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Nov 15

Watch With Father #5: Swashbuckle

Posted on Sunday, November 15, 2015 by Paul in Watch With Father

“A band of naughty pirates took some jewels from me / I hid on board their pirate ship and sailed on out to sea / But they weren’t watching where they went and shipwrecked on the sand / I want to win my treasure back – will you lend me a hand…?”  This is the theme song for Swashbuckle, one of the catchiest on British TV.

While Kerwhizz apes the format of a game show, Swashbuckle actually is one.  That might seem like a very obvious thing to do – you’ve got a whole network to fill, surely there’s space for a game show.  But think about it further.  This is a channel whose target audience runs up age 7 at a push (after that, you’re officially CBBC’s problem).  Game shows with older children have been around for decades, but this age range is another matter.

There are a lot of challenges in designing a show like this, but consider two of the really obvious ones.  You need a game which is simple enough for the kids to play, yet also entertaining for the spectators.  And what do you do about the whole “winners and losers” aspect of game shows, if a typical contestant is going to be aged between five and seven?

Well, the answer to that last question is that you don’t have the kids compete against each other, you have them work as a team to play against the show.  The format works like this.  As the opening song explains, Gem has stowed away with a bunch of pirates who have stolen her jewels and before crashing onto a desert island.  On each show, four kids play games on Gem’s behalf against the pirates – Cook, Line and Captain Sinker – to try and win back five of her jewels.  In the first two rounds, if the kids win, they get a jewel back.  Then, in the final round, they have to recover all the remaining jewels from the shipwreck – which is basically a giant soft play structure – and get them back to Gem before the clock runs out.  So even if you lose both the first two rounds, you can still get all five jewels in the final.  If the team recover all five jewels, they win, Gem gives them each a prop jewel to take home, and one of the pirates walks the plank into “the Ship’s Mess”.

Do not think too hard about the back story.  Yes, there are some fairly gaping logic holes, not least “why did the pirates agree to this arrangement?”  But it’s a game show set-up, it doesn’t need to make sense.  Asking why exactly Captain Sinker was willing to put her hard-stolen jewels on the line in this curious “small children and plank-walking” arrangement is like asking about the inner life of the ghosts in Pacman.   It’s not the point.

It’s not too hard to imagine how the show ended up with a lot of these elements.  Quiz?  No, Kerwhizz already does questions pitched at this age range, and besides, a quiz pitched at very young kids is probably going to be uncomfortably competitive, and it isn’t a spectator sport.  So go physical, then.  But heck, we’re on CBeebies, we’re supposed to have an educational component.  Um… every game is designed to feature an element from the primary school PE curriculum?  Sure.  Pirate theme?  Pirates are good.  But hold on, pirates are baddies, so we’d better make them the opposition.  And since they’re going to have to compete against small children, we’d better make sure they’re ultimately non-threatening halfwits.

So far, so obvious.  You could have worked out all of that and still wound up with a very ordinary piece of television.  But Swashbuckle is great.

Part of it is that they’ve really committed to the whole pirate/desert island motif.  Strictly speaking, there’s nothing inherently pirate-y about most of these games, but boy, they’ve made sure that the theme pervades everything on the show, not just in arbitrary labelling, but in the whole set design.  And a big part of that is the characters.  Swashbuckle sensibly doesn’t ask much of its contestants in terms of talking on camera – even their introduction at the start of the show is dealt with largely in voice over.  Instead, it leaves Gem and the pirates to provide the personality, with a little story arc being set up in Gem and Sinker’s linking segments, and leading into a slapstick sketch in every episode between rounds 2 and 3.

This works brilliantly, because it’s well written and wonderfully cast.  Joseph Elliot and Richard David-Caine, as Cook and Line, are talented comedians, but also perfectly pitch the task of playing games against the child contestants.  Obviously, their role is more about calibrating the difficulty than actually trying to win, but it’s one thing to recognise that, and another to do it convincingly while in character as two giddily enthusiastic nitwits.  They’re so utterly inept as to avoid coming across as genuinely threatening, but they are also, without fail, just obstructive enough.  Ella Kenion, as Captain Sinker, is the relatively sensible one who’s stuck with shepherding two idiots.  She’s in full-on pantomime villain mode, exasperated by her useless henchmen, horrified whenever the kids seem to be winning, unable to conceal her glee whenever something actually goes right, and generally gloating about how sure she is to win.

