Return of the Costume Drama


The Times - Alexandra Frean
May 5, 1993
Return of the Costume Drama

Tonight, Central TV is out to prove the franchise critics wrong. Costume drama, the most expensive form of television programme and once regarded as the unique preserve of the BBC, is staging a comeback on ITV tonight with 'Sharpe', a lavish adaptation of Bernard Cornwell's best-selling historical novels.

Set in Spain during the Napoleonic wars, the two-part series tells the story of Richard Sharpe, a maverick swashbuckling officer in Wellington's Army. Central Television, which produced the programme for the ITV network, hopes that the #3 million production will quash fears that the franchise awards system would force independent channels to abandon high-quality drama in favour of cheaper, populist game shows. It also hopes that 'Sharpe' will eventually become a long-running series, providing a stiff challenge to a raft of forthcoming BBC costume dramas based on classic novels, including D.H. Lawrence's 'Lady Chatterley's Lover', George Eliot's 'Middlemarch', and Stendhal's 'The Scarlet and the Black'.

By producing 'Sharpe' as a series of self-contained episodes, rather than a long- running BBC-style serial in which the plot develops from programme to programme, Central is copying the successful formula of ITV detective programmes such as 'Morse' and 'Poirot'.

Given recent complaints from politicians about the relentless diet of television violence, a programme containing bloody face- to-face combat may seen an unlikely choice for ITV's flagship drama.

'Sharpe', however, is essentially a programme about glory; the gore, such as it exists, is unsensational. Central kept costs relatively low by filming 'Sharpe' in the Ukraine. With vibrant dialogue and a convincing lead female role, the production is full of dramatic tension.

Sean Bean, who starred in the BBC's bodice-ripping drama 'Clarissa' last year, gives a strong performance in the title role of 'Sharpe'. Bean features again as Mellors the gamekeeper in 'Lady Chatterley', the BBC's lavish four-part adaptation of Lawrence's novel, also starring Joely Richardson and directed by Ken Russell. It begins on June 6.

There is plenty for the purists to growl about in 'Lady Chatterley'. The production is based not only on the book first published 28 years after Lawrence's death but also on his two previously published drafts for it. The BBC, however, is confident that the impeccable period sets and costumes will have a strong pull on the Sunday night audience.

'Lady Chatterley' will be followed in the autumn by a six- part BBC2 adaptation of 'Middlemarch', set in an English town in the 1830's, and by a three-part serialisation of 'The Scarlet and the Black', set in France in the 1820's, to be shown on BBC1 early next year.

Sharpe starts tonight on ITV at 8pm.

 


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