HE'S BACK: Sean BeanSEAN Bean's buckle is swashed. After a nine-year absence, he's back in the saddle and ready for a fight. Sharpe's Challenge (ITV1, Sunday and Monday, 9pm) sees him return to the role of Richard Sharpe for the first time since May 1997, having previously starred in five series of Sharpe adventure films.
"It's quite a bizarre feeling bringing him back to life, picking up a sword again and putting on the green jacket," says the Yorkshire-born star about the role that originally sent him on his way to Hollywood.
The new two-part story was filmed in India, where Colonel Sharpe investigates what turns out to be his most dangerous mission to date, as British interests find themselves under a grave threat.
"I really enjoyed filming Sharpe's Challenge," adds Sean, 47. "I think it's probably the best we've done because of the nature of the film and because we were so unrestrained filming in India. You don't often see these kind of panoramas on TV. It's got great scale to it, a big budget and some fantastic characters."
The last Sharpe story involved the Battle of Waterloo. "If felt like the natural conclusion for that particular group of Sharpe films but I always thought that one day we would get together to make more.
"I needed a few years to try different things, as did other members of cast and crew. So that's what we did. We all went off in different directions - but I was always excited by the prospect of getting back together again."
And what of Sharpe himself? "I think he has mellowed to some extent," explains Sean. "He's a farmer now and that's how he wants to live his life. He's been shot at more times than most and he's very fortunate to still be walking around alive. He's reluctant to go back to soldiering.
"He is a reluctant warrior when we find him at the beginning of the film. His loyalty gets the better of him, though, and he accepts his duty."
He continues: "I didn't want to do another series of Sharpe. I thought we would achieve the best quality through doing this two-parter. But I wouldn't rule out doing another Sharpe.
"India is definitely the best location we've filmed in. It's an extraordinary place, magical. I've filmed all over the world but I've never experienced anything like this before - the people, the scenery, the animals and architecture. We've filmed at huge fortresses set into hillsides, amazing palaces in the midst of squalor and poverty, in the deserts surrounded by mountains. I've found it all fascinating.
"And the Indian people have been so helpful in every way. Considering they are people with so little of their own, they are so positive and optimistic with their outlook on life. They've really got something going for them, some sort of spirituality, a set of beliefs that enables them to be so affable and cheerful."
The return to swashbuckling wasn't too difficult. "I've done quite a lot of sword fighting in the meantime. On stage in Macbeth, then in Troy - and as Boromir in Lord of the Rings. Luckily, I really enjoy it."
Sean does all his own stunts. "There's nothing in the film I haven't done myself and I think it suits the character. I wouldn't want people thinking I didn't actually do them. That's not very Richard Sharpe.
"Most of the stunts aren't dangerous, one or two potentially could be - but whereas some people won't do anything, I love all that running around, duelling and scrapping."
He was also glad to be back in the saddle. "In Lord of the Rings I did a bit of riding, but mostly just plodding on to set. I hadn't cantered or galloped for about eight years. I went to a farm for some practice and thought I'd fall off - but it is just like riding a bike. I remembered where all the gears were, and the brakes! It felt comfortable, which I was really relieved about as I have a lot of riding to do in this film."
More than 4,000 extras were used during filming with over 15,000 servings of curry eaten during the location shooting. "I was fed up with the food after a while," confesses Sean. "Then Fray Bentos sent me over a box of meat pies, which was great." Co-star Daragh O'Malley also returns as Sharpe's best friend Sgt Patrick Harper.
"It was bizarre but straight away we fell back into it," he says. "When I got our of the car at the read through and saw Sean for the first time in nearly nine years, he just said, `Alright Daragh,' and that time apart was eclipsed.
"India is a different universe. In eight weeks there, I never saw anybody get angry or heard anyone raise their voice. Despite the extremes of devastating poverty and wealth, I didn't meet an Indian who didn't smile back at me, even if it was from the gutter."