Gem has the trickier task.  When I first saw the show, my immediate reaction was that she was overdoing it a bit.  I was wrong.  She’s playing the straight man to the three pirates, but they’re playing it broad, so she has to match them, which pretty much calls for a principal boy approach.  On top of that, she has to host the show, interact with the kids (usually while keeping eye contact with the camera), and guide them during the games.  In the absence of anyone else, she also has to act as referee by keeping the kids within the rules.  It’s a lot to juggle and she does it fantastically well.  According to her website, she’s still available for children’s parties.  I imagine they’re great.

You may be wondering: what happens if the team lose?  Is that actually possible?  When I first saw the show, I assumed that the answer had to be “no”.  The clock – represented as a tentacle crawling across the bottom of the screen – looked like it could surely be manipulated in post to fit whatever they chose to announce.  But this is the BBC, and if it is advertised as a game, then by golly, it will be a game.  Teams regularly lose one or other of the opening games and if it’s looking close, Gem does start giving out actual times on the clock.  Understandably, the pirates celebrate their wins with childlike glee, and Sinker gets to do a bit of gloating.  Usually, this seems to result in the jewels being left in easier places in the final round.

But even so, it comes as a surprise the first time you encounter an episode where the clock actually runs out.  There aren’t many of these episodes, but they do exist.  It clearly isn’t the result that the production team is hoping for, but they do want the games to be close enough to have some actual tension, and they’re prepared to live with the consequence that, once in a while, the kids will lose.  Outright losses are rare, but close calls are fairly common.  Needless to say, this makes for much better television.

When the kids lose, of course, the show can’t end with the usual “walk the plank” routine, so instead Gem congratulates the kids on how hard they’ve tried, and the pirates do another brief sketch to end the show – usually resulting in Sinker getting her comeuppance in some other way.  These sketches always call back to the main skit from earlier in the episode, so apparently somebody is writing one of these for every episode, even though they are hardly ever called upon.

This rather sums up the pride that seems to be taken in the show; they could easily have gotten away with a few generic segments to be wheeled out when they were needed, but nope.  It’s a show that feels like the work of people who know they’ve hit on something that the kids are going to remember fondly, and who want to live up to that.

Next time, the show that currently airs immediately after Swashbuckle – What’s the Big Idea?


Bring on the comments

  1. Susi O'Brien says:

    Best. Themetune. Ever.

  2. Luke says:

    Swashbuckle salute gets said about daily in our house…
    I never ordered any, but Gem also made and sold her own fudge through her website.

    I love these reviews!

  3. kelvingreen says:

    That theme tune is a bit goosebumpy.

  4. Al says:

    Literally the only thing about the show that annoys me at all is the fact that they switch from imperfect to perfect tense halfway through the third line. They weren’t watching where they were going, Gem!

    But yes. A wonderful show, particularly when you consider that it’s basically Fun House with the crap go-karts taken out, the competitive element excised and a narrative thread stapled on. A great updating and refining of that format.

  5. Niall says:

    It’s times like this I wish I had a band so I could make a punk version of that theme song.

    So many poor life decisions . . .

  6. Odessasteps says:

    If Bayley was a pirate…

  7. Reboot says:

    > But yes. A wonderful show, particularly when you consider that it’s basically Fun House with the crap go-karts taken out,

    Oh, come on. The Go-Karts were the things everyone wanted to do! (I believe the US original DID have crap go-karts, in the form of kids just running around with “Go-Karts” round their waists).

    [also, this sounds a bit more like Junior Crystal Maze to me, although I haven’t seen it.]

  8. Taibak says:

    Nah, in the US version, the kids usually pushed something around the track. I liked Ii was rubbish enough that I’m amazed the British version lasted as long as it did.

  9. Tracey says:

    Dear heavens, I had that theme song video on for less than a minute and it STILL earwormed me.

    hey ho, Swashbucklers go….

  10. Kate says:

    I’ve been watching this show with my niece and got quite fond of it, it does remind me very much of Funhouse, including a catchy theme tune, but with a bit more plot and the cast are just great.

    Though, there was one scene that made me rather uncomfortable and that was when Captain Sinker had her two henchmen crawling on the floor wearing dog masks while she shouted orders and talked about “training” them, I can’t believe nobody responsible realised they’d basically made a dominatrix scenario. I know there’s the classic thing about sneaking in adult humour that will go over the kids heads but that’s going too far, in my opinion.

  11. Simmo says:

    We’ve just got a new series with a new Captain down here in Australia. Not nearly as good as Sinker. Any reason why there’s a new Captain.

    My two boys love this show and we discovered it from here.

  12. Paul says:

    Simply to do with Ella Kenion’s availability for the shoot, I believe. She might be returning for another series.

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