Bernard Cornwell: Powerhouse

So, yeah, it’s been a while. Reasons, excuses, back to the main event. In the intervening time, I have been reading. First it was Sharpe’s Triumph, then it was Sharpe’s Tiger (which is definitely the wrong order). My local bookshop stocks nowhere near enough Sharpe books, so I have moved on from Sharpe.

Sharpe.jpg
Poor, sad, Sharpe

In any case, I am now reading the first of the Starbuck Chronicles, ‘Rebel’, which is also by Bernard Cornwell. I decided to skip ‘the Saxon Stories’ because I don’t want to spoil The Last Kingdom TV series for myself. It’s a weird world where I avoid the original novel, to preserve my enjoyment of the adaptation, but there you go.

In any case, Starbuck is actually pretty good fun, once you get past the 15-year-old pregnant statutory rape victim love interest. Yeah, that bit freaked me out…

Having now read of few of his novels, I’m enjoying Cornwell’s work. The guy can write a good war story. It’s 9/10ths preparation, baggage and worry, and 1/10th rollicking adventure. His baddies are appealing because you know they are baddies. Real bastards. The goodies are usually the dashing rogue types. Willing to steal from their own side if they have to, but equally willing to muck in.

For all their boy’s-own-adventure qualities, they have regular seams of ugly reality. Cornwell’s plots play out like an RPG. For every step along the journey that the heroes take, there are three or four side-missions for them to go through.

All in all, Cornwell’s novels are fun. And really, that’s all I want. If I want unbridled misery and death I’ll watch Game of Thrones. Occasionally, I just want a good time.

The redcoat drama featuring a former member of Being Human that *isn’t* Poldark

This time last month I was blogging about Poldark and redcoats. I got turned off Poldark pretty quickly when it became clear that there were going to be far more longing looks than actual action. But when another series turned up on my radar, fronted by another former Being Human cast member, I couldn’t really ignore it. ‘Specially as it has redcoats.

Banished is set in a penal colony in Australia, and just as  a concept, that’s pretty interesting. It also has a pretty damn good cast; in the lead is Russell Tovey, who I’m still convinced was once one of Crabbe and Goyle (apparently it’s not true, but it should be). Then you’ve got Rory McCann, who you’ll recognise as Game of Throne’s ‘Hound’. The reverend is Ewen Bremner, who was ‘Spud’ in Trainspotting, then there’s Orla Brady, who you lot will remember from Wurthering Heights. Finally, there’s good old David Wenham, who has been in everything from 300 to Lord of the Rings.

Banished cast

So yeah, it’s a well cast series. It is also set in a really interesting time and place. At one point the governor of the new penal colony muses on how his friends asked him when he was leaving. He later realises that what they were really asking was when the scum of England would be taken away. Transportation seems like a massive effort to take, given that many of the prisoners were only serving set-length sentences. There’s at least one Australian joke that points out the British must be mad if they discovered such a paradise and sent their prisoners there.

One thing the series isn’t, is gentle. A thousand convicts and a hundred soldiers, a long way from home, and it was never going to be pretty. Unlike other series, it doesn’t shy away from showing blood onscreen, or examining just how hard things were for women. Family viewing, it ain’t.

But overall, the series is running along fairly well, and while my tastes might be the same as everyone’s, I expect to continue watching this one longer than I did with Poldark.

Poldark and Fable III: for the Love of Redcoats

This week I have mainly been playing Fable III. I am very into RPGs, and this one has the added bonus of being pretty funny. It is set in the mythical realm of Albion, which is currently undergoing its industrial revolution. In many ways, it is a complete fantasy. The bad guys include werewolves, goblins and the undead (though all go by different names). But in other ways, it is a good reflection of the impact that the industrial revolution had.

And there are redcoats!

Redcoat

It was only really this week that I realised I had a thing for the uniform. I probably should’ve seen this coming sooner, considering my outspoken love for Sharpe and Hornblower.

For a bit of context on the choice of colour, read this joke. Armies have been wearing red since the days of ancient Sparta, largely because it stops people worrying about bloodstains. What the British army did differently was to turn it into an item of formal wear. I mean, look at all those buttons! And the collar! And the shako! Should I worry about being obsessed with an item of clothing?

And then Ross Poldark rocked up, looking all dark and brooding.

Poldark Redcoat

I swear I’m only man-crushing a little here. Having never read the books, nor watched the original series, I can’t comment on the authenticity of the series. However, unlike other recent historical dramas, it’s pretty fast-paced, pretty fun, and there is enough bare-knuckle fist fighting to balance out the long gazes. The only downside? The red coat goes to the back of the family wardrobe far too quickly.

Both Fable and Poldark are about an individual building themselves up from practically nothing. But whereas Fable employs a high ratio of fart jokes and chicken costumes, Poldark is taking itself incredibly seriously. For the time being, I’m spending more time on the former. Though it probably has something to do with the fact your character can *wear* the red coat.

Sharpe and Hornblower: 90s and 00s Romp Television

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.

 

Everyday heroes

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.

Sausage fest

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.

Casual jingoism

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.

Effects

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.

Formulaic brilliance

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.