We start off as all good shows should – with the death of three French cavalrymen. Our eponymous hero saves Lord Wellesley, soon to be Duke of Wellington, after he’s ambushed and is promoted to an officer for his troubles and placed in charge of the 95th Rifles.
The 95th turn out to be a bit of a handful, being a somewhat ragtag group of unconventional sorts, consisting of a failed poet, a bible-bashing clergyman, a wimpy weed, convicts, and even an Irishmen among others. They don’t really trust their new CO, given that isn’t a ‘proper officer’ nor a gentleman, which for some reason is massively important in the time and is something that Richard Sharpe comes up against repeatedly through both this episode and the series as a whole.
Taken under the wing of the meticulous and clever Major Hogan (Brain Cox) Sharpe is given a near suicidal task of meeting a key banker in a village far behind the French line. On the way he meets someone transporting an historical artefact, a beautiful Spanish guerrilla fighter, with whom he falls hopelessly in love, and a butt-tonne of French soldiers.
His men slowly come to appreciate his hard style of leadership, firm but fair, at the expense of beating the strongest of the 95th up in a brawl when he tried to start a revolt. Harper, the Irish guy built like a brick shit-house but with a turn of wit that makes you love him, ends up with his hands bound and told he’ll be ready for a court martial. It’s only after he shows his loyalty to the regiment (by killing 2 Frenchmen and shooting the hat off a retreating third) that he is freed and asked to join the ranks – in the process he learns to appreciate Sharpe and Sharpe starts to appreciate Harper.
By the end, the chosen men have proven themselves as crack shots, handy to have around in a fight, and fiercely loyal, both to each other and the regiment. And Sharpe has proven himself both to Hogan and Lord Wellesley, a diamond in the rough he may be but he’s also a damn fine soldier.
That’s the synopsis and the guff, but what did I think of it all as someone who has had no real exposure to Sharpe, or period dramas of this type?
I fucking loved it, didn’t I. Sean Bean is superb as Richard Sharpe. His power and gusto is there is every scene possible, his northern bravado powers through and overpowers his superiors on many occasions. He earns your respect and keeps it. Not only that, if it was just loud manly shouting it would quickly tire, but he doesn’t. The programme shows the character relationships develop beyond that of classism and into one of trust and friendship. The quiet moments are as well thought through and structured as the loud, and just as the action scenes are integral to everything, so are the quiet evening moments with the chosen men talking amongst themselves and you can feel Sharpe reading their every move and motive.
Sharpe’s Rifles gets a good 7/10 from me. As an introduction it is very good, but when the only thing you’ve had to really fight is your own men the tension is somewhat lacking, especially when you know there are 11 episodes to go. I started believing that our heroes were invincible as none of them really takes a serious blow in any of the fracas they get caught up with. But, the characters are there, the relationships are starting, and my God Sean Bean in the man.