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'Sharpe' - the Television Action-Drama Films

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The Sharpe Novels | Sharpe - the Television Action-Drama Films

A man wearing the uniform of 95th Rifles, as seen in Sharpe

In the late 1980s a series of television action-drama films, Sharpe, based on author Bernard Cornwell's Sharpe novels was commissioned for television. The end result was a TV series which consisted of 14 episodes of feature length two-hour action-drama films. Due to various reasons, the first film was not televised until 1992.

The Making of a Television Hero

In 1986 Andy Allan, director of programmes at Central Television, read Sharpe's Eagle. Impressed by it, he recommended it to Muir Sunderland, also director of programmes. Allan had previously worked with Bernard Cornwell, and was keen that Central should be the broadcaster for a production of the Sharpe series. After reading the book, Sunderland agreed: Sharpe would make a great TV series. Not only Sharpe's Eagle, but any subsequent Sharpe books.

Central's head of drama, Ted Childs, had an interest in military history and he too believed Sharpe had the potential to be a popular drama. However, he had reservations about the authentic aspect and whether it could be made on a television budget. Part of the problem was the scale of the battles. Regiments of up to 600 soldiers and 40 officers, and in some cases, 40,000 soldiers were quoted in the books. The first thing they would need to do is reduce that to a more manageable number.

At that time, the cost of making good quality TV dramas was around £600,000 per hour; it was obvious Sharpe was going to cost more. It was decided that focusing on Sharpe's activities behind enemy lines and small battles, rather than the large-scale battles, would cut costs. Sunderland also suggested using production partners who could contribute their own money would further cut costs. Central agreed to give it a try.


Eoghan Harris was the first screenwriter to be commissioned to write the scripts adapted from the Sharpe novels. Bernard Cornwell hastily storylined Sharpe's Rifles to set the scene for the whole series. Eoghan set to work on this book along with Sharpe's Eagle while Charles Wood worked on the adaptation of Sharpe's Company which was already in print. Other screenwriters were Colin MacDonald, Nigel Kneale, Patrick Harbinson and Russel Lewis.

Production, Costume and Set Designers

Producer Kenny McBain, who had previously produced Inspector Morse and Boon, was hired to get the filming started. McBain and Sunderland travelled to Spain, visiting the sites where the actual battles had taken place, and putting together a budget.

Award-winning costume designer John Mollo, whose costumes included those from Gandhi and Star Wars, was asked to prepare a list of costume necessities and a budget. Andrew Mollo, John's brother, a production designer, was already drawing up plans for the sets.

Sunderland had succeeded in obtaining a cash injection, a promise of £500,000 from a Spanish television company. He presented this and the budgets package to Central TV. Unfortunately, Central felt the budget was still too high, and the production of Sharpe was put on hold. Then there was another blow: Kenny McBain died of cancer, and all dreams of making Sharpe died with him, or so it seemed.

The change that made filming possible was the coming down of The Iron Curtain, and the rumours that filming was cheap behind it. However, Sunderland still had to find a producer willing to take the risk of filming Sharpe, which was effectively feature films on a TV budget in unfamiliar cultures and landscapes, where even an electricity supply was not guaranteed. Sunderland persuaded Malcolm Craddock, an experienced producer and long-standing friend, to go into partnership with him to produce Sharpe.

Filming Locations

The search for where to film Sharpe began. After travelling to parts of the Czech Republic and the former Yugoslavia and finding them unsuitable in location, personnel or price, Sunderland and Craddock returned to England. On the advice of Richard Creasey, then head of features at Central, they set out on their travels again, this time to the Soviet Union. Here they found what they were looking for in terms of suitable locations and personnel in the from of the Anglo-Soviet Creative Association, which had established cultural links with Britain and all at an affordable price.

The majority of the locations for filming the Sharpe series were in the Ukraine, Turkey and Portugal, often in diverse weather conditions. However, some UK locations were also used. In Sharpe's Regiment when Sharpe and Harper go to Chelmsford barracks, the filming location was at Tilbury Fort in Essex.


