ITV sinks pounds 10m into sea saga

Now the search is on to find an unknown to play the fictional hero, says Ivan Waterman
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The Independent Online
Hornblower, the fictional hero of Nelson's navy who rose from midshipman to Admiral of the Fleet in C S Forester's stories, will sail on to TV screens this year in a series of lavish films.

His adventures will continue the Napoleonic War drama that ITV has so successfully pioneered with Sharpe, about the major fighting under Wellington in Spain.

With the BBC still licking its wounds over the failure of Rhodes and Nostromo to win the hearts and souls of viewers, senior ITV executives still believe that period drama and the swashbuckling antics of Horatio Hornblower on the frigate Indefatigable circa 1795, is the place to be. They are sinking up to pounds 10m initially in the series, with four two-hour- long films already commissioned and up to a dozen more on the starting blocks.

Furthermore, they are gambling on a relative unknown who will be auditioned for the prize role before production gets underway in July.

Hornblower must be charismatic, physically powerful and have a good deal of grey matter above the neck in the mould of Sean Bean, Colin Firth and the latest small screen icon Robson Green. Horatio X, as he is being called in TV circles, will guarantee himself a place in TV's Hall of Fame with his picture on hoardings from Penzance to Perthshire in advance of the first screening over Christmas.

British boat building enthusiast Mike Turk has a team of skilled associates and carpenters constructing a replica seagoing version of HMS Indefatigable in Turkey. A wooden jetty and harbour where the ship will be moored is also being erected.

Producer Malcolm Craddock, who made the acclaimed television drama The Orchid House and the more commercial Channel 4 series Eurocops, is convinced that in Hornblower they have unearthed a classic gem from the past. So far, four of Forester's books have been adapted by writers Russell Lewis and Mike Cullen.

"This is a big investment," said Mr Craddock. "The strength of the Sharpe films was that they were strong stories which would fit well on the wide screen. There is an identifiable hero whose life we can follow.

"It is easy to knock period drama. It seems a fashion to be critical. But people have said this is the sort of story that isn't done any more, the kind of TV people want to see. It isn't police or medical. Some of the qualities of Sharpe will also be in Hornblower, but this is more of a rites of passage story, an intimate story about a young man making his way in the world."

The ITV Network Controller Marcus Plantin rubber-stamped the mammoth project.

"ITV welcomed the fact we are not using a star," Craddock says. "We are looking for somebody aged about 24. There are a lot of wonderful young actors in this country. The prize role of the year? Yes, there will be a lot of pressure. But then Hornblower is that kind of part. Whoever plays him must take on responsibility."

Purists claim there is more to Hornblower in terms of modern politics than meets the eye. He was a jingoist, nationalist and something of an anti-European. Above all, he strove to make and keep Britain great. Could he even be Sir James Goldsmith's role model?

"Hornblower will have the dimension of a small island up against the major powers of Europe," says Craddock. "That could indeed be relevant to today. Us against Europe ... many will no doubt relate to that."