary.
One view of the trailer and you can see the 18th century world they’ve created. But how was it, working on a moving ship? Not everyone has their sea legs!
MARK: I was OK with the ship moving as I’ve spent some time on Royal Navy warships. I’m also a diver, so I was alright being at sea – I had no problems with the ship rocking. Within the actual stages themselves, when they wanted to have an interior of a ship that looked different, they built interiors of various ships, also on gimbals. So when the gun doors were closed you were literally encased in this wooden world – so some [of the cast and crew] got seasick.
Having been aboard period ships such as HMS Victory and The Neptune, once below deck I can see how it could be very claustrophobic for some people.
MARK: It was claustrophobic in the hold sets because you can’t see a horizon looking out of the ship – you lose your sense of balance and equilibrium, that’s when people get seasick. If your eyes can’t tell you that there is a horizon over there, some people get nauseous and some had to leave the set [during filming].
Though that sounds like it must have brought a certain amount of realism to it! But is the show a riveting good yarn? It certainly sounds like it to me!
MARK: It’s extremely well written, Rob, extremely well researched.
It certainly looks far grittier from the trailer than Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean movies, for example. Closer perhaps to what pirates were really like – more brutal and ruthless?
MARK: Well, it makes you aware that although these ships were large for the time, they were nothing compared to what we have now. The courage and the ability to navigate halfway across the world, in some cases all the way round the world, in a small wooden ship with rudimentary navigational tools and non-existent hygiene, survive everything else including a lack of food and water, disease, let alone getting into battles – it was quite an impressive breed of people who did that! Those who were able to survive and navigate their way through these massive storms – it really does remind you of what an extraordinary feat of engineering, courage and human willpower it was.
But when you put a tough group of people, and especially fighting men living outside the law, all together into a small space, surely you’re asking for trouble? To say the Captain needed some management skills would be something of an understatement. In the Royal Navy of the time, the wooden world of a sea-borne war ship was held together by strict discipline, respect, and an experienced group of officers and crew. But when it came to life as a pirate, how was the hierarchy aboard their ships organised?
MARK: One of the unusual things about this era is that people think it was just a rag-tag collection of rebelling sailors who jumped on these boats and ran amok. But there was a rudimentary version of democracy. People voted in the Bosun, the Quartermaster and the Captain. It was a functioning and consensual hierachy. This is explored a lot in the series. Historically, if the crew was fed up with the Captain they could actually vote him out of power. The same with the Quartermaster.
Only when they were in battle did the Captain have total control of the ship. But only in battle. The rest of the time when they were sailing it was done through the Quartermaster or Bosun. But once in battle the Captain’s word was law and the crew signed up to that. If the Captain was a great tactician who knew how to fight and how to manage a warship during battle, he may not necessarily have been the best person to deal with the crew in other ways. Those middle management jobs of running the crew were delegated to the Quartermaster and Bosun. So in BLACK SAILS these are the rules we abide by.
It’s an interesting comparison to make between the hierarchy of a pirate ship and the Royal Navy of the time. In the latter you had the officer class, from Captain down to Lieutenants then Midshipmen, Bosun, etc. With the pirates you had a tighter hierarchy but also a democratic one. The segregation between the two groups, i.e. officers and crew, doesn’t seem to have been present on a pirate ship. But how does your character Gates hold all that together and earn respect from the Captain and crew?
MARK: Gates’s has spent 50 years at sea. That makes him ancient for the period, but also to survive 50 years at sea as a pirate, you had to have something else going for you! So the reason the character is respected and revered by the crew is because he’s even-handed, fair but cunning. He’s also one of them. That’s why the crew respect him and why he usually gets his way. He’s able to manage the crew in a way that enables him to get them doing what he wants them to without them thinking they’ve been bullied or threatened. He’s a skilled negotiator, able to manage the crew with all their different backgrounds and drives such as languages, religions, and all their petty jealousies. He’s able to manage that claustrophobic and testosterone driven environment and make the crew trust and follow him. That sets him apart.
Gates clearly has the skills to manage a ship full of pirates, but what are his motivations? Do we see him elected in during the show?
