Sean's back at the Sharpe end after 10 years
As Sharpe returns to our TV screens this weekend,
Chris Bond talks to novelist Bernard Cornwell about his most famous creation.
WITHOUT wishing to incur the wrath of the lifestyle police, it's true to say there were only two things that would keep me out of the pub on an evening during my student days.
One was illness and the other was watching Sharpe – Sunday evenings on ITV, if my memory serves me correctly.
Essay deadlines could be extended with a bit of know-how, and a spot of cramming usually took care of exams.
But if you missed an episode of Sharpe that was it, hardly anyone had a video recorder and 10 years ago freeview boxes, and repeat viewings on digital channels, were little more than a twinkle in father technology's eye.
Of course, it wasn't just students who found themselves hooked on Sharpe's swashbuckling adventures.
The TV series gripped the nation and at its peak more than 10 million viewers tuned in to see Sean Bean performing heroics against the French.
Such was its popularity that last year, nearly a decade after the last episode was made, Sharpe was among the top 10 favourite ITV characters chosen by viewers over the last 50 years.
Like all good programmes it had authentic settings, a sublime cast and, above all, great storylines.
But long before he made it on to our TV screens, Sharpe had gained a huge following through Bernard Cornwell's best-selling books.
It is more than 25 years since Cornwell sat down and began writing about an English soldier called Richard Sharpe who rises through the ranks during the Napoleonic wars.
Since then he has written more than 20 books chronicling the heroics of rifleman Sharpe.
It has proved to be the highlight of a prolific career that includes The Starbuck Chronicles, set during the American Civil War, and his Grailquest trilogy.
It is for Sharpe, though, for which he is most renowned, and his fascination with history dates back to childhood.
"I was an avid consumer of historical novels, going back to my school days, and I couldn't imagine writing anything else," he says, speaking from his home in the United States.
He moved to the US with his American-born wife and it was there that he began writing the Sharpe books.
"They are a rip-off of Hornblower really. There were a lot of people writing historical novels at the time but I was amazed that no one was writing about the army," he says.
Although he admits he isn't sure exactly how the character came about.
"There were just two things I knew about him," he claims. "I knew he had come up through the ranks, as I felt that made him a more interesting character, and I knew he was a rifleman.
"I laboured under the misapprehension that this would give him more room to manoeuvre, when I probably should have made him a redcoat."
Cornwell is equally vague about why he gave him a Yorkshire connection – Sharpe flees from London at the age of 13 after murdering a man.
"It was a terrific choice, because then Sean Bean came along," he says.
Although Bean doesn't quite fit Cornwell's description, the author says he couldn't imagine another actor playing him.
"I think he is terrific. Okay, he doesn't have black hair but that doesn't matter and I think the highest compliment I can pay him is that when I'm writing Sharpe now, I hear Sean's voice, I don't hear the voice I originally heard," he says.
Cornwell has nothing but admiration for the TV series which returns with a two-part special, Sharpe's Challenge, this weekend.
"The TV series was excellent, it really was, and Pete Postlethwaite playing Hakeswill, he was much better than my Hakeswill," he says.
The 62-year-old author isn't the only one pleased to see Sharpe back on our screens.
Nearly a decade after Sean Bean last played the character who helped to kick-start his Hollywood career, the Sheffield-born actor says he was delighted to dust off his sword and get back in the saddle.
"Just doing the role and getting the opportunity to play that kind of leading character has always been something that has stayed with me, because it made such a huge impact on my life and my career.
"Sharpe was something that never really went away," says the 47-year-old.
"When we finished filming, it was the end of that era, culminating in the Battle of Waterloo, and I think we all felt that we had gone as far as we could at the time.
"But I think we always believed that there was a lot of potential still there and many more stories to be told – it was just a matter of when and how we were going to present that," he explains.
"When we started talking about Sharpe's Challenge I immediately felt thrilled and excited again. I had a gut feeling and I wanted to be back in the game as it were, especially with the same team. It was just like coming home."
Picking up where the story left off, in the wake of Napoleon's crushing defeat at Waterloo, Sharpe's Challenge begins with frightening tales of a blood-thirsty maharaja who is threatening British interests in India.
There is only ever one man for the job, of course, and as the life of a general's daughter and the fate of the British Empire hang in the balance, a nervous Wellington dispatches Sharpe to investigate, on what turns out to be his most dangerous mission to date.
"It was strange on the first day," says Bean. "I think, if you've played a character for a few years, you always think that you'll just drop back into it, but it took me a few days to acclimatise to the part."
For Cornwell, too, Sharpe is never far away from his thoughts, even when he's working on other books.
The key to the books' success, he believes, is in the storytelling, and he doesn't harbour any literary pretensions.
"I think there is a divide, even if it's blurred at the edges. Literature tells you something about the human condition but if you're writing a story, that's it. I don't think Sharpe has any insight into the human condition," he says.
He has nearly finished his latest Sharpe book, Sharpe's Fury, which is due to be published in October.
But he admits he has no idea how many more there will be.
"When I finished my 11th, I said 'that's it', but since then I've written another 10, so I have no idea how many more I'll do."
He has made his name writing historical novels, so is there a period of history he hasn't tackled yet that he would like to?
"I was incredibly struck by Juliet Barker's Agincourt, and I think something could come out of that," he says.
In the meantime, he's got the world's most famous rifleman to think about.
Sharpe's Challenge is on ITV1 on Sunday and Monday at 9pm.
21 April 2006