The Sharpe telemovies, based on the novels of Bernard Cornwell and starring Sean Bean, are a British institution. This is the 15th in the series but the first made since 1997, when Bean decided to concentrate on his film career. It is also the first to air on free-to-air TV in Australia, which is odd, because it's perfect ABC fodder - a swashbuckling historical drama in the style of the Hornblower films.
In this instalment, Richard Sharpe is lured back to the British Army a year after the battle of Waterloo and sent to India to sort out a renegade British officer, William Dodd, who has joined forces with a maharajah. And this time it's personal, as the dastardly Dodd (played with almost pantomime wickedness by Toby Stephens) left Sharpe for dead in a raid many years before. The stakes are raised when Dodd kidnaps the daughter of a British general, so Sharpe and his best friend attempt to infiltrate the maharajah's fortress.
Shot in India, this looks fantastic. Bean is suitably dashing as Sharpe and, after a somewhat clunky start, the action never lets up.
Chris Bond talks to novelist Bernard Cornwell about his most famous creation.
WITHOUT wishing to incur the wrath of the lifestyle police, it's true to say there were only two things that would keep me out of the pub on an evening during my student days.
One was illness and the other was watching Sharpe – Sunday evenings on ITV, if my memory serves me correctly.
Essay deadlines could be extended with a bit of know-how, and a spot of cramming usually took care of exams.
But if you missed an episode of Sharpe that was it, hardly anyone had a video recorder and 10 years ago freeview boxes, and repeat viewings on digital channels, were little more than a twinkle in father technology's eye.
Of course, it wasn't just students who found themselves hooked on Sharpe's swashbuckling adventures.
The TV series gripped the nation and at its peak more than 10 million viewers tuned in to see Sean Bean performing heroics against the French.
Such was its popularity that last year, nearly a decade after the last episode was made, Sharpe was among the top 10 favourite ITV characters chosen by viewers over the last 50 years.
Like all good programmes it had authentic settings, a sublime cast and, above all, great storylines.
But long before he made it on to our TV screens, Sharpe had gained a huge following through Bernard Cornwell's best-selling books.
It is more than 25 years since Cornwell sat down and began writing about an English soldier called Richard Sharpe who rises through the ranks during the Napoleonic wars.
Since then he has written more than 20 books chronicling the heroics of rifleman Sharpe.
It has proved to be the highlight of a prolific career that includes The Starbuck Chronicles, set during the American Civil War, and his Grailquest trilogy.
It is for Sharpe, though, for which he is most renowned, and his fascination with history dates back to childhood.
"I was an avid consumer of historical novels, going back to my school days, and I couldn't imagine writing anything else," he says, speaking from his home in the United States.
He moved to the US with his American-born wife and it was there that he began writing the Sharpe books.
"They are a rip-off of Hornblower really. There were a lot of people writing historical novels at the time but I was amazed that no one was writing about the army," he says.
Although he admits he isn't sure exactly how the character came about.
"There were just two things I knew about him," he claims. "I knew he had come up through the ranks, as I felt that made him a more interesting character, and I knew he was a rifleman.
"I laboured under the misapprehension that this would give him more room to manoeuvre, when I probably should have made him a redcoat."
Cornwell is equally vague about why he gave him a Yorkshire connection – Sharpe flees from London at the age of 13 after murdering a man.
"It was a terrific choice, because then Sean Bean came along," he says.
Although Bean doesn't quite fit Cornwell's description, the author says he couldn't imagine another actor playing him.
"I think he is terrific. Okay, he doesn't have black hair but that doesn't matter and I think the highest compliment I can pay him is that when I'm writing Sharpe now, I hear Sean's voice, I don't hear the voice I originally heard," he says.
Cornwell has nothing but admiration for the TV series which returns with a two-part special, Sharpe's Challenge, this weekend.
"The TV series was excellent, it really was, and Pete Postlethwaite playing Hakeswill, he was much better than my Hakeswill," he says.
The 62-year-old author isn't the only one pleased to see Sharpe back on our screens.
Nearly a decade after Sean Bean last played the character who helped to kick-start his Hollywood career, the Sheffield-born actor says he was delighted to dust off his sword and get back in the saddle.
"Just doing the role and getting the opportunity to play that kind of leading character has always been something that has stayed with me, because it made such a huge impact on my life and my career.
"Sharpe was something that never really went away," says the 47-year-old.
"When we finished filming, it was the end of that era, culminating in the Battle of Waterloo, and I think we all felt that we had gone as far as we could at the time.
"But I think we always believed that there was a lot of potential still there and many more stories to be told – it was just a matter of when and how we were going to present that," he explains.
"When we started talking about Sharpe's Challenge I immediately felt thrilled and excited again. I had a gut feeling and I wanted to be back in the game as it were, especially with the same team. It was just like coming home."
Picking up where the story left off, in the wake of Napoleon's crushing defeat at Waterloo, Sharpe's Challenge begins with frightening tales of a blood-thirsty maharaja who is threatening British interests in India.
There is only ever one man for the job, of course, and as the life of a general's daughter and the fate of the British Empire hang in the balance, a nervous Wellington dispatches Sharpe to investigate, on what turns out to be his most dangerous mission to date.
"It was strange on the first day," says Bean. "I think, if you've played a character for a few years, you always think that you'll just drop back into it, but it took me a few days to acclimatise to the part."
For Cornwell, too, Sharpe is never far away from his thoughts, even when he's working on other books.
The key to the books' success, he believes, is in the storytelling, and he doesn't harbour any literary pretensions.
"I think there is a divide, even if it's blurred at the edges. Literature tells you something about the human condition but if you're writing a story, that's it. I don't think Sharpe has any insight into the human condition," he says.
He has nearly finished his latest Sharpe book, Sharpe's Fury, which is due to be published in October.