MARK: I’m already elected as the Quartermaster of the boat as we start this story. He’s the nexus point between the will of the crew and the Captain. In this case, Gates is very close to Flint as an old friend and supporter. He’s also grooming Billy Bones as his successor and has a father/son relationship with him. So he believes his future is definitely rosier and more stable with Flint as Captain – so he’s supporting Flint for various reasons. One of them, of course, is because he thinks it’s going to be best for him, but also because he’s his close ally and friend. He’s also got to juggle and balance the will of the crew, and when I went to talk with Jon [Steinberg, series creator] originally about this, Jon asked me: ‘OK, how do you feel about this character – what can you tell me about this role?’ I said, having spent some time in the military myself, there’s an old saying which is: ‘it may be the officers that give the orders but it’s the sergeant’s mess who carries them out’. It’s a blue-collar job. You have to be middle management and manage the egos, drives and prejudices of the crew and jolly them along. You can give them an order, but at the end of the day you have to convince them it’s the right thing to do and lead them. Sometimes that means leading them into the jaws of death. So they had to trust you and they had to like you, but you also had to keep discipline.
In between that Gates is dealing with the Captain, who sometimes may not always understand what he’s doing and why he’s doing it. Gates has faith he’s the best Captain that he’s ever served because he knows how to sail a ship! That’s his role in the story, and on the ship.
Such a relationship between Gates the Quartermaster, Flint the Captain and crew must put lots of pressure on Gates’s character. After all, who would want to manage a crew of pirates and be in the middle of managing them and the Captain at the same time? Does that affect the relationship between your character and Captain Flint played by Toby Stephens?
MARK: We have a very kinetic relationship during the course of the series in the sense that I’m trying to cajole him sometimes to do something, or warn him of something, and he wants to go and do something else. But there’s a lot of humour in there, too. So it’s really a rich and amazing relationship, which we played on during the show
BLACK SAILS has a superb cast and crew. What was it like working with Toby Stephens?
MARK: I have to say, Rob, it’s a very, very, talented cast, one of the most talented ensembles that it’s been my pleasure to work with, and we all got on very, very well. Toby Stephens and I really got on well right from the very first reading. I think we both went ‘OK, we’ve got it, we know where we are’. I think it was because we both had the same sense of humour. Very daft British sense of humour! It was a very natural symbiotic relationship. It was great.
BLACK SAILS certainly sounds like it was as much fun to make as it will be to watch. But there must have been some tough times during filming?
MARK: We had a few sore backs. Also, standing on a rocking ship in a tank at 4 am in the morning being hosed down as the temperature drops and you’re stood there in just a calico shirt and a pair of leather breeches. But that’s when the humour comes in. Toby and I got on so well we were in a shack in the town filming a particularly intense scene. We were waiting to do our stuff, but for some reason we suddenly started giggling at 3 am. It was raining, very cold and a very intense scene. I can’t remember what we were even talking about, but it was something to do with either the Carry On movies or people that we’d known in the business who were funny. We literally laughed for about an hour! Brad [Fuller, Executive Producer] came over, and I nudged Toby saying ‘we’re about to get in trouble now’. He came over and said ‘I’ve been watching you for an hour and you’ve been giggling like schoolgirls! What are you talking about?’ I said ‘you know what, Brad, it would probably take a lot to explain!’ He said ‘I just want to let you know it’s now 4 o’clock, it’s raining, we’re all freezing, tired, everybody wants to go home, and we’re doing this scene. So what we need is more humour, so you have my permission to keep laughing.’ So we did! We literally laughed like fools and had a lot of fun in doing so.
So much so that one of the Starz producers some months later, when I was sat there giggling to myself, came over and said ‘you look like you’re really enjoying this!’ I said ‘I’m having a great time! In the past I’ve been a Merry Man, an honorary Knight of the Round Table, I’ve been Che Guevara, Sky Masterson, and a giant alien robot! Now I’m a pirate! But what’s even dafter about that is you’re actually paying me to be a pirate!
Sounds similar to the life of a ‘Merry Man’ of Sherwood to me – enormous fun to be part of. But instead of being in Sherwood Forest eating venison, you were in Cape Town. How was it filming there?
MARK: It was quite an extraordinary place to visit – Cape Town is an amazing cosmopolitan mixture. The front of my apartment looked out over the marina and the ocean. At the back the French windows looked out over Table Mountain! I took a series of pictures of Table Mountain as I can honestly say its one of those places that has a most extraordinary energy, but also never looks the same twice from one day to the next. Every day it looks extraordinary, and I would just stare at it! It was an incredibly powerful landmark. I’m no longer up for tearing around Bristol like I did with Robin of Sherwood. I enjoyed sitting in my favorite dock-side restaurant looking out at Table Mountain, having a glass of Pinotage, eating wildebeest – yes, I discovered wildebeest – and enjoying Namibian oysters. I was very happy doing that.
