CLASSIC AUSTRALIAN TELEVISION

THE ADVENTURES OF
LONG JOHN SILVER


Copyright © 2013 Don Storey.  All rights reserved.


THE ADVENTURES
OF LONG
JOHN SILVER
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The first television series to be produced in Australia was made before we had television. The Adventures Of Long John Silver was a 26 episode, half-hour series made for the English and American markets. Based on the Robert Louis Stevenson pirate character from his novel 'Treasure Island', and set at Porto Bello on the Spanish Main, the series featured English actor Robert Newton in the title role. Newton had previously played the same part in the 1950 Disney movie Treasure Island, which was the first total live-action motion picture made by the company.1

The most memorable aspect of Treasure Island was Robert Newton's portrayal of Long John Silver. Newton's tendency to overact was let loose by Director Byron Haskin with magnificent results. Newton and Haskin, together with writer Martin Rackin and producer Joseph Kaufmann, formed Treasure Island Pictures for the purpose of making a follow-up film and television series. The film, Long John Silver, was made in Australia during 1954 at the Pagewood Studios in Sydney. Naturally, Newton played the title role.

Byron Haskin was again the Director, and Newton was joined by Kit Taylor as young Jim Hawkins, Connie Gilchrist as Miss Purity Pinker, Grant Taylor (Kit Taylor's father) as Patch, and Rod Taylor (no relation to Grant or Kit Taylor) as Israel Hands. The film was the first cinemascope feature made in Australia.

The series was set in the same swashbuckling vein as the film, although on a less expensive scale. Also produced at Pagewood Studios with overseas finance, the series’ Director was Lee Sholem and the Producer was Joseph Kaufman. Executive Producer was Mark Evans, with Production Design by William Constable. Not all episodes bear an on-screen credit for director or producer.

Most of the scripts were credited to Martin Rackin and/or Kay Keavney, although in reality Robert Newton assisted Rackin in the task. The series featured some classic pirate dialogue, with Long John referring to all and sundry as swabs, slimy squids, mutinous maggots and other choice insults, and threatening those who wouldn't 'stow their gab' with walking the plank. No doubt many of these choice lines were the result of Newton's influence in the writing.

For the Long John Silver film, the character was toned down considerably from that of the book and Treasure Island movie, and this was carried through to the television series. No longer a ruthless schemer and murderer, Long John was now portrayed as a likable rogue.

In addition to Newton, Connie Gilchrist, Kit Taylor and Grant Taylor ably portrayed the same roles as they had in the movie. Miss Purity Pinker is the middle-aged proprietor of the 'Cask & Anchor' tavern where Long John and his crew hang out while ashore. Miss Purity also has aspirations about becoming Mrs. Silver which Long John doesn’t share! Jim Hawkins is a 12-year-old orphan boy who has been placed in the joint care of Long John and Miss Purity by the Governor; and Patch is one of Long John’s crew.

Other members of the ‘Faithful’ crew are Trip Fenner played by Eric Reiman, Old Stingley played by John Brunskill and Big Eric played by Harry Hambleton, all of whom played the same roles in the film, as did Billy Kay as Miss Purity’s bartender Ironhand. John Sherwood played the support role of Sir Henry Strong, the Governor of Porto Bello (in the film this part was played by Harvey Adams).

Other support roles on a less regular basis were Rev. Monaster played by Hans Stern, the Governor's wife played by Muriel Steinbeck (both of whom played the same roles in the film), and the Governor's daughter Elizabeth played by Jean Whitte.

Production of the series commenced in 1954, and the episodes were shot entirely on film, and in colour - quite remarkable considering that most U.S. series of the time were still in black and white. Many Australian actors had guest roles in the series, including Owen Weingott, Gordon Chater, John Bonney and Leonard Teale.

It is somewhat ironic that this should be Australia's first television series, as pirate adventure had nothing to do with Australia's history, and television had not yet commenced here - the series could have been filmed anywhere. It was in effect a ‘crossover’ of the 1950’s Australian film industry to television. (Most Australian films of the 1950's were produced by overseas companies - it was television, and in particular the series Homicide, which later provided a foundation for the revival of the Australian feature film industry in the 1970’s, following it’s virtual standstill in the early 60’s).

The quality of The Adventures Of Long John Silver is not bad, although budget limitations are apparent by action being mostly confined to studio sets. Still, it stands up well compared to many U.S. shows of the period. Leonard Teale commented on the series in a TV Eye interview: "The Australian film industry has always been pretty good. Long John Silver was made in the early 50’s and the quality was terrific. Sure, it had an American Director, and it probably had an American Producer and maybe a writer, but that was it - all the rest were Australian. In fact with our experience, the Americans were a joke. Most of the time the people who came out here were second-stringers - they wouldn’t leave Hollywood if they weren’t."2

The opening titles were simple but effective. Long John is seen in silhouette with the theme music playing before being bathed in light and letting out a typical pirate yell. The series title was then displayed, followed by a map of the Spanish Main. This was accompanied by a reading of the first portion of 'To The Hesitating Purchaser', Robert Louis Stevenson's introduction to his 'Treasure Island' novel:

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 and fall on!

Some episodes from the series were edited together as two feature films for cinema release in the United States in 1955, with the titles Under The Black Flag and South Sea Pirates. There was even a short-lived series of comic books released during 1958.

Kit Taylor reflected on the series and it's leading player in a 1975 interview: "I was a proper little monster. At the age of 10 I realised the power I had. If I said I felt like an ice-cream, the director instantly sent someone to get me one. If I didn't get what I wanted I became unco-operative. Robert Newton would get fed up with my behaviour and he'd give me a swipe on my backside to keep me in order. At other times he'd dangle me on his knee and tell me stories, marvellous adventure tales. As I got older I heard people gossip about him, tearing him down because of his faults. But nothing is going to destroy my image of him. I thought he was great."3

The Adventures Of Long John Silver sold well overseas. It entered syndication in the U.S. in 1956, and was aired in Britain in 1957. In Australia, the series was first screened in the afternoon as part of the Children's TV Club on the ABC in 1958. It was repeated later the same year in an early evening timeslot, running into 1959. The series was repeated many times both on the ABC and later on various commercial stations until the mid-1970's.

Robert Newton, whose portrayal of Long John Silver became ‘the standard by which all future pirate performances would be judged',4 unfortunately died shortly afterwards in March 1956. Kit Taylor has played parts in many Australian films and television series of the last 40 years, and his father Grant Taylor also appeared in various productions, both in Australia and in the UK, before passing away in 1971.

The Long John Silver film plus fourteen episodes of the series have been released on DVD in various packages in several different countries. All 26 episodes of the series are extant and held by the National Film & Sound Archive.

 

 ADVENTURES OF LONG JOHN SILVER
EPISODE DETAILS

 

1. Disney’s version of Treasure Island was actually a remake - the original film was made in 1934.
2. TV Eye No. 3, October 1994.
3. TV Week, Dec 20, 1975.
4. Bruce Hamilton, ‘The World’s Most Famous Search For Pirate Gold’, Walt Disney’s Comics And Stories No. 605, October 1996.


 


A young Kit Taylor as Jim Hawkins with Robert Newton as Long John Silver.

 


Robert Newton in a typical Long John Silver pose.

 


Long John Silver (Robert Newton) shows Jim Hawkins (Kit Taylor) a shark tooth - as pirates are apt to do.

 


Long John Silver opening titles. Some episodes had different coloured lettering on a black background.