Dinny Powell, stunt co-ordinator and horse handler, hired a team of 11 Russian stuntmen, who were also experienced horsemen. Powell was so impressed by their authentic stunts of falling, jumping and going through fire to make the scenes look realistic, as well as fitting in the 'purse' of the film's budget, that he contracted them as part of the permanent crew. The stuntmen joined the rest of the Sharpe entourage and travelled to the various locations.

The stuntmen were skilled and courageous, but they were not reckless. When scenes called for stunts that were too dangerous, dummies were used.

Repeat Filming

One way of saving money on the tight budget was the occasional use of the repeating of a scene. This can be seen most clearly in a battle near the end of Sharpe's Siege, when the same piece of film is seen as least three times.

Military Adviser

Michael 'Rifleman' Moore was the production team's military and historical adviser. Moore had been interested in military memorabilia since his childhood. At the age of 15 he tried to join the 33rd Foot, coincidentally Sharpe's first Regiment. Moore was advised to re-apply when he was 16 years old, but in the meantime he was involved in a motorcycle accident. Joining the 33rd was no longer an option as he was deemed unfit.

That wasn't an end to his soldiering ambitions. He joined the Napoleonic Association who re-enact the battles of the Napoleonic War. Moore's expertise came from more than 20 years as a re-enactor. In some of the films, including Sharpe's Battle, Moore can be clearly seen playing a rifleman as one of the extras. Other members of Napoleonic Association were also extras on the films.

The Battles

There's going to be a battle here tomorrow. You'll fight in it, maybe even die in it. But you won't see it. There's a lot of smoke in a battle. Our cannon, their cannon. Our shot, their shell. Our volleys, their volleys. You don't see a battle, you hear it. Black powder blasting by the ton on all sides. Black smoke blinding you and choking you.
- Calton, from Sharpe's Eagle

In reality, of every 20 soldiers who died in battle, only one death was the direct result of enemy fire. The remaining 19 were attributed to exhaustion, heat-stroke or the many illnesses prevalent at that time.

Outlining the Films

While Wellington was planning the battles to win the war, Sharpe was usually fighting and winning the smaller battles, often behind enemy lines. There was nearly always a double-agent for Sharpe to uncover, before he joined the main battle.

Although the TV series is based on the Sharpe novels, they deviate in various ways including the way in which Sharpe saves Wellesley's life. The following includes just some of the differences between the novels and the TV series set during the later 18th to early 19th Century, Napoleonic Peninsular wars.

In some circumstances the novels are more true to the reality of the battles of the time. For instance, the horses, used by the cavalry were often the victims of attack in order to dismount the rider and make him an easier target to kill. The attacks and injuries to the horses may have made good warfare, and helped to win battles, however, they wouldn't make good television viewing.

Richard Sharpe

Sean Bean, who played Richard Sharpe, was offered the role just four days before filming begun in Russia. The original actor cast for the part of Sharpe was Paul McGann, who had to pull out after injuring his leg.

Sharpe was just another sergeant in King George's army until he saved Sir Arthur Wellesley's life. An event that would change the course of Sharpe's life. Wellesley fell from his horse in front of Sharpe while being chased by three French dragoons. Sharpe killed all three of them and helped Wellesley to his feet. Wellesley showed his gratitude to Sharpe with the following words:

You did me a damn good turn. Now I'm going to do you a damn bad one. I'm giving you a field commission. From this moment on, you're a lieutenant in the 95th.

Sharpe is constantly accused by other officers of not being a gentleman, due to him being raised from the ranks and therefore not being of 'good breeding'. However, he shows he is a gentleman where ladies are concerned. In Sharpe's Siege, while he is having a drink with Jane, a nearby group of officers, including Colonel Bampfylde (played by Christopher Villiers), behave in a rowdy fashion. Sharpe requests that they quieten down, and when Colonel Bampfylde loudly insults and uses a profanity to a one-armed male waiter, Sharpe responds with: 'Sir! There are ladies present, so I would have thought there would be gentlemen present also.'

Bean is known for performing his own stunts. Although the sword fights are carefully choreographed, Bean's previous experience of studying swordplay at RADA and his two awards for fencing were invaluable for making his sword fights look authentic. He also attended a boxing club when he was 15 years old. However, Bean was not as confident on the back of a horse. In a scene in Sharpe's Honour, Sharpe, with La Maquesea, played by Alice Krige seated behind him, is riding across a ford when they both slip off of the horse. Although this was not in the script, they decided it should be used.

