“Captain Jack” (1999) is a rather sweet, funny little movie starring Bob Hoskins as a renegade pleasure boat captain, Jack Armistead, who decides to honour one of the founding figures of the town of Whitby, North Yorkshire, by placing a commemorative plaque in the Arctic. It’s “loosely based on a true story”, according to the opening title. Patrick Malahide (using a North Yorkshire accent) has a small but very funny role as Mr. Lancing, a red-tape-loving bureaucrat with the Marine Safety Agency who is bound and determined to stop Jack from making his voyage.
Synopsis and spoilers follow, or scroll down to view the gallery:
The story opens with Jack bringing a group of tourists back from a tour of Whitby’s waterfront. He’s somewhat cantankerous and sees no need to suck up to tourists even if his livelihood depends on them. His boat, the Yorkshire Beauty, isn’t in the best shape either. Upon reaching the harbour, Jack manages to steal a group of schoolchildren away from their teacher as they’re in the process of learning about Captain Cook. He’d much rather tell them about the lesser-known Captain Scoresby, a whaling captain who sailed from Whitby to the Arctic in 1791. It’s Jack’s contention that Scoresby has never been sufficiently honoured for all he did for Whitby, with Cook getting most of the glory. We’re also introduced to a few other characters: Emmett (David Troughtman), a hapless and henpecked denizen of the local trailer park; Barbara (Maureen Lipman), the proprietress of said park and maybe-girlfriend of Jack; Phoebe (Anna Massey), an artist who loves to paint Jack’s boat; Andy Watts (Peter McDonald), a good-looking, young Australian drifter; and Tessa (Sadie Frost), the daughter of the local fish-and-chip shop owner, who has her eye on Andy. All of these characters are discontented with their lives in their own ways.
While visiting the local Society of Friends (Quakers) congregation, Jack is struck with inspiration. He’ll take his boat to the Arctic, following Scoresby’s route, and leave a brass plaque to commemorate him. Word quickly gets around about the voyage to all corners of Whitby, including the offices of the Coast Guard and the Marine Safety Agency and the ears of Mr. Lancing. He takes a certain amount of glee in speculating on how much Jack owes in fines on his boat, and that the Yorkshire Beauty will need to be certified seaworthy (by him!) before Jack can go anywhere. This is a man who really loves his job.
Mr. Lancing promptly appears at the Yorkshire Beauty’s dock to inspect the ship, announcing himself and his title with relish. Jack is not glad to see him but he attempts to be (superficially) pleasant. In a hilarious scene, Lancing goes over the ship in minute detail, enumerating such egregious safety violations as a too-small ship’s bell (“needs to be six inches in diameter”) and a ship’s whistle made in Denmark (“need a proper British whistle”) before confining the ship to the immediate boundaries of Whitby waters until the violations are fixed. Jack makes the mistake of referring to Lancing within his hearing as a “jumped-up…” (he doesn’t complete the thought). In retaliation, Lancing changes the original penalty to a restriction to harbour. After more bad-mouthing from Jack, he adds a requirement for the Yorkshire Beauty to undergo a dry dock inspection, becoming more joyous with each new penalty. As he leaves, Jack calls after him, “Give my regards to Mrs. Dracula.” He doesn’t get an extra violation for that.
Taking no heed of the Marine Safety Agency, Jack decides to depart for the Arctic right away to avoid being frozen in once he arrives. He arranges for the fish-and-chip shop to sponsor the plaque and provide the bulk of the ship’s provisions. He could use eleven crew members, but he gets Andy, Emmett, Phoebe, and Phoebe’s nagging sister Eunice (Gemma Jones) instead, none of whom have crewed a ship before. Once they’ve put to sea, they discover Tessa has stowed away in order to pursue Andy, who isn’t interested in her at all. They sneak out of the harbour, surrounded by fishing boats for camouflage. At first only Barbara, who’s stayed on shore, has any idea that they’ve gone and what their destination is.
Once the Coast Guard realizes that Jack’s familiar, somewhat decrepit red ship is no longer at its berth, Mr. Lancing is hot on Jack’s trail. He tries to get Barbara to tell him where Jack has gone… “Who?” she replies, innocently. In one of the funniest scenes in the movie, he also attempts to interrogate the Quaker congregation. He does start out trying to be nice. I won’t give away the dialogue, which is hilarious and only enhanced by Lancing’s increasing exasperation. “Well, thanks a bundle,” he finally says, leaving unsatisfied. The combined naval and air forces of several nations are put on the lookout for Jack’s ship.
In the meantime, Jack and his crew have various little adventures (which I won’t spoil) and do manage to reach the Arctic, played by the Isle of Skye. They leave the plaque, return, and are greeted as heroes by Whitby’s joyous populace. Mr. Lancing is also there, looking a bit out-of-place and serious amidst the revelry, though he does smile and try to be a good sport about it for a second or two. Each crew member is cheered as he or she disembarks, but Jack is greeted by Lancing, who recites the articles and chapters violated by his voyage. Jack amiably submits to arrest, insists on being handcuffed (to the cheers of the crowd), and is driven away. “I think I’ll explore the South Pole next,” he muses in voice-over. “By air, I hope,” replies Lancing (you must imagine this line in a North Yorkshire accent).
This was just a very sweet, cute, and funny little movie. Malahide’s role wasn’t large, but he did a lot with it and was frequently hilarious. By far the best parts are where he’s enumerating violations on Jack’s ship and when he tries to interrogate the Quakers. I did get the sense of a sort of Wile E. Coyote/Roadrunner thing between his character and Jack. Bob Hoskins and the rest of the supporting cast were also great, and the Whitby and Skye settings beautifully filmed. Recommended.