Sunday at 9.00pm on ITV1
A year after Wellington crushes Napoleon at Waterloo, dispatches from India tell of a local Maharaja, Khande Rao, who is threatening British interests there. Wellington calls upon Sharpe to investigate on what turns out to be his most dangerous mission to date.
The last scout sent — Sgt Pat Harper — has gone missing. Harper's last report suggests that the real power behind the young Maharaja is one Colonel Dodd, a renegade East India Company officer turned rogue. Dodd is in cahoots with Madhuvanthi, favourite consort to the late Maharaja, who now rules as Regent. The Maharaja has gathered into his impregnable fort a contingent of refugees from Napoleon's army — adventurers looking to make their fortunes in India.
But on arrival in India, Sharpe finds that Wellington hasn't painted the full picture. The situation is already far graver than he was led to believe; especially when Celia the daughter of General Burroughs "the commander of His Britannic Majesty's forces in the region) is kidnapped and held in the Maharaja's fort by his villainous henchman, Colonel Dodd.
Can Sharpe protect British interests while saving the life of the imperilled General's daughter?
After a hiatus of eight years, Sean Bean was ready to pick up his sword and get back on a horse for the role he immortalised on British TV. But he admits that it felt quite odd.
"It's quite a bizarre feeling bringing him back to life. Picking up a sword again and putting on the green jacket," Sean said. "But I really enjoyed filming Sharpe's Challenge. 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."
And how has Sharpe changed over the years?
"I think he has mellowed to some extent and become a lot calmer. 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's not lost any of his admirable qualities, his beliefs or values or fighting ability, but 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 wants to get on with the mission though get in there and get again out as quickly as possible."
Sean continues: "I didn't want to do another series of Sharpe, I thought we would achieve the best quality doing this two-parter. I wouldn't rule out doing another Sharpe though, especially with Tom Clegg; he's a great director for whom I have enormous admiration and faith in. He has such stamina, he never stops – a real live wire."
Filming in India was a memorable experience for Sean.
"India is definitely the best location we've filmed Sharpe 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 desert 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."
But did filming in India for two months pose any problems for Sean or the rest of the cast and crew?
"I was sick for a couple of days. Everyone was. It was a recurring thing but you just get over it. I was fed up with the food after a while. Then Fray Bentos sent me over a box of meat pies which was great!
"Being in Russia in the Crimea was a very vivid memory because it was tough out there. There was a great deal of camaraderie, we all stuck together. And when you think of all the great people who have appeared in the series – Paul Bettany, Pete Postlethwaite, Liz Hurley. But I think filming out in India is the most memorable of all. We've filmed with elephants and camels with pigs and dogs and goats running around, all the colours and noises and smells...
"None of this really caused us any problems though. Everyone is so chilled over there. I didn't get uptight about anything. You soon realise it will take a while to get things done but you just learn to go with the flow - it's real chill out time."
And despite the lengthy gap between Sharpe films Sean naturally slipped back into swashbuckling mode.
"I've done quite a lot of sword fighting in the meantime. On stage in Macbeth which featured a huge sword fight, then in Troy which also had loads and as Boromir in Lord of the Rings. Luckily I really enjoy it."
In fact Sean does all his own stunts in Sharpe's Challenge.
"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."
Daragh O'Malley admits that after fighting wars in Portugal, Spain and France he thought his days in uniform would end with the Battle of Waterloo.
"After five years filming in Russia and Turkey in very difficult conditions I didn't think I'd be back filming more Sharpe!"
"Despite that, all my memories of Sharpe are fond ones and although I did consider was I too old to go back it was a happy and exciting time for us all."
Daragh was returning to the role of Sgt Patrick Harper after more than eight years. Alongside Sean Bean he is the only regular cast member to have appeared in all the Sharpe films.
"It was bizarre but straight away we fell back into it. When I got out 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."
Speaking of his character Daragh explains: "When Sharpe gave up soldiering and became a farmer in France, Harper returned to Ireland. But he couldn't settle and was soon working undercover as a spy for the Duke of Wellington.
"It's like every boy's dream working on Sharpe. You never really grow up on that set. There is always some action shot to be filmed and we do most of it ourselves. There was one very fast scene on a horse that I had a double for but that was it.
"It takes a lot of energy to film those scenes and none of us is 25 anymore!"
