November 1, 2008
Colonel Richard Sharpe is back, but after 15 years and 16 episodes, he has finally lost his edge
Sean Bean as Richard Sharpe.
We fans of Sharpe do not get an easy ride. We do not get an easy ride at all.
"The stuff is risible!" Sharpe-detractors cry, from their glass-and-concrete studies in Islington, scattered with top-level brainy correspondence from Martin Amis, and Melvyn Bragg.
"A dour Yorkshireman with a predilection for exotic foreign locations, swashbuckling and borderline unconsensual sex with posh birds? Lieutenant-Colonel Richard Sharpe is little more than a Lidl-Flashman, as played by a minor farm-hand from Emmerdale," they are apt to say, scathingly. " Sharpe is whack. It totally sucks. We're going over to Lady Antonia Fraser's house to watch Little Dorrit instead."
And Sharpe fans could do little more than bleat, "But it's fun!" while looking ashamed of themselves. In the modern world, it's increasingly difficult to admit that, sometimes, you just want some unreconstructed bloke in period military uniform, slashed to the waist, repeatedly punching someone from a country with less socio-economic power in the face. It's not something you're proud of – but it is, nonetheless, a need.
And when that was what you wanted, that was what Sharpe gave you – over 15 faultless feature-length episodes from 1993 to 2006. Uniforms and fisticuffs. Total satisfaction guaranteed.
Alas, however, for the beleaguered Sharpe fan. For on its 16th episode – Sharpe's Peril – Sharpe has become, well, blunt. Although it's not a drama you would previously have claimed to have "magic", it's clear that it once did – for it is lost in Sharpe's Peril. All gone.
Bafflingly little seems to happen over its two leaden feature-length instalments. The direction is embarrassingly half-hearted – the native extras look bored, even when dead. The editing allows scenes to limp on for whole, aimless minutes. And, perhaps most fatally, there is very little Sean Bean in this most Sean Bean-reliant of shows. Oddly, we never seem to see his face. There are no close-ups of his manly, impassive, "Is-he-act-ing-or-is-he-just-think-ing-a
Instead, taking up both centre-stage, and the real drama of Sharpe's Peril, is Sergeant Patrick Harper (Daragh O'Malley), Sharpe's Irish sidekick. Harper is a curious sight from the get-go. While everyone else is in their best, Napoleonic-wars-era military gear, Harper is in a very fetching, but wholly incongruous, camel-coloured pea-coat. He looks as if he spends his down-time from Moghulera India in All Bar One, talking about last night's Peep Show.
Five minutes into Sharpe's Peril, Harper's big story-arc is laid out. He is currently suffering with kidney stones. He cannot urinate. In what will surely be up for the Best Exposition While Talking to a Body-Part Scene at the Television Awards, Harper tries to have a quiet wazz behind a tree.
"You do your duty now – flow like the River Liffey," he says to his malfunctioning penis, before collapsing against the tree in nonurinating agony.
Amazingly, for the rest of the first episode Harper's kidney stones are not mentioned again – engendering an almost unbearable sense of tension in the viewer. Particularly during Harper's horseback scenes. War, we know, is an unbearable agony. A horror show without pity. But still – a man enduring 60 miles, on a bouncing horse, without a widdle, is a step too far. They, notably, never tackled it in Platoon.
By contrast to Sharpe's surrealism and entropy, Consuming Passions pops with focus and energy. To mark 100 years of Mills & Boon, BBC Four could have made three straight documentaries on the subject, focusing on, say, the Edwardian origins of the Mills & Boon, its 1970s heyday and a modern analysis on how women's romantic and sexual fantasies have changed over the past century.
Instead, with a script from Emma Shameless Frost and some whizzy time-travel, they knock off all three facets in a single drama – with a scene in which Emilia Fox gets done in a library by her hunky 23-year-old toyboy, to boot. Daniel Mays – the thinking woman's Danny Dyer – plays Charles Boon, the company's working-class founder, who could do with putting a bit of romance into his own life.
Olivia Colman does a typically affecting turn as Elsie, a frustrated 1970s frump who ends up as a Mills & Boon author. And Emilia Fox, of course, is a 21st-century literature lecturer who gets done in the library by her 23-year-old toyboy. It's all wholly admirable – the kind of blue-sky thinking that's going to get us through this recession. We will all live happily ever after.
Sharpe's Peril, Sun, ITV1, 9pm; Consuming Passions: 100 Years of Mills & Boon, Sun, BBC Four, 9pm