The Main Characters

The characteristics of the characters in the television films are basically much the same as Cornwell portrayed them in the books. Among Sharpe's enemies is Sir Henry Simerson, played by Michael Cochrane. Simmerson is the same cowardly tyrant. His disgust and contempt for Sharpe, and Simmerson's resentment of Sharpe's rise from the ranks can be seen in Simmerson's facial expressions, and heard in his grunts.

The viewer gets to see the scar-necked twitching of Sergeant Hakeswill, played by Pete Postlewaite. Hakeswill's sadistic leadership, and taunting of the men in his command, then his sudden change to the perfect Sergeant at the appearance of an officer can be witnessed.

Sir Arthur Wellesley/Lord Wellington

Sir Arthur Wellesley, later promoted to Lord Wellington, was played by David Troughton in the first three films and Hugh Fraser in the rest. The main thing both actors had in common was the time spent in the make-up department having their noses enlarged and shaped to the dimension of Wellington's distinguished nose.

In reality there would have been a few ranks between Sharpe and Lord Wellington. To overcome this, Cornwell used intelligence officers (spies) as go-betweens to enable Sharpe and Wellington to interact personally. The intelligence officers often shadowed Sharpe on his missions behind enemy lines. There were four throughout the series. As each one left, another bringing his own personality stepped into their shoes.

Intelligence Officers

Major Michael Hogan, played by Brian Cox. The middle-aged snuff-taking Hogan was the first of the intelligence officers, and helped Sharpe in his new role as an officer.

Major Nairn, played by Michael Byrne. Taking over from Hogan, Nairn was a more serious and grave character, who - although he supported and respected Sharpe - disapproved of his stubbornness.

Major Mungo Munro, played by Hugh Ross. Nairn's replacement was a contrasting character. Munro was humorous and flamboyant and being Scottish, he sometimes wore tartan and had a passion for the pipes.

Major-General Ross, played by James Laurenson. The last intelligence officer, Sharpe and Ross, become close friends; Ross gives away the bride at Sharpe's wedding to Jane.

The Chosen Men

'Chosen Man' is an early form of the rank lance-corporal in the British army. In reality, these men were given command of a small unit (usually eight to ten men) and often rose to the more senior title of Non-Commissioned Officer (NCO). In the Sharpe TV films they were a group of misfits and criminals who were crack shot riflemen, and are fiercely loyal to each other, and most of all, to Sharpe.

Sergeant Patrick Harper, played by Daragh O'Malley. Despite his original hostility towards Sharpe, for not being a 'proper officer' - which extended to Harper leading an attempted mutiny against Sharpe - the huge Irishman soon becomes Sharpe's best friend, protector and confidant.

Harper's favoured weapon is a seven-barrel volley gun, given to him by Sharpe. Harper is the only one of the Chosen Men to have the strength to handle the recoil of the massive gun. Harper acts tough when he needs to, but he's a bit of a softie at heart.

Harper sometimes finds it difficult to see where his loyalties should lie: with the British who have his homeland under occupation, or Ireland, his native land. He decides his true loyalties are to Sharpe and the Chosen Men.

O'Malley was the first actor to be cast, as Sgt Patrick Harper, while the Sharpe project was still in its early stages, and he saw it through most of the stops, starts and problems. O'Malley had bumped into McBain in a pub in Dublin; they knew each other from their drama school days. McBain had arranged to meet Harris in the pub to discuss casting for Sharpe. While he waited, he caught up on old times with O'Malley. McBain told him about Sharpe. He had already told O'Malley that he was too young for the part of Harper when Harris joined them; Harris took one look at O'Malley and declared he'd be perfect in the role of Harper, and so the first role was filled.

Rifleman Daniel Hagman, played by John Tams, was a Cheshire poacher who, when given the choice of prison or the army, chose the army. His experience as a poacher gives Hagman a distinct advantage as a skirmisher and earns him the title of crack marksman, the best shot of the Chosen Men. As the oldest of the Chosen Men he is often seen as a father figure with a calming influence on the younger men. His popular remedy for injuries is to treat them with vinegar and brown paper.