Speaking of your time in Robin of Sherwood, is that where your interest in swordfighting and fight choreography stems from?
MARK: I was actually making swords out of wood in the cellar of my family home from a very early age. I guess it was something to do with Michael Moorcock’s Elric series which I picked up randomly from a book store somewhere, read, and I was totally drawn into the world of Elric and the Stormbringer concept, which I thought was absolutely brilliant. So as a young teenager I was totally drawn into the mythos of swordsmanship and the science of the blade. Even in school I made a wooden katana, which obviously was a bokken but I didn’t know what a bokken was then. I also made a big Bowie knife, which alarmed the teachers to some extent but they let me keep it!
So swords have been a part of my life since early childhood, and in between that and after going to stage school I trained with Michael Jay, the Twickenham Samurai. He’s the only non-Japanese that’s been allowed to take part in the ancient Soma festival and was married to a Japanese princess at one time. He also gave me some iaido coaching and I learned a little bit of the Japanese bow. I’d also done some archery previous to that. Nothing’s forgotten, nothing’s ever forgotten. [Quoting the in-plot motto of Robin Hood and his men in Robin of Sherwood] It was all in my quiver as skills I tucked away thinking one day they’re going to be useful.
You also worked with legendary fight choreographer Bob Anderson? Many western martial artists and movie fans would have given their hind teeth to just meet him. After all, among the many actors he’s coached over theyears are Errol Flynn, Sean Connery, Antonio Banderas, and Johnny Depp; and films he’s worked on include Star Wars episodes V and VI, First Knight, The Lord of the Rings, The Three Musketeers and Pirates of the Caribbean – to name just a few.
MARK: I worked with Bob on First Knight. I was asked to do a favour for a friend of my brother’s because he had some action extras who were all ex-military, and were going to be used as what they call ‘action extras’ in some big battle sequences. Richard Howell, who owns a company called Foxtrot that supplies extras and weapons to film and television shows, asked if I knew any of the stunt coordinators as he was a bit concerned about some of stunt guys and wanted someone to bridge that gap. I said ‘yeah, I know Dinny and Greg Powell really well’. When we arrived Dinny Powell said there was someone he wanted me to meet, then took me over to this tall, silver-haired, very elegant stylish older gentleman, and said ‘Bob, this is Mark, this is the guy you’re looking for.’ Bob looked at me and said, ‘I’ve heard you know a bit about swords?’ I went ‘a little bit, yes’. So he literally got two swords and said ‘I’m going to do this, cut cut cut, so you just parry.’ So I did, then he said ‘now do it to me’, so I did. He then said ‘OK, now do this, thrust cut thrust parry’. It took literally five to ten minutes, then he said ‘right, don’t go away, just stay there.’ I looked at Dinny and said ‘what have you got me into?’ Dinny simply said ‘well, that’s Bob Anderson! You’ve just done a sword-fight with Bob Anderson!’
An hour later Bob came over and said ‘get in the car, we’re going to the studio.’ So we literally jumped in the car, got to the studio and were walking across the parking lot at Pinewood when Richard Gere walked past. Bob goes ‘Richard, meet me in about 15-20 minutes, you’re going to work with Mark!’ Literally! I promise you that is how it went down!
I’d love to have crossed swords with Bob Anderson! It certainly sounds like a case of being in the right place at the right time.
MARK: You’ve got to be open to what the universe can bring. Sometimes you can ask it to bring you something and it will bring you chaos. Other times positive things happen because you’re in the right place at the right time, and it’s a confluence of all those different energies, decisions and experiences. I’ve always had the approach to life as to ask the question and take the journey for the journey’s sake, because you never know where it’s going to lead you. Be open to opportunities and when doors open be willing to step through them.
That’s precisely my philosophy, believe in what you want but also be open to what comes along and follow it to see where it leads. I actually have the words ‘Thoughts Become Things’ tattooed around my wrist to constantly remind me of that philosophy.
