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A childhood friend recently rediscovered a photo from our 1976 Carnival in Benghazi, Libya. In the photo several of my school mates are dressed up as our Italian TV heroes, Lady Marianna and Sandokan. They look so sweet and ridiculous in their home made outfits complete with plastic pearls and swords. But in their minds they were real brave pirates and adventurous young ladies from the 19th century.
Lady Marianna, aka La Perla di Labuan (The Pearl of Labuan), was the granddaughter of an English lord living in India. She was such a romantic heroine, with her exotic 19th century Euro-Indian appearance, dressed in those beautiful saris and with a pearl on her forehead. Oh, we all dreamt to be her for a day, and to meet our Sandokan, the most handsome, courageous, gentleman pirate.
For me, the most beautiful and ‘authentic’ Lady Marianna was my classmate Ester (not in photo), with her long straight hair and thin frame. Well, to tell the truth Ester had black hair, olive skin and dark eyes, whilst our TV heroine was blond, pale skinned and blue eyed, but these details seemed irrelevant to me. Ester was the beauty that I, chubby and bespectacled, longed to be.
But why did we so want to be Lady Marianna and Sandokan?
In the weeks running up to Carnevale, Italian TV had broadcast Sandokan, an adaptation of the popular Italian children’s books written by Emilio Salgari in the 19th century. The beautiful young actress Carole André played La Perla di Labuan, while handsome Indian actor Kabir Bedi played Sandokan aka La Tigre di Mompracem (The Tiger of Mompracem). Sandokan was a pirate who reigned over the small island of Mompracem in the Indian Ocean between Malaysia and India, and fought the British invaders. Lady Marianna was, therefore, an enemy of Sandokan. Nevertheless, the two of them fell in love.
One of the things that made this TV series so popular was the fact that it was filmed in real locations rather than the studios of Cinecittà. Furthermore, it cast authentic local characters instead of the usual white Italians dressed up as natives with black make-up smeared all over their faces!
The author of Sandokan, Emilio Salgari (1862-1911), wrote many children’s adventure books usually set in far away exotic lands. Strangely, he never actually travelled abroad himself, using his local library to inform himself about the countries that he set his stories in. However, according to modern scholars, the geographical and historical backgrounds described by Salgari are very accurate. Besides Sandokan, the most popular of his heroes was Il Corsaro Nero (The Black Corsair), a character dearly loved by my two elder brothers who used to leap off their beds with plastic swords in their hands shouting “All’arrembaggio!” (“Board the enemy ship!”)