"And it's all done so quickly. One take and that's your lot. You look around and the unit is packing up and moving onto the next location.
"The director Tom Clegg is as fast as a speeding bullet! He has directed all 31 hours of Sharpe and his enthusiasm is our inspiration to give everything we've got on screen."
Daragh had never visited India before, let alone filmed there, but says it is an experience that has changed his life.
"It's 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.
"One morning I went to see a film at 9am and there were 1600 people in there with me, all jumping up to join in the songs and get involved. They love the movies.
"We filmed in the desert sands of Western Jaipur where men on camels are living a life untouched by the last few centuries, in incredible palaces and fortresses, with pigs and goats and monkeys under our feet.
"Of all the places we've filmed Sharpe this is by far the greatest and it's probably the best film we've ever made. But then I think this is the role Sean is happiest in too. It's a big motion picture on a TV budget!"
Toby Stephens is just pleased that his character, William Dodd, in Sharpe's Challenge is a swordsman and not a dancer.
"I love all that swashbuckling stuff. I've done quite a lot of fight scenes in my time and I really enjoy them. As with dancing, sword fights are all about choreography. The irony is, I can do a complicated fight scene but I can't dance to save my life!
"Logically I should be able to do both but I suppose I'm just not as interested whereas if you put a sword in my hand I know what I'm doing. Dramatically, in both theatre and film, it is so important, as important in some instances as dialogue. So it is worthwhile working hard at it because when it works well it looks amazing.
"I grew up watching those old movies like the Three Musketeers and even the old Errol Flynn movies where you have these wonderful sword flights up and down stairs. In reality sword fights were brutal, horrible and only lasted seconds but we have stylised them for television."
Toby is no stranger to elaborate fight scenes having played Bond baddie Gustav Graves in Die Another Day.
But he says: "It's all about making these characters as different as possible. We see Dodd and Sharpe meet as younger men at the start of the film so we know the history to their relationship. I think the great thing about Dodd is that he has a sort of charm, an appeal. He's not just this horrible vicious man, he has a dry humour."
Toby was drawn to the character from the first reading of the script.
"It has everything that is required for Sharpe – a bit of melodrama, romance, fighting, but it is couched in well researched history and I was impressed by the script because yes, it is camp in parts but the history behind it is correct which I liked.
"The fact is British soldiers were frustrated. They were good soldiers but they were getting nowhere, whereas if you had money you could buy promotion. So many of them decided to go over to the other side, to fight for one prince or another, train up his army to fight against the East India Company and make ten times the money, get the women and live a wonderful life. There are many examples of soldiers doing this and even taking up a new religion, becoming Hindus or Muslims."
Describing his character Toby says: "He is ambitious and he has an axe to grind. He's fairly psychotic anyway but I think he feels very bitter about the way he has been treated by the British army."
"I think Dodd was a very good soldier who was kept in his place. He didn't have money and therefore couldn't get into the British Army so he ended up in the East India Company and even they managed to keep him down. What's great about playing a historically correct character like this is you can understand where they are coming from. You don't just play psychotic; you can see what made him like that and portray a complex personality."
Behind the scenes
Monday 24th April at 10.30pm on ITV3
ITV3's brand new and exclusive documentary Sharpe's Challenge ...Behind The Scenes features in-depth interviews with lead actor Sean Bean, the supporting cast and production crew, on location in India.
This candid documentary features stunning location footage from the majestic Jaigur fort, in the beautiful city of Jaipur. Sean Bean talks viewers through the history of the popular series, and reveals why he thinks audiences respond so favourably to the character of Sharpe. It is almost 10 years since Sean last visited the heroic role and he explains his feelings, as he dons the uniform once again. ITV3 explores why millions of women are so attracted to Sharpe, as Sean discusses the personal challenges he faced in the historic location.
The production team, set and costume designers discuss the pressures of working on such a large scale production, and the logistics of working between two principle locations placed over 350kms apart. Some days the costume department dressed in excess of 500 people and ITV3's cameras capture the hundreds of Indian extras who were recruited, trained and drilled to become British army soldiers by Richard Rutherford-Moore, Sharpe's resident military expert.
Only a handful of the cast and crew have been involved in all 15 of the Sharpe films. ITV3's fascinating documentary illustrates the strong bond which has developed amongst them, as they once more take on the roles which are part of ITV1's successful drama.