MARK: [On the character Gates] you’ll see I have a tattoo on the back of my head, as I was very interested in having a mark of some kind. People would ask ‘what is that? Why do you have an All-Seeing Eye in a pyramid on the back of your head and ‘Hold Fast’ on my knuckles?” Hold Fast is an old naval tradition, of course and the eye is a nod to the secret societies which were involved with the royal houses during the period. Not just financing, shipping and navigation though, it’s similar to the relationship between the Templars and the Assassins, as in Robin of Sherwood. It’s just a quiet nod to those mystical societies, and the symbolism of them that plays out through the show as well. So I was allowed to bring little bits of myself to help flesh out the character of Mr. Gates.
Over the years you’ve built up a huge arsenal of skills including the fight choreography. That must enable you to really help other actors when you’re running through a fight scene with them?
MARK: I learned from Bob Anderson that an action or fight sequence is a drama sequence. You need to have drama within the fight. When I was working on King Arthur, Stellan Skarsgård, who is a very, very fine actor, came to me very early on, and said he had a huge fight to do. He said ‘look, I’m in my 50s, I chain smoke, and I’ve never done a fight scene let alone a sword-fight, so give me a clue here’. So I told him ‘a sword fight is a drama scene when the sword blades have the dialogue – it’s an argument in steel. But it’s still a drama scene – so anchor it in that.’ He immediately said ‘I get it!’ The action is secondary to why the fight is taking place. It’s the same in any action sequence and the same in BLACK SAILS. It’s the drama behind it, why it’s happening, why there is rivalry, and why these clashes are coming.
The image of a sword-wielding man or woman swashbuckling their way across the high seas is very much how many see the image of a pirate. But there must be more to it than that, as people seem to relate to them today in various ways. It’s that outlaw ideal, perhaps – living outside the norm. It’s the same as being a member of Robin Hood’s band, a highwayman, or the cowboy outlaw. They all have that same ideal within a world heavily dominated by what the majority consider ‘normal’ or acceptable. Fighting back against oppression or heavily restricted ways of life will always appeal to people.
MARK: I think it’s that historic period. It was just before the American and French Revolutions. We were discovering new worlds, we were discovering new plants, new continents. There was a sense of there being a different type of freedom than traditional ways of governing. Traditional ways were breaking down. Some sections of society clung onto them who knew and understood what they wanted in order to keep control. But at the same time there was this revolutionary fervour. Partly based on the fact that pirates felt betrayed by the English, from privateers to pirates. But also because they were being exposed to new civilisations, new societies, and different ways of life. So they realised it didn’t have to be that way. I think that’s what’s happening today, because if you look at the way the world is at the moment, especially in the US, traditional values have been challenged on a daily basis. Concepts that have been held as universally true by certain parts of society are breaking down – it’s no longer the norm. So some people are clinging onto the old ways, yet the world is moving on at a very, very rapid pace. That’s the link I believe. What’s changing is what was tried, tested and traditional is being challenged and is breaking down. New ideals are evolving in American society and all over the world, but that’s very scary to some people.
From the trailer alone you really can see you’ve all created this immense world, the 18th century world – the pirate world. It comes across immediately. It’s got an accurate feel, but also the swashbuckling, the pirates, ships, beautiful women and stunning landscapes. Yet it’s gritty, and that will set it apart from what’s been done so far.
MARK: It’s great drama! It’s riveting. It’s a strong story with excellent dialogue. The first episode is pretty big, but we go bigger! They begin by being interesting and intense, then get more interesting, intense and epic. It’s not the typical bait and switch production. It’s the drama that drives the characters though – that’s really the glue that holds the show together.
BLACK SAILS, starring Mark Ryan as Gates, Toby Stephens as Captain Flint, Luke Arnold as John Silver, Tom Hopper as Billy Bones, Clara Paget as Anne Bonny, Zach McGowan as Captain Charles Vane, airs on Starz in January 2014. For more information and the full cast and crew click here.
View the Black Sails trailer below.
Described by BBC Radio 4 as “…a modern-day highwayman …imbued with the spirit of Europe’s opulence and theatricality of the 17th and 18th centuries.” I’m the creator of HUZZAR and live among the dreaming spires of Oxford where I studied British history and now operate my own 18th century inspired fashion label, PIMPERNEL. I’m also working with Adam Ant on our clothing line, BLUEBLACK HUSSAR. Plus I’m an antique arms and militaria consultant, so work with old swords and duelling pistols. I’m inspired by just about anything historical or just damn stylish.
Keep your wig on but don’t let your face fall off! Dr Lindsey Fitzharris explores the toxic world of Georgian makeup.
