Sharpe, which ran from 1993 to 1997 with fourteen episodes and then had two specials in 2006 and 2008, is one of my absolute favourite British television series. It’s right up there with Agatha Christie’s Poirot and Morse for me as an example of a series that is not only quintessentially British, but quintessential quality. This is largely to do with Sean Bean’s absolutely flawless portrayal of the titular character. Although Sean was not the first choice for the role, Paul McGann was originally cast but had to pull out after sustaining a serious leg injury whilst playing football, I think that he is everything that Sharpe is supposed to be: roughly handsome, slightly belligerent, tough, hard, but also capable of incredible kindness and most importantly, extremely brave and clever, as well as incredibly loyal.
I first started watching the Sharpe series in my teens when my pash for Sean first began (and has survived unabated ever since), and bought the boxset online. I was instantly taken with the series, which combined many things I loved: British history, costume drama and a brilliant acting. What instantly attracted me to the series was also it’s varied portrayal of women. Sharpe’s first wife, Teresa, was a very strong, intelligent and beautiful woman, who was as involved in the Napoleonic war as Sharpe because she was the commander of the Spanish commandos. Lucille, who features in the episode I will be discussing today, Sharpe’s Revenge, is very much like Teresa, and that is probably why it is my favourite episode of the series, because I feel that it has everything that made the series so great.
Sharpe Gets His Man…and Woman
It seems that the war may finally be over, and so Sharpe promises his wife, Jane (played by Sean’s real life wife at the time, Abigail Cruttenden) that he will finally give up his soldiering and live a “normal” and “respectable” life with her in Britain. He also gives her complete control over his finances, which amounts to £10 000 pounds, earned from his many years of soldiering.
But after the final battle, in which Napoleon is defeated and must retreat, Sharpe is insulted by a foppish officer, Wigram, who feels that Jane is above Sharpe and is therefore degrading herself by being married to Sharpe. Sharpe engages in a duel with Wigram, who he shoots in the arse, thus humiliating Wigram. But Wigram’s mistress, the conniving Lady Molly Spindcare, has told Jane that Sharpe has broken his promise. Jane returns to England with Molly and withdraws all of Sharpe’s savings.
Sharpe finds this out at the same time as he is accused not only of savagely murdering a group of French soldiers, but also stealing Napoleon’s treasures. A trial is held, in which Sharpe’s old friend, the disfigured Captain Fredrickson, represents him, but it is clear that things will not go in Sharpe’s favour and he will be hanged. Patrick Harper (played by Daragh O’ Mailey) and Fredrickson free Sharpe from prison. While Sharpe and Fredrickson journey to the farm in Normandy, where the French officer, Maillot, who was in charge of the mostly dead treasury convoy lives, Harper goes to England to make contact with Jane.
Jane has begun living the highlife in England and has met the weak willed and gambling addicted, but handsome, Lord Rossendale (played by Alexis Denisof). Jane and Rossendale begin an affair, making it clear that Jane has no intention of returning to Sharpe or returning his money.
Sharpe and Fredrickson arrive at Maillot’s farm, where his sister shoots Sharpe because she believes that it was Sharpe who murdered her brother a few nights before. When she realises that it was a ploy by Ducos, Napolean’s traitorous spy who actually stole the treasury, she helps Fredrickson save Sharpe’s life.
While she tends to an often delirious Sharpe, she and Fredrickson become good friends, with the latter believing that she will agree to marry him. When Fredrickson leaves for Paris to confirm his suspicions that Ducos was indeed involved in the treasury “heist” and the death of Maillot, Sharpe is finally fully recovered and helps Lucille around the farm.
Harper tries to make contact with Jane in England, but she and Rossendale flee from him, even going so far to strike him in public. Jane is also unmoved by the letter that Sharpe has written to her explaining why he broke his promise.
Despite this, Harper is reluctant to tell Sharpe of his wife’s betrayal, but Sharpe realises what Harper is not telling him, and he and Lucille make love after she makes it clear that she is attracted to him. This greatly upsets the returning Fredrickson, who has brought French troops headed by General Calvert, who is still loyal to Napoleon, as he feels Sharpe has betrayed their friendship. Sharpe tries to make amends, but Fredrickson will have none of it.
