September 19th is “International Talk Like A Pirate Day”. It’s a parodic holiday, in that it’s only a bit of fun and not related to a historical event, a memorial, or a religious ritual. I’ve heard some controversy about the celebration from people who believe it glorifies violent crime. Those people are absolutely right. Piracy was and still is a violent crime, and something we really shouldn’t be celebrating. That said, I completely understand why the golden age of pirates is romanticized. The people in the stories, at least the glamourized versions, represent a bit of wish-fulfillment: live in a floating party house with your friends. Travel just about anywhere. Look cool even (or especially) when your hair is a mess. If you get to be sneaky and/or make things explode, so much the better.
I do love pirate movies, both the classics (check out The Crimson Pirate from 1952) and the stuff from my own lifetime (I make no apologies for actually enjoying the second and third Pirates of the Caribbean movies, although they’re full of flaws. Also, I honestly think that Muppet Treasure Island is one of the Muppets’ most underrated productions) In theory, I should love Talk Like A Pirate Day.
It bothers me, however, that when people refer to “pirate” voices, they forget that the voice originated with one man. Robert Newton had 52 acting credits to his name, but his most famous roles were playing Long John Silver in Disney’s “Treasure Island”, to which he returned in the spin-off television series “The Adventures Of Long John Silver”, and Blackbeard in “Blackbeard, The Pirate”. The voice he used for those characters was an exaggeration of his natural West Country accent from southwestern England, but he added a specific growling undertone that was all his.
Robert Newton changed the sound of an entire fictional archetype by embracing the weirdness of an entire genre and making it his own. Not many people in the entertainment industry can make that claim. In the spirit of the problematically romanticized horrible things for which this holiday stands, let it be said that Newton died from partying too hard. It’s the closest to an archetypal pirate death as any, besides drowning or hanging or being shot. He only played pirates during the last six years of his life, and in those six years, he forever altered the way we imagine our sea-faring freedom dreams.
Here’s to Robert Newton: drink up me hearties.