The other day, I walked through the makeup section of a department store just outside of Chicago. Every step of the way, I was bombarded by sales attendants trying to sell me the latest anti-aging potions. There was Rodial Snake Venom—an anti-wrinkle cream which allegedly simulates the paralysing effects of a viper bite to reduce expression lines in the face—as well as a host of other products including Freeze 24/7, which purports to be a ‘clinically proven dream cream’. Topping the list of quack remedies was the ‘Vampire Facelift’, a non-surgical procedure involving the reinjection of gel-like substance derived from the patient’s own blood.
With all these products on the market today, you might think that we are uniquely obsessed with finding eternal youth. Yet, people in the 18th century were equally concerned with turning back the hands of time, and their beauty regime could be just as futile (and toxic) as our own.
The proliferation of potions and elixirs reached epic proportions in Georgian England. Everything from anti-baldness creams to slimming pills were offered. Each one promised its own miracle cure. Each one offered the consumer hope in a jar (which, incidentally, is the name of a 21st-century product by Philosophy).
Quacks also peddled medical remedies targeted at those seeking a more permanent change.
One of the most famous examples is Parr’s Life Pills—named after a man who reputedly lived to 152 in the 16th century. These ‘remarkable’ pills purported to extend the consumer’s lifespan by decades; and contained a combination of aloe, rhubarb and jalap which were flavoured with liquorice powder, treacle and sugar. Parr’s Life Pills were so popular that they persisted well into the 19th century, where one cynic wrote:
I hearby certify and swear to it, that at the age of fifteen years I had the misfortune to fall into the crater of Vesuvius, and was burned to a cinder; but on taking two of Parr’s Life Pills, I completely recovered. At Waterloo I was blown to atoms by a Congreve rocket; but after taking one box and a half of the Pills I speedily got well, and with the exception of occasional shooting pains, which a single pill invariably relieves, I have since been a better man than ever.
In the grand scheme of things, Parr’s Life Pills were rather harmless, but one staple of the Georgian’s health and beauty regime most certainly was not: makeup.
Both Georgian women and men coveted rouges, lipsticks and powders that enhanced and lightened their complexions. Most of these cosmetics were homemade. Unfortunately, a majority of them also contained toxic substances that could prove fatal over time.
For instance, many 18th-century rouges were made using the lead-base ingredient, carmine. The rouge was applied to the cheeks using wet bits of wool. The crimson cosmetic was also available as a lipstick, which was made by mixing carmine with plaster of Paris (a substance similar to mortar or cement). And let’s not forget the powders which gave wealthy Georgians that famous cakey-white look. These were sometimes made from finely flaked lead and most certainly caused serious medical problems—such as nausea, headaches, blindness or even death—for those who used them over long periods of time.
And then there was hair. I’ve talked extensively about the medical services offered by barber-surgeons on my blog, The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice. In 1745, however, the barbers split with the surgeons, who went on to form their own medical guild. Henceforth, the barbers were restricted to tasks relating to…well, barbering! Thus, the Georgian barbershop—with its noticeable absence of leeches, lancets and tooth extractors—is the most immediate (and recognisable) predecessor of the modern-day salon.
Georgian barbers began building their reputations as wigmakers after their split with the surgeons. Both men and women wore wigs in this period, the latter going to great lengths when it came to design and height of the hairpiece.
Adrian Teal captures the growing extravagance of the era brilliantly in The Gin Lane Gazette. As the book progresses through the 18th century, the wigs grow higher and higher, till they are indeed taking up entire pages in this exquisitely illustrated romp through Georgian England.
As beautiful as these creations were, they could also be toxic. Barbers often used lard at the base of the wig so that it would adhere better to the scalp. But the lard also attracted mice, which sometimes burrowed deep inside these elaborate hairpieces. Those who could afford to keep up with this extensive beauty regime frequently suffered from infestations of lice or fleas, as well as an array of scalp problems due the unhygienic conditions of the wigs.
Hardly a romantic view of the ‘Romantic Period!’
So next time you walk through a department store and feel tempted to purchase the latest anti-aging product, think of the Georgians with their potions, elixirs and wigs.
And remember: beauty always comes at a price.