Sharpe and Calvert decide to storm the house that Ducos has taken over in Naples. He has hidden the treasure in an upper room, and has used the owner’s daughters as he would prostitutes. Before he can rape the youngest daughter, he is told by one of his officers, who was also involved in the murdering of the convoy, that Sharpe and Calvert have arrived. Ducos manages to escape during Sharpe’s attack and returns with Italian reinforcements, but they disperse when Sharpe and Calvert’s men start firing cannon balls at them. Sharpe then shoots and kills Calvert as Calvert tries to escape once more.
In England, Jane has lost most of her money to frivolous spending and Lord Rossendale’s gambling debts. Molly tells her that she will have to do what she does, which is find men in the army and aristocracy who are willing to keep her as a mistress. Jane is beside herself, especially because she and Rossendale have become social pariahs. She also becomes completely paranoid and thinks that Sharpe is there at all times, putting a strain on she and Rossendale’s relationship.
At the resumed trial, Sharpe’s name is cleared due to a letter from General Calvert, as well as proposed testimony from Lucille, and Wigram, who was chairing the trial, is once again publicly humiliated. Fredrickson and Sharpe make amends, with Fredrickson explaining that he will become a “bedroom lawyer” to all the rich widows in England.
Sharpe and Lucille return to the farm in Normandy, before Sharpe is called away once again as Napoleon returns. He promises to return to Lucille, who says that she knows he will.
The Sharpe Edge
It’s difficult to explain why I love this episode so much, especially when there is not one Sharpe episode that is lacking in any way in my opinion. But I think what makes this the episode that I go back to most often is that it’s the one that most typifies Sharpe’s struggle as an officer who has been raised through the ranks, and it also shows how nothing in this series is clean cut. Two of the women who Sharpe becomes romantically involved with are “foreign”, and so the idea that only British women are virtuous or worth Sharpe’s love is sharply (har har) dismissed.
Jane is supposed to be well bred and a “lady” and Lord Rossendale is also supposed to be of the British upper classes, but neither of them behave in a way that is to be commended in this episode. In fact, it is those who are from humble circumstances, such as Maillot, Lucille, Harper, Fredrickson and, of course, Sharpe, who are brave, trustworthy and worthy of praise.
I also feel that Ducos (played by Féodor Atkine) was Sharpe’s most serious opponent. Like Sharpe he is clever and resourceful, but unlike Sharpe, he lacks morality and bravery. This episode also moves away from the battlefield and shows the impact that the Napoleonic campaign had on people who were not in the military, such as Lucille, who had to continue running a farm despite the death of her husband and the absence of all men. Although I would not call Sharpe a programme that really promotes feminist ideology, it doesn’t shy away from showing women as strong characters who are out to survive just as much as men are. In this episode alone you have three very different women, who are portrayed truthfully, despite this truth being unflattering and discomfiting at times.
My favourite part of this episode is the relationship between Sharpe and Lucille. They have wonderful chemistry from the start, better chemistry, strangely enough, than Sharpe and Jane ever had. Their relationship matures in Sharpe’s Waterloo, but they already seem perfectly suited in Sharpe’s Revenge, just as Teresa and Sharpe were. And this isn’t only because they both come from working class backgrounds, but because Lucille is a mature woman, unlike Jane who always comes across as immature and prone to bouts of pathetic weeping.
The end of this episode also seems really triumphant. Even though you know Sharpe will face future struggles, especially in the succeeding episodes of the original series, he has really proven that he is worthy of being an officer, unlike most of the officers in the series, typified by Wigram in this episode.
Lastly, even though I adore Sean Bean’s performance throughout the entire series (in case you missed the sound of my adoring panting), he shows so much range in this episode. When Sharpe finds out Jane has betrayed him and left him for another man, the kind of man who she probably wanted all along, the expression on his face is like an open wound, so heartbreaking and raw. And another actor could make getting together with Lucille look sleazy and uncomfortable, but Sean makes you whoop for joy.
I’d be really interested to know what you think of this episode, and what episode of Sharpe is your favourite.
This is my contribution for the 5th Annual Favourite TV Show Episode Blogathon being held by A Shroud of Thoughts. Please check out his blog for more information and to read everyone’s contributions.