TELEVISION / Confident Sharpe enlists the ridiculous

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The Independent Culture
PLAYING Napoleon can't be good for a man. In Sharpe (ITV), Ron Cook brushed his hair over his forehead and peered up from the bottom half of the screen, like a man straining to look over a fence. Someone called Ducos was telling him what to do next in the Peninsular War, which may have explained why he was hissing like a malfunctioning Ascot. Ducos wanted to reorder the course of European diplomacy in order to take his revenge on Major Sharpe. Napoleon said yes.

They were talking about Sharpe in Wellington's tent too, which lets you know the sort of man you're dealing with, the invisible hub round which the great wheel of Continental history rotates. Outside, soldiers are passing the time by telling jokes that will outlive them - 'Where does Napoleon keep his armies?' asks one rifleman. 'Up his sleevies.' It is a gag which lets you know the sort of drama you're dealing with - a pretty confident one, in short, with an exact sense of where the ridiculous begins and a shrewd realisation that a little flavour of it is just what we want from a costume pot-boiler. Even so, I'm impressed by the fortitude of the average viewer - at two hours Sharpe is perilously close to too much of a good thing.

Michael Frayn's A Landing on the Sun (BBC 2) also demanded some patience but repaid it with a beautifully paced series of plot revelations, laid out like refreshment stations at a fun-run. The story concerned an investigation into the apparent suicide of a civil servant called Summerchild (Roger Allam), who had fallen to his death from Admiralty Arch some years before. It turns out that he was part of a small unit set up to inquire into 'the quality of life', a task for which Harold Wilson (you hear him on the telephone) also recruits an Oxford philosopher (Susan Fleetwood).

Their investigation into happiness starts with linguistic analysis and thought-experiments but soon becomes empirical. They fall in love and end up playing house together in their poky attic office, to the consternation of Summerchild's superiors. Their conclusion (which does not seem susceptible to implementation by government) is that happiness could be defined as 'being where one is and not wanting to be anywhere else'. Summerchild is not depressed when he falls from the roof, but deliriously happy.

Once you had swallowed the initial conceit here (it went down eventually, when you decided to stop worrying about it) the pleasure lay in the intricacy of Frayn's plotting, the little games he played with the interpretation of evidence. Jessel finds a box of cassette tapes on which the two lovers record all their deliberations, a device which allowed the past and present to overlap with great ingenuity. Noises which were mysterious at the beginning of the drama are obvious by the end, while other sounds are misinterpreted. The huffing sex session which drives a prim transcriber from her desk is actually the sound of a lilo being blown up.

There was a glancing comedy elsewhere too - a lovely scene in which Fleetwood's professional argument ('Let's say we're lovers') is uttered at just the moment when the hypothesis is hardening into fact, so that the words tremble with potential; the scene in which Summerchild's boss discovers them in their parody of domestic bliss, the office now transformed by lampshades and knick-knacks. And even the tiniest details added a gloss to the whole - the cassettes are stored in a Blue Bird toffee tin, worn and faded outside but factory-fresh inside, as though that kitsch image of happiness had been magically preserved by the story it contained.