Dr Lindsey Fitzharris
I have a PhD in the History of Science, Medicine & Technology from the University of Oxford; and am the author and creator of the popular website, The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice, which details the horrors of pre-anaesthetic surgery. Next year, I’ll be hosting the upcoming television documentary, Medicine’s Dark Secrets. I specialise in the macabre, and am here to give Huzzar a darker twist.
In the LONDON EVENING POST, October 28, 17_
“NOTICE OF EXECUTIONS
ON THE MORNING of the 13th November, seven male malefactors are to be hang’d at Tyburn, having been try’d and condemn’d to death for ‘Crimes againft the Crown’. From seven o’clock of the aforemention’d morning, they shall begin their departure from Newgate Prifon to Tyburn. Their bodies thereafter to be sent to Surgeon’s Hall for the purpofe of learning, viz. anatomifation. A MR. TYLER, found guilty of Treafon, will be execut’d upon the same morning within the confines of the Tower. His dead body to be hung in iron chains outfide the Tower and within view of the Jewel House ‘until such time that the ravens have remov’d both his dead eyes’. MR.TYLER’S sentence, it has been announc’d, will be privately execut’d and ‘without audience or spectacle’. It is currently unclear of what treafonable activities thefe eight men have been found guilty, as they were try’d and sentenc’d within a Clof’d Court. Yet it has been report’d that the seven men were clofe affociates of MR. TYLER, and were each refponfible for countless violent crimes against both men and women within the Capital.
ANTHONY’S ANTI-AMOROUS ANTIDOTE
A cure for all men suffering severe addiction to phfsical pleasure. Guaranteed to remove all melancholic feelings and affociat’d guilt and over excess from the very first application.
BEING a slippery and viscous lotion of high repute, and favour’d among both nobility and gentry alike. Upon application to the male’s addict’d member, the patient becomes aware of a subtle yet agreeable warmth. In order to achieve a successful cure, the lotion MUST be applied by the last woman from whom the afflict’d male receiv’d his last pleasurable release. In instances when this is not possible, it is advis’d to seek another woman of similar age and stature to apply the lotion, though the effects of the lotion are lessen’d in such instances. It is also essential that it first be applied slowly, while rubbing it firmly into the skin. “
In the GENERAL EVENING POST (London), October 28, 17_
Lord Porthbugh robb’d by
on Hounflow Heath
Three nights last, Lord Porthbugh was robb’d in his coach while travelling upon the Bath Road. Whereupon, during their traverse of Hounslow Heath, the coach was stopp’d by a mask’d highwayman who immediately demand’d him to ‘stand and deliver’ his valuables. Lord Porthbugh, recognising the fellow from the theft of his private papers at the Palace of Westminster, insist’d the coachman shoot the rogue with his blunderbuss. The coachman, being weak will’d of disposition, instead dropp’d the blunderbuss upon the floor. This caus’d it to discharge, and some shot to shallowly penetrate the rump of Lord Porthburgh – apparently to great amusement of the highwayman. After robbing Lord Porthburgh of his valuables, and his wig, (being the second instance of the latter), the Highwayman made his retreat. Lord Porthburgh has since insist’d to both Parliament and Bow Street that it was the GENTLEMAN HIGHWAYMAN, viz. RAKISH HIGHWAYMAN, that denials of his return should cease, and the reward on his head be unfrozen and rais’d to 300 Guineas. Bow Street, however, continue to deny the possibility, leading to further mystery surrounding the highwayman’s death. Some more esoteric observers have speculat’d, however, that the man is in fact a ghost of the late highwayman, that being the reason he can be neither kill’d nor captur’d.”
In the GENERAL EVENING POST (London), October 26, 17_
“STATEMENT FROM BOW STREET
Concerning the GENTLEMAN HIGHWAYMAN
THE INCREASE in both highway robbery and debauch’d activities currently being report’d in London and its environs, and connect’d to a highwayman, are little more than further examples of ever increasing crime within the Capital. Despite reports that the late GENTLEMAN HIGHWAYMAN, also known as the RAKISH HIGHWAYMAN, did not die in the fire at Seven Dials in May last, we have, as yet, seen no evidence to support them, and he is still confider’d deceas’d. The crimes thus far committ’d, and which the populace appear eager to place his name upon, are, from the evidence we have thus far seen, but an assortment of unconnect’d malefactions and sporadic breaches of morality. As such, the reward of 200 Guineas formerly on his head is still frozen, and unable to be earn’d until convincing evidence of his survival is present’d to us. F.& F”