Tams was involved in the making and composing of the music for the films. He can often be found singing or playing an instrument; in some scenes Hagman is seen playing a fiddle1, which is one of the few instruments Tams does not play in real life.

Rifleman Francis Cooper, played by Michael Mears, is a former thief and pickpocket, who grew up in the slums of London. He chose the army as the lesser of two evils when a magistrate let him choose between jail or the army.

He's got a good sense of humour and is quick-witted, as well as being a good shot with his rifle. Cooper's last appearance is in Sharpe's Gold

Rifleman Harris, (Harris has no first name) played by Jason Salkey, is the best educated of the Chosen Men. He can read and write, and is fluent in French. This makes him invaluable when enemy communications are captured: but he can also crack codes and repair shoes.

When Sharpe asks Harris what he did before he joined the army Harris replies, 'I was a Courtier to Lord Bacchus and an unremitting debtor', which Sharpe translated to mean that he was rogue and a wastrel (though Harris is not a snob, and gets on well with the other Chosen Men, particularly Hagman).

Rifleman Isaiah Tongue, played by Paul Trussell, is a morose individual prone to quoting scripture (or what passes for scripture among the Chosen Men). Like Sharpe, Tongue is unsure of his birth details, and spent his life in one institution or another, the army now being his family.

Tongue mysteriously disappears after Sharpe's Eagle. Although we don't see him injured or killed, he is never seen or mentioned again.

Rifleman Ben Perkins, played by Lyndon Davies, is the youngest of the Chosen Men. Originally the company standard bearer (flag carrier), Sharpe makes him a Chosen Man after ambush in Sharpe's Rifles when a French chasseur with Sharpe in his sights and is promptly shot by young Ben.

Perkins is the first of the Chosen Men to die on screen in Sharpe's Battle. He is shot by a renegade soldier from the Royal Irish Company. Harper wastes no time in avenging Perkin's death.

Ramona, Harper's Woman

Harper's woman, known as Isabella in the novels, has her named changed to Ramona, played by Diana Perez, in the films. Ramona is a Portuguese hanger-on, who joined the family section of the English regiment camp sometime ago; she and Harper built up a relationship and had a baby son, Patrick, out of wedlock.

Harper confides to Sharpe that, in his heart, he wants to 'make an honest woman' of Ramona, but he is worried about possible animosity from his countrymen and his mother, if he takes a Portuguese wife home. Sharpe confides this to Father Curtis, played by John Kavanagh, and Irish priest, in Sharpe's Sword.

After a battle, as Harper lies wounded, Father Curtis reads him the last rites. 'Am I going to die this time, Father?', Harper asks. 'Yes, my son', answers Father Curtis gravely. Curtis then asks, 'Have you any last wishes?', to which Harper replies with, 'I wish I had married Ramona, Father'. With a smile, Father Curtis tells Harper, 'I can grant you that before you go.'

Ramona is quickly bought to his side, and their marriage vows are hastily spoken. Then Father Curtis says, 'Now, get up and kiss the bride.' A puzzled Harper replies, 'I thought you said I was going to die, Father.' To the laughter of the Chosen Men, who had by now gathered around, Father Curtis says knowingly, 'We're all going to die, Patrick.' To the cheers of the gathered crowd, Harper kisses his bride.

Captain William Frederickson

Among those Sharpe considers as his friends is Captain William Frederickson (Sweet William), played by Philip Whitchurch. Frederickson's appearance is changed a little from the description in the novels.

As in the novels, Frederickson's appearance is that of a frightful battle-scarred soldier. He has false teeth and an eye-patch which is removed to reveal a pupil-less eye. He also has a permanent smile (thanks to a musket ball breaking his jaw) and a horsehair wig.

Captain Frederickson's 60th Rifles detachment is the first command Sharpe is given after he is promoted to Major Sharpe in Sharpe's Enemy. Frederickson is a career soldier, and, like Sharpe, is astute and cunning.

