Once more unto the breeches
DAVID BELCHER April 24 2006
Sharpe's Challenge ITV1, 9pm
In the nine years since Sean Bean last swashed his buckle as Richard Sharpe, Wellington's right-hand man in Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo, he has set his sights on conquering a far more pernicious and overwhelming force: Hollywood. True, Bean's bid to become a global movie star brought passable supporting roles in such blockbusters as Troy and Lord of the Rings. Sadly, it also encompassed one of the lamest movies of recent times, North Country, in which he played fifth banana to Charlize Theron, merely being called upon to stand about speaking meekly in an American accent and then looking resigned as his terminally ill wife (Frances McDormand) slowly and hammily wheezed towards her maker.
By 'eck. Standing still with a pained expression is not what Sean Bean - a meat-and-potatoes kinda Yorkshire bloke - does best. Which is why his fans will be applauding the fact that Sharpe's Challenge, filmed on the the long-lost British Empire's Indian frontier, last night (and indeed tonight) has him back at his two-fisted, all-action best, surviving bloody massacres in order to exact revenge.
Away from LA's straitjacket, Bean could once again concentrate on expelling his flat Sheffield vowel sounds from between gritted teeth - although it must be said that expensive Hollywood dentistry has provided him with gleaming, most un-Yorkshire-like gnashers. Once more, he demonstrated his mastery of riding horses, discharging muskets, biffing baddies and - steady on, ladies! - manfully filling taut military breeches. Sometimes, I declare, he did them all at once.
There were plenty of other things for him to do, too, as he battled an insurgent young maharajah in last night's opening instalment. He certainly had his work cut out to defeat the head of the maharajah's army, a renegade British officer played with pantomime brio by Toby Stephens. My hackles were raised when Toby's character spoke his first words on screen, galloping through a dusty wadi with his cavalry to opine that the problem with Britain's military governance of India in the early 1800s was "too many Scots and Irish … glib sorta fellas, but then they're not English." Instant pure evil, man. Later, he smoothly alternated between sneering, smiling cruelly and waggling his head cockily from side to side. Provincial theatre managers thinking ahead to filling their stalls from late November to January should book him as Abanazar now.
On top of that, our hero had to overcome a number of stereotypical obstacles laid before him by his own side. In Sharpe's Challenge, every British officer employed by the East India Company was a chuntering snob, a stammering twit and/or a purblind fool. Likewise, their NCOs tended towards being bullying racists. None of these fellas really liked the cut of Sharpe's jib - and if ever he has to depend on them in a tight spot, as could conceivably happen tonight - well, I'm not certain they're to be relied upon.
The women in Sharpe's Challenge didn't exactly rise from cliché's rut either. Lucy Brown played the kidnapped daughter of a British general with watery helplessness, floating around with a parasol and wearing a flimsy printed nightie-type thing that offered little resistance when her kidnapper (the insurgent young maharajah again) had a swift yank at its balconied frontage. Likewise, the maharajah's harem featured a dark-eyed trollop, played by Padma Lakshmi, aka Mrs Salman Rushdie, who - true to form for dark-eyed trollops in royal harems - was soon revealed to be in cahoots with the evil Toby Stephens.
At least Lakshmi brought an unexpected bonus to Sharpe's Challenge. It is with equal measures of shame and joy that I have to report she is an actress so wooden as to have trees worrying about their future industrial application. Hurrah! All this and lines such as "Colonel Sharpe has always had a certain gift for the impossible" to explain away his inexplicable survival. By golly, it's almost enough to make you want to tune in again to see whether he can single-handedly free the general's daughter from imprisonment and biff Toby Stephens into the middle of next week. Almost enough …