Review: The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists, by Gideon Defoe

It is 1837, and for the luxuriantly bearded Pirate Captain and his rag-tag pirate crew, life on the high seas has become a little dull.  With nothing to do but twiddle their hooks and lounge aimlessly on tropical beaches, the Captain decides it’s time they had an adventure.

A surprisingly successful boat raid leads them to the young Charles Darwin, in desperate need of their help.  And so the pirates set forth for London in a bid to save the scientist from the evil machinations of a diabolical Bishop.  There they encounter grisly murder, vanishing ladies, the Elephant Man – and have an exciting trip to the zoo.

The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists is the first in a series of four books by Gideon Defoe, which I read having seen the Aardman adaptation released earlier this year.  I was very glad that I did go on to read the book which inspired the film, because otherwise I would have had no idea about how different the storyline of the film was, compare to the original text.  I did enjoy the film but had a few problems with the plot – evil Queen Victoria? – whereas in Defoe’s book, the arch enemy of Darwin and the Pirate Captain is an evil Bishop, which fits much better with the early Victorian Gothic genre.

Defoe’s prose style is so dry as to be positively absorbent, heavy with irony and deliberate anachronism.  I also loved the frequent footnotes.  These techniques made me feel I was privy to a host a secret in-jokes, which won me over very quickly.

The characterisation is sparse; the pirates are not given ‘real’ names, but are instead referred to according to their most striking characteristics, which is on one hand distancing but on the other means you immediately know something about them.  Also, the book as a whole is deliberately not realistic, so this isn’t a problem.  I wondered if the lack of names was also aligning us with the Pirate Captain, who almost certainly wouldn’t trouble himself to learn the pirates actual names!

I don’t want to say too much more about Pirates, as it’s such a short little morsel that I don’t want to spoil it for you, but I highly recommend it for a quick read full of snorts and sniggers, and maybe even a piratical roar of laughter!

Kate Neilan

The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists

Aardman Animations has long been admired in my family, ever since the advent of Wallace and Gromit, in A Grand Day Out (1989).  Although the short film does now look dated, it still bursts with humour, fun and irony as we see the naive inventor set off to the moon with his trusty hound, to alleviate a cheese shortage back on Earth.  The pair’s next outing, in The Wrong Trousers, which drew on the best features of British domestic horror, ensured their success.  It had a more developed script, much more sophisticated animation set pieces – the model railway chase is a fantastic action sequence – and set the tone for big screen hits such as Chicken Run and Curse of the Wererabbit.

Pirates! goes back to this tradition of real stop-motion animation; you can’t quite see the thumb prints but it’s infinitely preferably to the bizarre smoothness of Flushed Away.  Based on a book by Gideon Defoe, it is full of jokes about the cliches of the pirate story, historical references, anachronisms, and a pinch of steam punk too.  The pirates in the crew are never given personal names, only known as Pirate Captain, Number Two (*snigger* – an echo of Captain Pugwash there?), Albino Pirate and so on.  However, the Pirate Captain’s nemesis is given a name – Black Bellamy – and the Captain’s main aim for the film is to prevent Black Bellamy winning Pirate of the Year yet again.

This is a task that the Pirate Captain has been unsuccessful with thus far, despite his excellent hat, luxurious beard and unusual parrot, Polly.  Except that Polly is not all that she seems. After a number of failed plundering attempts, Pirate Captain is almost ready to hang up his cutlass when a ship hoves into sight.  In one last try to steal some booty, they board the ship, only to discover Charles Darwin heading back from a scientific expedition.  Furious that there’s no gold on board, Darwin is almost made to walk the plank and only saved when he recognises that Polly is in fact a Dodo, the only remaining member of her species, and so incredibly valuable, to science at least.  Darwin persuades Pirate Captain to enter Polly in the Scientist of the Year awards at the Royal Society in London; hilarious japes ensue, including a number of encounters with a rather terrifying Queen Victoria. 

The film is very entertaining viewing; the scale of the escapades builds satisfying over the course of the narrative, the plot is pleasingly outlandish and fantastical, and the script is very witty.  I do think that perhaps, similarly to The Muppets earlier this year, this is a film much more for adults than for children; there were a number of jokes and film references that would have gone way over the head of a ten year old, and even most teenagers. That being said, there were also jokes broad and visual enough to keep a five year old happy.  On the Aardman scale of merit, I’d put it between Chicken Run and Wererabbit – very funny at times but also sophisticated, just not quite reaching the dizzying heights of a Wallace and Gromit quite yet.

Kate Neilan