Managed to almost completely avoid the series Sharpe when it was on in the nineties. The little I saw impressed me mildly with its attempts at scale (reconstructing the Napoleonic Wars, done better with the aid of modern tech in the recent Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, which more people should have watched) and I noted that Charles Wood had written some episodes, and saw enough to recognize that his patented period style, as heard in the 1968 CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE, was present and correct.
Now, having becomes something of a Wood obsessive (I’ve seen all the Richard Lester films — but there remains a lot of Wood writing to catch up on), I decided to check out Sharpe’s Company, but first there was Sharpe’s Gold, written by Nigel Kneale, whose work we have been re-devouring.
The Kneale script is probably the episode which differs most markedly from its Bernard Cornwell source novel — Kneale “had an idea which was more fun” and turned the adventure into, effectively, a 1930s serial, with a sinister Aztec cult hiding in the Portuguese hills, damsels in distress, last-minute rescues and hidden treasure. It may actually be the silliest of the Sharpes, except for those which commit the far sillier mistake of being dull.
Michael Palin’s refrain in MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL — “And no singing!” would be a very useful one here, as Sharpe is accompanied by a mournful balladeer, who ought by rights to have been fragged before the opening exposition scroll had finished trundling upscreen. I know that folk music, like rape, was very much a part of warfare at the time, but I don’t see any reason to dwell on such atrocities.
The Kneale Sharpe is fun, and we were able to spot points of connection with his other Napoleonic scenario, H.M.S. DEFIANT (aka DAMN THE DEFIANT!), but the first Wood Sharpe is altogether superior. Gifted with a character widely held to be the nastiest villain in the Sharpe canon, Wood creates for Pete Postlethwaite a truly lunatic caricature — twitching, blinking, staring glassily, talking to himself, talking to a
photograph portrait he stole which he insists on believing is his mother, boasting a rope-marked neck from a botched hanging, and convinced that he cannot die, Obadiah Hakeswill is grotesque, horrible, almost supernatural, pure evil, and yet wholly believable. You simply can’t convince yourself that anyone could make such a character up.
Most of this maniac’s character seems to have been forged in the source novel, but I’m sure Wood and Postlethwaite allowed him to accrete more layers of creepy weirdness.
The dialogue is amazing — people don’t really notice a lot of what they see and hear on TV, but it’s incredible to me that reviewers at the time didn’t remark on the spectacular oddities Wood was firing out of his cast’s throats. Here’s an officer who has lost many good men ~
“Jack Collett dead. I loved him. Rhymer gone. My pockets full of bits of dust and stone.”
He’s mourning friends and comrades but he stops to observe the lamentable state of his pockets. He may be talking metaphorically. I don’t think he, or the actor playing him, quite knows. And it’s wonderful. I can’t explain it because I don’t understand it, but I think it’s because (1) it’s astonishing, and astonishment confirms we’re alive and (2) everybody involved has decided to believe it.
One of Wood’s talents which adds conviction to any scene is a willingness to let the tone be determined by whatever might happen, rather than setting a tone and trying to make everything match it. In a tense briefing scene, the drama derails into comedy when it starts raining outside. And it keeps derailing, despite everything that’s at stake for Sean Bean’s Sharpe. Of course, this is true to life, and you can observe it in the work of other writers who seem superficially very stylised — Preston Sturges, William Shakespeare. The refusal to obey the colour swatches set down in the big book of drama results in something lifelike in its waywardness, and the lifelike quality more than compensates for the wayward quality.
sharpe’s company from David Cairns on Vimeo.
In the following episode, there’s Postlethwaite again, but he has almost nothing to do. Sharpe and some officers gather in the exact same medium shots in the exact same tent, and the scene falls flat — everyone just stands around waiting to say his line. Sean Bean reverts to lumpen mode. The solution to this mystery is that Charles Wood didn’t write this one. And you realize that not only is his dialogue a firework display, it’s allied to pin-sharp dramatic focus, even as it seems inclined to rocket off into random byways of comedy or oddness. In the hands of a lesser writer, the same material seems translucently thin and flat as a Liz Hurley line reading. Oh, and Liz Hurley’s in it too. Postlethwaite manages to probe a bit of a performance out of her by brushing stray bits of dirt off her tits (see top), which distracts her from her usual “I-am-reading-my-lines” approach, but it’s still heavy weather. The idea of Liz Hurley in the hands of television’s most demented psychopath seemed briefly alluring (Fiona: “I cannot WAIT to see Liz Hurley brutalized by Pete Postlethwaite”) which isn’t quite what you SHOULD be feeling, but like I say, PP/Obadiah gets nothing much to do.
Still, the episode establishes that all Liz Hurley ever needed to give a good performance was to have a madman dusting her knockers in every scene.