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Throwback Thursday: Want good historical fiction? Try the ‘Sharpe’ series

PHOTO PROVIDED Sean Bean stars as British rifleman Richard Sharpe in the episodic Sharpe series.

It has become something of a well-known phenomenon to expect whatever character Sean Bean is playing to die unexpectedly or violently — usually both.

Before he obtained this notoriety, though, he had a long-running role as Richard Sharpe in a historical fiction TV drama series produced for the ITV channel in Britain.

And Sharpe’s amount of plot armor is truly, incredibly astonishing — to the point where you could say that Bean has been making up for lost time by dying in everything since.

The Sharpe series, as it’s known, is based on a series of historical fiction novels written by Bernard Cornwell. The novels, and show, are set during the Napoleonic Wars throughout France and Spain in the early 1800s.

Despite being considered a TV series, the Sharpe programs are closer to a series of movies or a mini-series — each runs around an hour and a half long, and there are 14 in total, not including two more that were made much later as a sort of epilogue. These last two drew from the source material, but were not based on specific novels in the way most of the other episodes were.

I’m just going to refer to the individual entries as episodes for ease of reading, despite that not being a strictly correct term.

Over the course of the series, the viewer gets to experience the various escapades of Richard Sharpe, a fictional commoner who saves the life of a man while serving in India. That man would eventually become Lord Wellington — commander of the British troops during the Napoleonic Wars.

Lord Wellington-to-be takes an interest in Sharpe, and elevates him from the ranks, promoting him to Sergeant. Very early in the show, he is promoted further to Lieutenant, and given command of a small company of riflemen — rough troops, but very skilled.

Once he and his supporting cast is established, the show follows their assignments and adventures, usually doled out to them by one of Lord Wellington’s intelligence officers. Things rarely go to plan, and there are always side plots along the way.

The first two episodes are solid, but belie the future of the show a little. Major Hogan is the first intelligence officer to interact with Sharpe — and he is an absolute gem. He was supposed to be a series regular, but the actor ended up leaving, which resulted in his shoes being filled by subsequent characters.

Likewise, the actor for Lord Wellington changes after Sharpe’s Eagle — the name of the second episode — as the original actor had health issues. The replacement was Hugh Fraser, a name some may recognize from the old Agatha Christie Hercule Poirot series, where he starred as Captain Hastings.

The acting, throughout, is fantastic, especially the villains that Sharpe encounters along the way. One of the best is played by Pete Postlethwaite — another name some may recognize. Here, he plays an early nemesis of Sharpe’s, the diabolical Sergeant Obadiah Hakeswill, who returns from Sharpe’s past to torment him.

Hakeswill is an absolute monster of a person, and Postlethwaite’s portrayal of him is one for the ages.

That neatly segues to an important point about the Sharpe series.

It can be a bit dark.

Horrible things happen, and happen frequently.

There is a lot of swearing — although nothing too strong by today’s standards.

There’s a lot of up-close depictions of period-accurate medical triage (one vomit-inducing scene with maggots comes immediately to mind).

There’s a few attempted rapes.

None of it is overly gratuitous or done simply to be shocking — rather, I would argue that it is paying proper respect to the times and the scenarios in which the characters exist.

Put another way — if you have ever seen the historical fiction mini-series “North and South,” there is nothing worse in Sharpe.

Some of it can be a bit much with today’s eyes, but that’s one of the things that makes well-executed historical fiction an engaging watch.

And make no mistake: Sharpe is well-executed. While watching a few of the episodes in preparation for this column (and also just because I wanted to), I was preparing myself for it to not hold up, or my fond memories of it to just be nostalgia.

I’m very pleased to say that isn’t the case. On the contrary, it holds up admirably well for a low-budget piece from mid-90s British television. Some of the battles suffer from a lack of sufficient extras to portray scale effectively, but Sharpe is at its best in the skirmishes and intelligence missions anyway — the small-scale conflicts where Sharpe and his Chosen Men are tested, bloodied, and eventually triumph.

Female characters are somewhat few, although the ones who do appear have as many redeeming qualities as can be expected given both the era the show depicts and the era the show was filmed in.

An early standout is Assumpta Serna, who plays Comandante Teresa Moreno, one of the leaders of the Spanish guerillas in the struggle against French occupation of Spanish territory.

I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention the writing, which is very well done. The scripts flow well, and there’s a surprising amount of snark written in at points along the way.

Likewise, watching the show with an adult mind has made me realize some extra elements that were worked in to flesh out some side characters. Many of them are uncomplimentary, emphasizing the flaws inherent in the gentry of the time — a welcome detail given how much time is also spent with a lens on the flaws of the commoners.

Sharpe has quite a bit of nostalgia for me. Some of the episodes aired on The History Channel many moons ago — it had to be the late 90s or early 00s. I absolutely loved The History Channel growing up and frequently had it on in the background in my downtime… cause I’m a nerd.

The various Sharpe episodes are available for streaming on Britbox, but they’re old enough that they can be found posted on Youtube as well, albeit in varying video qualities.

There’s no formal rating for the episodes that I could find. As mentioned, the series as a whole has coarse language, coarse situations, and a whole lot of early 1800s battlefield injuries. There’s also a few sex scenes, although nothing too graphic. The best comparison I can make for the show’s content is that if you think of a cross between the aforementioned “North and South” and an average James Bond movie, you’re not too far off.

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Arianna McKee is Design Editor at The Express.

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