Sharpe's first words to Frederickson are, 'Your men are dirty and scruffy and a damn disgrace'. Frederickson defends his men, and clarifies his priorities with, 'Men are dirty, sir. Rifles are clean'.

Sharpe goes on to ask Frederickson, 'Do you know what makes a good soldier, Captain Frederickson?'. With that ever-present smile, Frederickson replies, 'Yes, sir, keeping his mouth shut when he's asked damn fool questions by a superior officer, sir'.

Sharpe's Wives, Lovers and Other Women

Sharpe is married twice throughout the films, though only one marriage is shown on screen. He also has various lovers and a couple of would-be lovers that he turns down. He spends his retirement living with his mistress.

Commandante Teresa Moreno

Commandante Teresa Moreno, played by Spanish actress Assumpta Serna, is the commander of the partisans. Assumpta researched a real heroine from the era, Agustina of Aragón, and based her character on her. After witnessing some of the problems Sharpe has with his men in Sharpe's Rifles, Teresa offers him these words of wisdom in leadership:

We have two ears and only one mouth. So a good leader will listen twice as much as he shouts.

The relationship between Commandante Teresa (also known as the Needle) and Sharpe grows romantically. She becomes Sharpe's first wife and they have a daughter, Antonia. Teresa appears in the following three films, until Sergeant Hakeswill murders her in Sharpe's Enemy.

Lady Isabella Farthingale

Lady Isabella Farthingale is played by Elizabeth Hurley and is a former prostitute and wife of Colonel Sir Augustus Farthingdale, played by Jeremy Child. Sharpe has a brief affair with Isabella when he rescues her from the clutches of a group of deserters who have kidnapped her. Sir Augustus did not know when he acquired his pretty young wife that she had been a prostitute. Sharpe, as a former client, he uses this knowledge to get his own way with Sir Augustus.

Jane Gibbons

Jane Gibbons is played by Abigail Cruttenden2. As a niece of Simmerson, she puts herself at risk of a beating from her uncle by helping Sharpe and Harper escape after they discover a scam to auction recruited men in which Simmerson is involved, in Sharpe's Regiment. Sharpe promises Jane he will marry her to protect her from her sadistic uncle and save her from an impending forced marriage to Colonel Girdwood.

However, it is a marriage destined not to last. When Sharpe breaks a promise to Jane, she leaves him, accompanied and encouraged by Lady Molly Spindacre, played by Connie Hyde. They travel to London, where Jane withdraws all of Sharpe's money from the bank.

It's not long before Jane finds herself another man; she has an affair with John Rossendale, played by Alexis Denisof. Sharpe accepts losing his wife, but he wants his money back. This is witnessed in the encounters with Rossendale and Jane in the remainder of the films.

Lucille Dubert

Sharpe's first encounter with Lucille3, played by Cecile Paoli, is when she shoots him in the leg with a Blunderbuss loaded with nails. Sharpe, now a fugitive, and Frederickson had entered the farm-home Lucille shared with her recently-murdered brother, in Normandy, France. With the help of Harper and Frederickson, Sharpe had escaped from custody to clear his name; Lucille's late brother was implicated in the case, a framing of Sharpe by Ducos.

As Sharpe lies in bed recovering from his injuries, a relationship grows between Lucille, a widow, and Frederickson who, with the war over, is looking for a wife to settle down with. Frederickson leaves to search for information about Ducos, while Lucille continues to tend to Sharpe, who drifts in and out of consciousness, finally making a recovery after ten days.

While they await Frederickson's return, Sharpe makes himself useful doing odd-jobs around the farm. He and Lucille grow close, though he remains faithful to Jane, his estranged wife, until he hears that Jane is sharing another man's bed, and then Sharpe lets his passion for Lucille loose.

Frederickson returns to the farm in high spirits, and with news of Ducos; his mood quickly changes when he discovers Sharpe had been sharing Lucille's bed. It effectively puts an end to their five-year friendship. In a bitter row later, outside in the farmyard, Frederickson spits:

Damn you Sharpe! God damn you! How many women do you want? I hope she breaks your bloody heart!

They continue the mission to clear Sharpe's name. Sharpe then returns to Lucille, and remains with her until she dies.

