Never mind the Social Chapter, feel the buckshot

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The Independent Online
"At first reading it purports to be a picaresque romance, but to the educated eye it's more of a satire on the morals and manners of society." Thus Harris, one of the more bookish members of Major Sharpe's little band of soldiers, delivering a brisk footnote on Candide. I was a bit taken aback by this; was somebody in the script department trying to smuggle out a message to the millions watching Sharpe (ITV)? Perhaps I should look a little more closely, test the production for evidence of larger ambitions. The thought was almost immediately scotched by Sharpe's response: "When you get back 'ome, Harris, write a bloody good book wi' loads of shooting in it and you'll die a rich man." Well, that was more like it - a succinct statement of Carlton's artistic method and prime motive.

It was also, to be fair, entirely in character, because Sharpe's appeal is based on his stern repudiation of airs and graces. He's blunt is Sharpe. The other officers appear to believe that the war is a rather bloody game of British Bulldog, a jolly excursion governed by the rules of honour. If your opponent shouts "parole", then it simply isn't sporting to ignore it. "Bad form, old man," says Sharpe's commanding officer, catching him as he is about to run through a devious Frenchy spy who has just surrendered. Sharpe is right, of course, as his name promises. It isn't long before the filthy Frog has scarpered, breaking the terms of the gentleman's agreement. Cue a reckless assault on the French fort, redcoats ambling senselessly towards the guns, and a duel to the death. Marvellous. No nonsense about fishery deals and the Social Chapter - just buckshot and cold steel.

The series prides itself on its veracity I imagine - probably has to, given the mad energies of all those people with Napoleonic battle dioramas in their attics. But this concern with local detail can look odd at times, particularly when it is arcane enough to require explanation. In one line of dialogue, a soldier shyly offered Sharpe brown paper and paraffin oil - "For your wounds", he added, as though he thought the Major might otherwise try to make a sandwich out of them. But no amount of research can conceal the fact that this is, at heart, a war comic. It may be touched here and there with contemporary pieties - Sharpe unconvincingly mutters about "the madness that is this war" - but the mood is best summed up by the speech bubbles that emerge at moments of tension. "John Bull's a bad neighbour but Bonaparte's a bully and so are you," says Wellington's master spy to a sneering turncoat, before punctuating his sentence with a highly satisfying "Biff!'' and "Kapow!".

Sharpe would take a dim view of the Channel Tunnel, I warrant, the subject of a slightly inconsequential film for the Modern Times (BBC2) series. Graham Johnston's subject was the rivalry between the ferry operators, P&O in this case, and Eurotunnel. This looked promising, particularly during the sequence in which P&O managers perched on a hilltop above Folkestone with binoculars, spying on their rivals traffic. But while the fierce competition generates Force 9 bluster on both sides, there weren't quite enough of such moments to prevent the film from feeling like a business documentary about marketing methods.

Whatever they do, Eurotunnel will have to improve the meals they give to lorry drivers. At one point, Johnston's film showed several extremely beefy men prodding disgustedly at a doll's house version of a lay-by fry- up. The camera swung to the other side of the carriage to solicit the views of a driver who had the Independent folded on his table. Excellent, I thought, readying myself for the decisive clarity of mind I have come to expect of our readers. He did not disappoint: "It's crap," he said.

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