Well Sharpe itself has been reviewed at length over the years, and there is really not much I can offer that is new regarding this fantastic and iconic drama series, so this review will only compare the new Blu-ray set to the previous DVD release.
So then, my Blu-ray set arrived today and the first thing I did was some paused screen comparisons between my old 1.66:1 (letterboxed in 4:3) ratio DVD's and the new Blu-ray's with a 16:9 full screen ratio as, being a fan of sticking to original ratios, I was concerned how the new widescreen ratio had been achieved. And once again I am completely mystified by the cinematography of Sharpe, and how it has been presented on home video over the years. On some scenes in my comparisons, a portion of top/bottom screen information (mostly bottom) is lost on the Blu-rays, which is what I expected, BUT on some scenes in later episodes there is actually the same and, in a handful of scenes, SLIGHTLY MORE top/bottom screen information on the Blu-rays than on the DVD's. In both cases, obviously, more picture on the sides is gained - ranging from a little (early episodes) to a lot (later episodes). The more top/bottom info in a handful of scenes has me totally perplexed though. Perhaps they were not using all of the image when they originally transferred certain later episodes to DVD? I'm certainly no expert on such matters, and only having a layman's knowledge, it has me perplexed. Apparently production crews in the early 90's were asked to be mindful of protecting the wider frame, by not having crew and equipment in the way, even though they were then shooting mostly for 4:3 broadcast. They did this with future proofing in mind, knowing the advent of widescreen TV was upon us. So perhaps this is why later episodes display the same or even slightly more screen information and the earlier episodes do not. I should note that the scenes I saw with a little more top/bottom picture information, and a lot more side of screen information, were all from the episodes on disc 7. Until I make more comparisons, I don't know how many episodes benefit the most. The earlier episodes are certainly not pokey/cramped though. Well, maybe in a handful of scenes...but not generally. The new wider frame definitely gives the films more of a cinematic quality though. So ultimately, I have to agree with some other people's assessments, that it doesn't look cramped or claustrophobic, like some of us were fearing, and that it has been treated as sympathetically as possible. This I am very pleased about. I have seen 4:3 to 16:9 hack jobs, and this [fortunately] is not one of them. However, if I had been presented with a choice...I think I would have chose to have kept the original ratio for the Blu-ray release. I am a purist in this respect. However, if this is what the-powers-that-be intend to do with a lot of my favourite older TV shows, I guess I must get used to it.
All the grain structure has been left alone, too, which is good. However, in this they had little choice. Had they gone overboard with Digital Noise Reduction, it would have hampered the finer details. And so there is a fair bit more detail to be found. Obviously nothing like the detail improvements we would have got had they used 35mm film - but that was to be expected. However, the extra detail on offer impressed me a lot. In one comparison I made, the Irish intelligence officer, Hogan, was pointing directions out to Sharpe on a map. On the DVD, I could hardly read the larger text on the map, let alone the smaller text, but on the Blu-ray I could see large and small text and every last nuance of the map's details. In another comparison, I saw a scene with an advancing French cavalry in the distance. On the DVD, they had blank and featureless faces. On the Blu-ray, I could see their facial features clearly. There are also no longer any compression artefacts, as was on the DVD's, which is also good. One concern though is with the colour - it is an overall improvement over the DVD's, that is for sure, but it has left some indoor scenes with characters looking quite red/flushed. I think they just upped colour/contrast across the board, instead of doing it on a scene-by-scene basis, and it has brought out the sunburn that some characters must have had that was not as noticeable on the DVD's. After all, they were (mostly) English actors filming in hot countries, so sunburn must have been an issue. Maybe I noticed it more because I was doing side by side comparisons, so it might not bother others in a normal viewing situation, or bother those who do not own the DVD's. This particularly affected the dimmer indoor scenes, as did excessive grain.
So yes, a general visual improvement...definitely. However, the visual side of things is only half the story - sound is also important. Now it is a pity they never went with lossless audio, it has to be said, but my god does the new Dolby Digital 5.1 mix sound better than the old 2.0 track. Skirmish and battle scenes just seem bigger and more epic. Again, this gives the films far more of a cinematic quality. The sound is very well mixed across all the channels...with very decent rear speaker action in all the right places. I was fearing a half-hearted 5.1 mix, but this is not the case.
As regards extras, it is same as it ever was. So we have the 'Sharpe The Legend' episode once more...which is not really an episode at all, but rather a compilation look-back over all Sharpe and Harper's classic series adventures, narrated by Rifleman Cooper from a 19th century pub setting. 'Sharpe's Shooting', the documentary featurette from the DVD set is also still on offer. You also get the fact file info for each episode that was on the DVD sets, detailing what life was like for real soldiers back in the Napoleonic era, as well as the token photo galleries. The pity regarding extras is the fact there is nothing new on offer. In my opinion, Blu-ray should always offer something new over a DVD set. I particularly would have liked some audio commentaries from the lead actors, or at least from a producer or director. Alas, no such luck.
All put together, the visual *and* audio improvements are worth the upgrade for me, and probably will be for you. I do have to knock a star off though, as the box itself is far flimsier than the old DVD set...it is now thin card that will not stand up to normal use, where previously it was hard board. You might be better off storing just the internal DVD cases on your shelf and putting away the box for safe keeping. And I do have to reflect the lack of new extras when knocking off this star. So four stars it is. If I was just reviewing the films themselves, it would easily be five stars. Sharpe is a fantastic series of films - but if you have read this far, you already know that.
I should also add that I never had the dodgy 7th disc issue that others have mentioned. I play my Blu-rays on a PS3, and others have noted that PS3's, along with some standalone models, do not have a problem with the bad discs. I now have to wonder if my disc 7 will be OK should I upgrade to a standalone at a later date. Although I have to note that Amazon removed the Blu-ray sets from sale for a small while, while the issue was investigated (or so I read somewhere), so maybe they have new stock...as I ordered my set when it came back on sale. Hopefully this is an issue that has now been rectified.