The Sharpe Theme Song

O'er the hills and o'er the main
Through Flanders, Portugal and Spain
King George commands and we obey
Over the hills and far away.

- Chorus from the Sharpe TV theme song sung by John Tams.

The music for the films was composed by John Tams, who also plays Rifleman Hagman and Dominic Muldowney. Tams had years of experience of traditional folk singing and plays various different musical instruments, though not the fiddle, which is played by Hagman in some of the films. Muldowney was a classical composer with various television and film theme tunes to his credit. The combination of traditional and classical music was described by Tams as 'sweet and sour'.

Tams rewrote the lyrics for the theme tune Over the Hills and Far Away, a soldier's folk song dating back to at least the early 1700s at the time of Queen Anne. The lyrics of the earliest known version of Over the Hills and Far Away were written by George Farquhar for his play The Recruiting Officer in 1706.

Different verses of Over the Hills and Far Away, subtly representing parts of the film, are sung by Tams at the end of some of the films before the chorus. For instance, Rifleman Perkins dies in Sharpe's Battle the verse at the end goes:

If I should fall to rise no more
As many comrades did before,
Ask the pipes and drums to play
Over the hills and far away

Other verses are sung in the films, mostly, but not exclusively by Tams. These included this verse, sung by Tams in Sharpe's Waterloo.

Old Wellington they scratched his bum
They says, Boney lad, thee's had thee fun
My riflemen will win the day
Over the hills and far away

A CD of the songs sung in Sharpe was released, it included: 'Gentleman Soldier', 'Rogue's March', 'The Ramblin' Soldier', 'The Forlorn Hope' and of course, 'Over The Hills And Far Away'.

The Sharpe Films

In 1992, the first three films of the action-drama Sharpe were set in the Peninsular War. Many of the battles were based on real events were aired on television. Over the following few years a further 11 were aired. (The first two shown as two-parter).

  • Sharpe's Rifles
  • Sharpe's Eagle
  • Sharpe's Company
  • Sharpe's Enemy
  • Sharpe's Honour
  • Sharpe's Gold
  • Sharpe's Battle
  • Sharpe's Sword
  • Sharpe's Regiment
  • Sharpe's Siege
  • Sharpe's Mission
  • Sharpe's Revenge
  • Sharpe's Justice
  • Sharpe's Waterloo

Sharpe's Challenge

In April, 2006, Sharpe returned to the television screen in Sharpe's Challenge, ten years after Sharpe's Waterloo, the last of the original films televised in 1996.

Sharpe's Challenge is screenwriter Russell Louis's combination of Sharpe's Tiger, Sharpe's Triumph and Sharpe's Fortress - Cornwall's novels about Sharpe's adventures in India.

The two-part action-drama was filmed mostly in Rajasthan, a region in India, and it took seven weeks to complete. The four-legged extras included camels and elephants, as well as the usual horses. The approximately 400 human extras were mostly soldiers, trained in ten days by the set's original military advisor, Richard Rutherford-Moore.

When he is requested by Lord Wellington to go to India, retired Colonel Sharpe refuses. As he leaves Wellington's office, Sharpe bumps into Ramona, Patrick Harper's wife. She tells Sharpe that Patrick is missing in India. Sharpe changes his mind and takes up the challenge, as a friend's life is at stake.

Set approximately two years after Sharpe's last adventure in Sharpe's Waterloo, Sharpe is on a mission in India to find a friend and quell an uprising. Sharpe's adversary is Major William Dodd, played by Toby Stephens. Dodd is a former English officer, now the commander-in-chief to Rao Rajah of Ferraghur. Sharpe's mission is to find the missing agent, Harper, and help quell a rebellion that's threatening relations between England and India. However, as usual, things don't run as planned, and it turns into Sharpe's most dangerous mission – which includes the rescue of a kidnapped daughter of a British General, leading Sharpe and Harper into enemy territory.

A behind-the-screens look at how Sharpe's Challenge was made, The Making Of Sharpe's Challenge, was also televised.

1A type of violin.2Abigail became Sean Bean's third wife. They were married in 1997 and divorced in 2000. They have one daughter, Evie.3Lucille's surname is different from the novels.

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