But he admits he has no idea how many more there will be.
"When I finished my 11th, I said 'that's it', but since then I've written another 10, so I have no idea how many more I'll do."
He has made his name writing historical novels, so is there a period of history he hasn't tackled yet that he would like to?
"I was incredibly struck by Juliet Barker's Agincourt, and I think something could come out of that," he says.
In the meantime, he's got the world's most famous rifleman to think about.
SHARPE'S CHALLENGE I love working with Sean Bean and have great admiration for him as an actor. The part of Sharpe was made for him and I couldn’t imagine anyone else playing the role. Sean is a very physical actor and is superb at doing all his own stunts, which makes my job so much easier.
And I was delighted to return to India, where I had filmed before. India gave us stunning locations, superb filming light, top quality sets and props and a huge variety of animals as background colour – but you can’t make Sharpe without lots of extras and we got them. Well trained by Richard Rutherford Moore (a veteran of Sharpe) they were the best, most enthusiastic and cheerful extras I have ever worked with. They contributed enormously to the success of the film.
Problems? Well a few people got Delhi belly, but we had an excellent doctor to look after us. They say an army marches on its stomach – well so does a film unit and we had superb Indian caterers – not one person ever grumbled at the food. I think all the cast and crew enjoyed India and it shows on the screen. It’s such a vibrant, colourful, enthusiastic, cheerful country that everyone wants to go back. I certainly would, so the only question now is will “Sharpe” return? Tom Clegg - Director
“The films display a lusty sense of fun, and Bean’s rough and rowdy presence makes them very entertaining.” Hollywood Reporter – 31st August 2006.
“Bean, who often plays villains, makes a great larger-than-life hero.” Los Angeles Daily News – 5th September 2006. “Viewers in search of epic adventure are in luck.” Los Angeles Advocate – 27th May 2006.
“These are perfect couple films. Men will love the action and attention to detail in the battle scenes, while women will love watching Bean – a man made to wear a uniform – in the romantic title role.” Channel Guide – July 2006
"Ah, good news: Sharpe's Challenge returns, after a gap of eight years ... This show has everything you'd expect. As well as that devilishly handsome but evil maharajah, there are bumbling, bullying, alcoholic British officers bursting out of their britches and losing their minds in the heat of the subcontinent. There are plenty of comedy Indians, some good, some bad, lots killed. There are romantic but impenetrable forts on tops of hills, belly dancers, incense and veiled women of extraordinary beauty. There's a blonde English rose as well, called Celia, whose job is to be captured, to heave her ample bosom, and to have her clothes removed at every opportunity. She falls for Mr Bean, of course - Sean, not Rowan Atkinson - in spite of his 1970s footballer's haircut and his lack of lips. And above everything, somewhere between the action and the relentless sun, vultures circle. Fabulous." Sam Wollaston, Guardian
"A real rip-roaring, swashbuckling adventure not to be missed." Alison Lumm, Daily Mirror "This is classy television of a type you don’t get often, now, and I can’t recommend it highly enough ... Enjoy!” Lynda Gilby, Sunday Life, Scotland
"Swash and buckle ... remained in place right to the end - when a terrfic cliffhanger set up tonight's concluding part very nicely indeed." James Walton, Daily Telegraph
"It's a sumptuous show, such a treat for the eyes you could watch with no sound." Matt Baylis, Daily Express
"ITV's sweeping historical entertainment, filled with fruity cameo performances and filmed on location in western Jaipur with 4,000 extras ... 'It's got great scale to it,' says Sean Bean, the actor who playes Sharpe, 'a big budget and some fantastic characters.' What more could anyone ask for?" David Chater, The Times
"With its wide, open Indian vistas, it has a more epic, cinematic feel than most, and will look good on today's widescreen televisions. Little has changed ... it's formulaic escapism - little more than G.A. Henty for the modern age, with a little added romance for the ladies - but it works ... the derring-do is driven by sound, old-fashioned ideas of honour, courage and decency ... in short supply these days." Nigel Andrew, Mail On Sunday
"...a memorable battle scene ... sword fights quite up to Errol Flynn standards ... All this crash, bang, wallop was not for viewers of a nervous disposition, but the rest of us will be hoping that ITV1 will not allow another eight years to pass before the next Sharpe adventure arrives on screen." Peter Paterson, Daily Mail
"...with the return of Sean Bean as Richard Sharpe, we can, once again, sit back and indulge ourselves with some toothsome, rugged male crumpet combined with a rattling good yarn ... As usual, these episodes are beautifully written and filmed on location with a lavish attention to detail that must have cost a fortune. Also, as usual, the tale contains plenty of action and derring-do, plus a splendid villain ... There is also, of course, an English maiden in distress, facing a fate worse than death when she is captured and placed in the harem." Lynda Gilby, Sunday Life, Scotland
"Sean Bean ... back at his two-fisted, all-action best, surviving bloody massacres in order to exact revenge ... Once more, he demonstrated his mastery of riding horses, discharging muskets, biffing baddies and - steady on, ladies! - manfully filling taut military breeches. Sometimes, I declare, he did them all at once. For Mr Bean swashes a very mean buckle indeed." David Belcher, Scottish Herald
"Sharpe is back. Huzzah ... As ever, the plot is the least important part of the drama. The fun can be found instead in the ease with which Bean commands the screen, in the wonderful villainy of Toby Stephens ... and in the well-drawn comradeship between Sharpe and his former sergeant Patrick Harper (the laid-back Daragh O'Malley). All the staples, from literal bodice-ripping to the maxim that the nastiest of the nasty guys always have biblical names, are present and correct and, as an added bonus, we get the luscious, although slightly limp Padma Lakshmi in what has become known to aficionados as 'the Liz Hurley role'." Sarah Hughes, Observer