Why you need to watch Sean Bean on Waterloo

So many historical journeys begun with Bernard Cornwell’s bestselling Sharpe series, or else the ITV show of the same name, that despite its litany of historical sins there’s a great deal of delight to be gleaned from seeing Sean Bean familiarise himself with the real Battle of Waterloo in the History channel’s two-part documentary, starting Sunday 14 May at 10pm.

Weaving between the typical doc toolkit of re-enactments, first-hand accounts, battle maps and artefacts, Sean Bean on Waterloo isn’t shy about its secret weapon: Sean himself.

He’s not a natural presenter. Typically taciturn and low-key, he occasionally grunts or murmurs in response – no doubt to the dismay of the director. That, however, is part of his endearing everyman quality. His passion for the period he brought to life on screen is obvious and his easy charm effortlessly draws out the best in his diverse range of experts and interviewees, some of whom recount the tales of their ancestors at the battle.

Shuffling around in flatcap and his hands wedged deep in his jacket pockets like someone’s dad at a classic car rally, he grins benignly at muskets (greeting the Baker Rifle, the iconic firearm of Richard Sharpe’s green-clad 95th Rifles as an old friend) and chats blokeishly to soldiers, helpfully on loan from the British Army to shed light on Wellington’s tactics or tools.

Another great source of joy is drawn from the toys. The sheer volume of muskets stored at the Royal Armouries in Leeds means that Sean can have a go at firing one, or help load and fire a cannon. Vaguely reminiscent of the dubious malarkey of Deadliest Warrior, we even get to see a man on horseback demonstrate the cutting power of a cavalry sabre on a dead pig.

200 years on from 18 June 1815, when the events of that day couldn’t seem any more abstract, Sean Bean on Waterloo brings its modernity and its humanity to the fore.

Even the larking around with gunpowder and shot serves a purpose, seeding understanding of the the horrors, hardship and sheer hard graft faced by the lowly redcoats, hammered home by a arresting sequence where Sean tests out the tools of a battlefield amputation on a gristly dummy. At the other end of the chain of command, the anxiety felt by Wellington – who remarked darkly of the bloodshed that “nothing except a battle lost can be half so melancholy as a battle won” – is shared through the show’s blow-by-blow depiction of such a close-run engagement.

Suddenly those Regency-era tales of loss and heroism seem very raw, indeed.

Sean Bean on Waterloo episode one, premieres on Sunday 14th June 2015 at 10pm, only on HISTORY®.