The cast of Red Dwarf are some of my favourite people on the planet but their careers outside of the show haven’t exactly set the world on fire, some have had more success than others but there’s nothing that I’d classify as essential viewing (sorry The Brittas Empire fans). That said, Craig Charles’ one stab at making a different sitcom probably doesn’t deserve to have been forgotten in the way it has been as it’s definitely an amiable enough affair, and nicely odd in places.
A Channel 4 sitcom from 1997 written by John Smith and Rob Sprackling (a writing team responsible for Mike Bassett: England Manager, but also Gnomeo & Juliet and The Queen’s Corgi), it starts off badly which may be why viewers tuned out as quickly as they apparently did as it uses “Frigging in the Rigging” as it’s theme tune, an innuendo laden song that in no way reflects the show that was to follow, other than that it’s about pirates and their nefarious ways. Or some of them have nefarious ways at least, as Charles’ Captain Butler is something of a coward and unsuited to a criminal life on the high seas and so spends most of his time trying to have as dull a life as possible.
The rest of his crew are in the mood for some good old fashioned pillaging however, and in the pilot when they spot a Spanish galleon who new shipmate Roger claims is filled with Inca gold they decide to rob it, even though Captain Butler does his best to persuade them not to with the line “Can’t we bugger off to Southport instead?” his crew mates aren’t up for such a thing, and so Butler devises a new plan where he’ll pretend to be a Spanish ship captain and while distracting the Spanish galleon’s crew his bunch of pirates will steal from them.
Of course it goes wrong when it turns out they Spanish crew are quite poor wine merchants, but excited at the prospect of getting very, very drunk for a long old time, Butler betrays his crew by telling them that the Spanish are gun runners who will kill all of them, but he’ll stay behind to keep them busy while his crew flee. Which they do, but not before sinking the Spanish boat, forcing Butler to head back to his own ship and reluctantly carry on a life of piracy.
Humour-wise, apart from Butler’s all round cowardice and desperation for a quiet life it has a vaguely surreal edge like when Butler in a classic bait and switch tells his crew about a dream he had which includes the line “Suddenly I was five years old”, and when he later talks to shipmate Cliff about existence the latter comments “Death is just another word to me, like marmoset”. It’s also sometimes silly, when we meet the Spanish crew their dialogue is overdubbed in a very daft fashion, while to persuade the Spanish Captain that he deserves a place on the boat Butler claims he’s actually Cervantes and tries to bluff his way through a retelling of Don Quixote.
If only it was that type of humour this would be a far more positive piece, but unfortunately there’s some pretty weak innuendo including a reference to Butler’s “Salty Semen” (with Charles then cupping his balls, just in case someone in the audience didn’t get the gag), Butler also goes on about genital mutilation in a very unfunny moment, and though it tries to be meta when it comes to the ship’s Indian chef Adeel (Sanjeev Bhaskar), with a joke about him knowingly stereotypically playing the sitar, it follows it up with some pretty bad curry jokes. Oh, and it also contains one of the worst puns ever committed to video, where Butler ends a sentence with “A yo-yo hoe and a bottle of rum” in a painfully contrived moment.
Other episodes see Captain Butler trying to hide from Admiral Nelson (played by Charles’ Red Dwarf co-star Robert Llewellyn), the crew getting stuck on a magical island and meeting a mermaid (and if you’ve ever wanted to see Craig Charles’ bare arse as he fucks some sand then a) you can here, and b) Hey, you won’t see any kink shaming on this site, so fill your boots!), the accidental kidnapping of a precocious child, the exploration of a possible haunting, and in the final episode Butler and co are captured and put on trial for piracy.
The first half of the season continues the theme of Butler trying to find a new life away from his crew, but the others stretch the concept and explore a few more interesting ideas, it still contains a little too much innuendo but it’s pleasingly idiotic in other places, with some of the humour occasionally reminiscent of Red Dwarf as Butler makes casual quips in the way Lister does, and while none of it is amazing it manages to be consistently mildly amusing.
Though not anywhere as good as the BBC’s much loved sci-fi series was at it’s best (series 1 – 4, then) Captain Butler definitely showed some potential, if it had been more of the same then there’d have been no need for a second series but if it had built upon it’s concept more, lent in to some of the more fantastical elements and cut out all of the innuendo then it would have definitely been something worth watching, and remembering too.