I won’t do it. I refuse to compromise on this. I love Sharpe and Hornblower. Screw qualifying statements. I know some of you think that Sharpe was way better, or that the series make for poor historical documentation, or that they are incontrovertibly flawed in a myriad of ways, or whatever. I’m not interested. For me, they represent a high water mark in popular programming. And, in my best drunken man rambling style, I’ll tell you why.
Both series depend on a central, relatable character. Contrast this with more recent series, such as HBO’s Rome, where two heroes clamour for our attention, or the History Channel’s Vikings, where the central character is a wide-eyed weirdo. The bromance between Rome’s Vorenus and Pullo is actually pretty similar to the one between Sharpe and Sgt Harper, but it is very obviously Sharpe’s show.
Sharpe and Hornblower both have elements that we can, or would like to, see in ourselves. They have human frailties and strengths that reflect their social class. Working class Sharpe has a quick temper, while middle class Hornblower frequently doubts himself. Nevertheless, they are both honourable, cunning, tenacious and brave. They espouse values that still ring true. Hell, the only thing truly unbelievable about them is how often they manage to cheat death.
Yes, there is a lot of cock in these series. Without carrying out a lot of careful scrutiny, I feel pretty confident in stating that neither would pass the Bechdel test. But fuck it, these series are about life in the armed forces during the Napoleonic wars. How many women were you expecting? Series like Rome and Vikings have tried to balance this out by having more ‘back home’ scenes, but we’re not really interested in the domestic stuff.
Besides, these are shows about manly men, being manly together. They’re not over-egging the pudding like Spartacus: Blood and Sand did. I’m not sure exactly how to explain my point here, so I’d be gratified if anyone could help me out in the comments. These are ‘boys own’ stories, and the Hornblower books come from the same era; with endorsements from people like Ernest Hemingway and Winston Churchill.
The most fun TV is when you know who the bad guys are. With English heroes like Sharpe and Hornblower, the baddies are obviously French. There is an ethnic rivalry between us, and the massively cliched ‘frogs’ are the perfect foil to our ‘rosbif’ heroes. And there are also the Spanish ‘dagos’, who crop up as allies and enemies. Furthermore, there are the Irish, who appear as major characters in both series, and who sometimes turn against the English heroes.
For those of you who might take me too seriously, the division of good guys and bad guys isn’t as clear-cut as all that, but it is nice to have an obvious threat to focus on, who wear a brightly coloured uniform. This is definitely more fun than the hordes of potential enemies in Vikings, who all wear mismatched leather armour, or the multiple Roman armies of Rome, who all wear the same gear. By clearly signalling who is on which side, you can also have fun by getting the heroes to go undercover just by changing outfits.
There are two things I want to mention here; first up is corn syrup. Both series are all about practical effects, and they don’t skimp on the fake blood. On the downside, they don’t often use blood squibs, which means that it is often a clean soldier who ‘dies’. To cover this up, the action scenes are often cut together quickly. They spend a beat on someone firing, a beat on his mate and a beat on their targets falling over.
When it comes to cannon fire, the practical effects usually involve a powder explosion buried into the ground. What is brilliant about this is that it may take the extras an unrealistically long period of time to realise that the explosion has gone off, and to throw themselves to the ground. Again, this stuff is cut pretty quickly, but the juxtaposition of the ham acting of the extras and Sean Bean’s utter seriousness is brilliant.
What is great about both is that you know roughly how things will go. It’s not quite as predictable as the BBC Dr Who off-season fillers like Robin Hood, Merlin and The Musketeers, but it is in that direction. After an hour and a half of shooting, cannons, anger, travelling, and the handful of songs that the production company has the rights to, Sharpe will march off into the sunset with his men, turn and look back with a melancholy look, and they’ll crank up ‘Over the Hills and Far Away’. Old friends might have died along the way, but the main guys will prevail, with more scars and a promotion to prove that they’ve been doing Important Things for king and country.
I could go on, but I don’t think I need to. If you want to agree with me, please leave your comments below. If you don’t want to agree… I’m not sure this is the place for you.