Col Sharpe is all the raj.
The Daily Mail (London, England); 4/24/2006
Byline: PETER PATERSON
Sharpe's Challenge (ITV1);
THE news that the British Empire, for so long an unmentionable subject in public discourse, is to be reintroduced into the schools history curriculum gave an extra piquancy to the return last night of Bernard Cornwell's arch-imperialist warrior, Richard Sharpe.
In Sharpe's Challenge, the scene was India in the early 19th century, with Sean Bean's swashbuckling soldier recalled by the Duke of Wellington (Hugh Fraser) five years after their heroics at the Battle of Waterloo - and Sharpe's promotion to the rank of colonel - to deal with a rebellion by local maharajah Khande Rao (Karan Panthaky).
Of course, Sharpe is reluctant to return to action - true heroes always are.
And having settled down to farming in France, as he told the Duke, he was tired of being shot at.
But once he learns that his old comrade-in-arms, Sergeant Patrick Harper (Daragh O'Malley), has disappeared while gathering intelligence on Khande Rao, his duty is plain.
Slightly confusingly, however, when we first encountered Sharpe he was still a sergeant, the year was 1803, and he was at the fractious interface of relations between the Crown and the privatised rulers of British India, the East India Company, replete with its own army.
He was left for dead when Toby Stephens's William Dodd, a renegade East India Company colonel who'd become Khande Rao's military adviser, massacred the entire force at a Company outpost - rotten luck on poor Sharpe, who had only been visiting to collect some ammunition.
Dodd represents Sharpe's opposite, a soldier of fortune on the arrogant Flashman model, a cad and bounder versus the chivalrous working-class boy made good.
From this lamentable incident, the plot fast-forwarded 14 years to find Sharpe galloping alone around northern India looking for Harper, with an Irish song on the soundtrack reminding us of Richard the Lionheart's poet and musician Blondel playing songs under castle walls in search of his master.
And in another parallel with olden times, it wasn't long before the knightly Sharpe encountered a maiden in distress - Celia Burroughs (Lucy Brown), the daughter of a British general. Kidnapped by Colonel (now self-appointed General) Dodd, she was locked up in Khande Rao's impregnable fortress.
The action was dizzying, switching between Celia's attempts to protect her virtue from the evil Dodd to the camp of the British 3rd Army: thanks to the sickness of Celia's father the troops are now commanded by the craven and incompetent General Sir Henry Simmerson (Michael Cochrane).
There were bloodletting forays by the Indian native Lancers under Lt Mohan Singh (Alyy Khan), and Sharpe thrashed the bullying and marvellously ugly Sgt Shadrach Bickerstaff (Peter Hugo-Daly) for abusing a Hindu soldier.
By the end of the episode (the conclusion is shown tonight) Sharpe and Harper, posing as British army deserters, had infiltrated Khande Rao's fortress.
But they were in danger of the same fate as that of Celia's army escort, Captain Lawrence (the wellnamed Lex Shrapnel), whose decapitated head had already been returned to the British lines and placed in the lap of General Simmerson. They swiftly appreciated that it was not the ineffectual, underage Khande Rao, but Dodd and the princedom's glamorous Regent, Madhuvanthi (played by Salman Rushdie's wife, Padma Lakshmi), who were running the show.
And it was Dodd who, as a test of loyalty, ordered Sharpe to shoot his old friend to prove they were not British spies: at the fadeout, Harper was fervently saying his prayers.
SHARPE'S Challenge was well up to the standard of previous rollicking adventures in this occasional series, making a welcome change from the usual narrow subject range of drama on ITV1.
The Indian scenery is voluptuous, the gory battle scenes pull no punches, and the characters are sharply, if cartoonishly drawn, making it easy to tell the goodies from the baddies.
Cameo performances by Nicholas Blane as an effete East India Company major, Oliver Chris as his second-in-command gruesomely run through by Dodd's sword, and Thierry Hancisse's Waterloo veteran, now a mercenary in Khande Rao's army, all helped to keep the story humming along.
But the piece was let down by dialogue reminiscent of an amateur production of East Lynne.
Miss Lakshmi got the worst of it, at one point needling her lover, Dodd: 'And once you've made the plains run with English blood and ground them into the dust, what then, my love? Did I put Khande Rao on his father's throne for your ambition to fail you now?' There's really no answer to such questions.
COPYRIGHT 2006 Solo Syndication Limited