|1 May 1993
by Jill Parsons
DASHING and brave but with a definite lack of breeding, Richard Sharpe cuts
a swathe through the French cavalry, berates, beats and defends his own
men, and finds time for a romantic dalliance with a fiery Spanish lady.
Definitely pre-Maastricht, Bernard Cornwell’s best-selling tales of Sharpe
and his band of fighting men reach the screen in Sharpe’s Rifles on
Wednesday with a follow-up, Sharpe’s Eagles, on May 12.
They are set in Napoleonic Spain where the British riflemen hate the
French and hate Sharpe – promoted to lieutenant from the ranks after
saving the life of the future Duke of Wellington – even more. Sharpe
hates the Irish despite the origins of his mentor, Hogan. But he comes
to change his views in the heat of battle.
Bringing Sharpe to life is Sean Bean, who seems to have won almost
every major role going in recent months. But Bean was actually called
up at the last minute when first choice Paul McGann was forced to pull
out after injuring his leg in an accident.
Filming had already begun. Bean had less than a week to pack his bags
for the three-month shoot in the Crimea. ‘It was very unfortunate for
Paul, but fortunate for me. It was a role that I wanted to play because
there’s a lot of action, an element of romance and the chance to
develop the character of the man.’
He is sanguine about his late arrival on the far-flung set. ‘It would have
been nice to prepare properly but in a way it helped to be a newcomer
on set. In the story, Sharpe is an outsider who is gradually accepted
and befriended by the other men, and that’s how it was for real.’
The Crimea’s unspoilt scenery was perfect for recreating 19th century
Spain but meant 33-year-old Bean had to spend a long time away from
his wife Melanie Hill, best known as Aveline in the Carla Lane sitcom
Bread, and daughters Lorna and Molly.
‘London to Yalta is a long plane ride, followed by a very long bus ride,
so there was no time to go back. But I rang to speak to my family every
night from my hotel room,’ he says.
‘I missed the little one, Molly, beginning to walk. That kind of thing can
blow your mind sometimes. But Melanie got the camera out, so I’ve got
bits of it on video.’
Born in Sheffield, Bean was a welder for three years before deciding to try
his luck at acting. ‘I just wanted to do something different. I had become
interested in acting when I was at college. I got a real buzz out of it. I
had lots of jobs – from working in a supermarket to clearing snow for the
council – and my family thought that this was another fad.
‘But then I came to London, got into RADA and got jobs. After that the
family knew I was serious.’
Despite a variety of roles, including Lovelace in Clarissa, Mick McAvoy in
Fool’s Gold (the story of the Brinks-Mat robbery), and as an IRA terrorist in
Patriot Games, Bean has clung to his thick Sheffield accent. Asked if
Sharpe was a Yorkshireman, Bean grins and replies: ‘He is now.’
His accent was not a drawback in Hollywood, where he made Patriot Games.
‘I had a nice time and I’d like to do more films out there. Harrison Ford has
always been a hero of mine, so it was terrific working with him.
‘There are good and bad things about the place. I could work there, but
whether I could sell the house, uproot my family and settle there, is another
In June, he stars as Mellors the gamekeeper in Ken Russell’s glossy
adaptation of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, with Joely Richardson and James Wilby.
He had no reservations about the numerous sex scenes in the BBC adaptation.
‘It’s a vital part of life, just as fighting and conquering towns is for Sharpe
and his contemporaries. You don’t have to see a lot for it to be sexy. A lot
can be said with just looks without people ripping their clothes off.’
In Sharpe he found himself playing a soft-centred hero instead of a tough
guy – a change he relished. ‘I have played a lot of villains, but it’s not
something I set out to do. Sharpe is a great character because he is so
complex. From an unpromising background he has risen to unexpected
heights. That in itself is his problem, because his fellow officers – superior
in class and wealth – look down on him, and his men despise him for
being no better than they are.
‘He is brave in battle, but unsure of himself in other circumstances and is
Bean admits he has his own vulnerable side. ‘I may play a hard man, but
I’m a big softie really. I cry at things like Wuthering Heights. And I would
stick up for what I think is good and would always fight for my family.’