Three PBS staples attempt a risky comeback
When Britain's ITV recently announced that it planned to resurrect three dormant series, "Sharpe," "Rumpole of the Bailey," and "Inspector Morse," there seemed to be some slight obstacles.Skip to next paragraph
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To reconvene "Sharpe" (1993 to 1997), the action drama set in Napoleonic times, the producers had to lure lead actor Sean Bean - now a big-screen star in films such as "Lord of the Rings" and "Troy" - back to the small screen.
But the other two series face a trickier hurdle: The principal actors of both "Rumpole" (which aired from 1978 to 1992) and "Morse" (1987 to 2000) are no longer alive. And in the case of Morse, the character also died in the final episode.
ITV's solutions are, to say the least, risky. Albert Finney has been chosen to play Rumpole, the character indelibly embodied by the late Sir Leo McKern. "Morse," meanwhile, will shift the focus to the detective's sidekick, Sergeant Lewis, played by Kevin Whately.
One can rehire actors, and cast new ones, but it's hardly a guarantee that audiences will buy into TV series that are fundamentally different from the incarnations they knew and loved. If ITV's venture succeeds, it may set a precedent for the revival of other well-remembered characters in an age when original programming seems at a premium because of the risks and costs involved.
"We're making a two-hour film of each," says Nick Elliott, controller of ITV drama, on the phone from England. "Once we see how they are received, there could be more. It will be something like 'Prime Suspect' - one or maybe two every year or so."
The incentive to ITV to revisit these characters is clear. All three shows were extremely successful domestically and internationally. "Inspector Morse" was ultimately sold to 200 countries, making it one of British television's most widely seen exports; a documentary that accompanied release of the final episode in 2000 claimed that the show had been seen by 1 billion viewers worldwide.
In the US, the series became staples on public television. It's hardly surprising that PBS is receptive to airing the new shows.
"Albert Finney and John Mortimer - that's blue-chip," says Rebecca Eaton, a renowned producer from PBS flagship station WGBH, which has been a co-producer on many of the British series PBS has presented. "And, since 'Sharpe,' Sean Bean's star has risen."
Fans, too, seem eager for new installments of their shows. In an unscientific poll at www.morse mania.co.uk, a fan site of the detective series, 56 percent of respondents favored the idea of reviving "Morse" with Lewis.
Devotees of "Sharpe," the gallant British soldier, are also eager for fresh episodes. "The prospect of more 'Sharpe' films is the most exciting thing to happen to 'Sharpe' fans in a long, long time," says Christine Clarke of Nottingham, England, who is secretary to the 1,300-member Sharpe Appreciation Society. "It is important that they are setting the new film in 1817 [in India] so we can have the return of Sean Bean - no one else could take this role on and be believable."