The Common Man


Working my way through Sharpe, or at least the episodes written by Charles Wood. This leaves certain lacunae in the hero’s military career, but I’m fine with that.

Sharpe’s Regiment sees Sean Bean’s up-from-the-ranks officer going undercover as a raw recruit to find out what’s happened to a regiment gone mysteriously missing in England. It’s a slightly implausible plot — not the government corruption part, which is all too plausible, but the idea of the character being able to basically desert, disguise himself and then turn up again with his own identity and not get hanged, but we’ll allow such narrative shenanigans if the yarn is fun.

The best things here again include the villain, Mark Lambert as Colonel Girdwood, who we know is a baddie because he hates dogs and Irishmen with equal passion. He was traumatized by a mastiff when young, and then “ambushed” by “black Irish” as a young officer. The word “ambushed” is repeated so often and with such swivel-eyed vehemence that it seems to suggest some special meaning. “Irish? Indeed. Irish rogue. Irish dog. Irish scum. Irish filth. Irishman! They were ever so, they Irish. Would ruin me. Would. Did! Ambush. Would have broke a lesser man. SEIZE PADDY SECURE!”


The other amazing thing is Norman “Hairy Norm” Rossington as a recruiting sergeant, the exact same role he played in CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE (1968), also written by Wood. The way Rossington (best known otherwise as Norm in A HARD DAY’S NIGHT) follows the troops into the Crimea makes him seem a little like the Common Man in the play of A Man for All Seasons. Having him continue his military career on TV is just delightful.


Hairy Norm in CHARGE.

Mr. Wood has written about how he found Rossington positioned, on CHARGE, at the front with the officers, and he asked him why he was there and not at the back where he belonged. “Because *I* am a highly paid feature player,” was Hairy Norm’s reply.

Norm somehow fought on both sides in the Napoleonic wars, turning up as a Frenchman in THE ADVENTURES OF GERARD, and can be glimpsed in uniform in everything from CARRY ON SERGEANT to LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, as well as officiating at the burning of Joan of Arc in Otto Preminger’s SAINT JOAN.



11 Responses to “The Common Man”

  1. Ah The Adventures of Gerard — le plus maudit des maudits ! Jerzy Skolimowski even changed his name to Yurek Skolimowski for the occasion.

  2. And didn’t the French ban it for mocking Napoleon? Democracy in action.

  3. “Mr. Wood has written about how he found Rossington positioned, on CHARGE, at the front with the officers, and he asked him why he was there and not at the back where he belonged.”

    My grandfather, a sergeant in WWI, rejected a commission several times because junior officers were the first people out of a trench in an attack, to set an example, and sergeants the last ones out of the trench, to make sure everyone else had followed their example. Sergeants had a much lower casualty rate.

  4. From Kipling’s “The Drums of the Fore and Aft”:

    “Come on!” shrieked the subalterns, and their men, cursing them, drew back, each closing in to his neighbour and wheeling round.

    Charteris and Devlin, subalterns of the last company, faced their death alone in the belief that their men would follow.

    “You’ve killed me, you cowards,” sobbed Devlin and dropped, cut from the shoulder-strap to the centre of the chest; and a fresh detachment of his men retreating, always retreating, trampled him under foot as they made for the pass whence they had emerged.

  5. The officers also perished because they tended to be well-bred and well-fed and therefore taller, making better targets for snipers.

  6. henryholland666 Says:

    I’m not a big fan of the movie version of “War Horse” (I loved the play when I saw it) but there’s a great scene early on where the toffs take control of a cavalry charge in Flanders. They poo-poo any dissent about the wisdom of doing so as unworthy of them. They lead the charge and are machine-gunned down by those sneaky Huns who had hidden their machine guns, which wasn’t very sporting of them. There’s a great shot from overhead of the horses galloping along with no riders.

    As a Yank, I don’t get all the nuances of it, but I’ve read a lot about WWI and I get the impression that the British officer class tended to be men of some social standing who spent more time having brandy at officers clubs and fancy dress balls than in the field getting shot at. This lead to some really ghastly decisions.

  7. Well, the top brass were shielded from the horrors of their decision-making, which wasn’t entirely a new phenomenon. Hard to decide to wage a war of attrition if you’re on the front lines.

    For a surprising amount of time, it wa believed that cavalry still had a key role to play, machine-guns be damned. It’s unlikely the horses would be charging on riderless, because the steed is an easier target than the horseman.

  8. Cavalry were more often used as mounted infantry in WWI – a quick way of getting troops to here they’d fight. In the Arabian campaign, though, cavalry charges were an effective tactic. Generals had a pretty high casualty rate, in fact – divisional generals made regular visits to the front – and the expansion of the British army meant that they tended to be promoted very fast and so had had recent front-line experience.

  9. And Kitchener got killed, proving nobody was safe.

  10. Matthew Davis Says:

    It’s hard to read Wood’s first play “Prisoner and Escort” and not imagine Norman Rossington play the military policeman. Luckily Rossington did indeed play that part. Whether the later performance for Armchair Theatre still exists is another matter.

  11. I do hope so. I’d like to get another job in television just so I can plumb the archives….

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