Life at the Sharpe end: Food poisoning, injuries, fleas, fire storms and felons – filming a hit TV series was unglamorous… until Liz Hurley turned up
- Jason Salkey’s book recounts filming re-enactments of the Napoleonic wars
- He played a 19th-century soldier in ITV’s 1993 dramatisation of Sharpe’s Rifles
- Book reveals secrets from set including that Liz Hurley was an ‘outrageous’ flirt
FROM CRIMEA WITH LOVE: MISADVENTURES IN THE MAKING OF SHARPE’S RIFLES
by Jason Salkey (Unbound £25, 368pp)
Jason Salkey should have known what was coming from the start. In 1992, delighted to be cast as a 19th-century soldier in ITV’s dramatisation of Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe novels, he receives a letter giving details of the 16-week shoot in Ukraine. It includes the instruction ‘Bring your own toilet paper’.
On arrival in the Crimean city of Simferopol (soon christened ‘Simplyawful’), Salkey finds out why: the local loo roll is the ‘crinkly, waxy’ stuff he remembers from his 1970s childhood.
But a scratched posterior is soon the least of his worries. There are power cuts, leading to the distribution of candles.
Stomach upsets become the norm, not helped by the hotel laying out the cucumber salad starters for dinner in the heat of the afternoon.
Jason Salkey’s (left) book, From Crimea With Love: Misadventures In The Making Of Sharpe’s Rifles, recounts filming re-enactments of the Napoleonic wars in the Crimean city of Simferopol in the 90s. Pictured: The cast on set with director Tom Clegg (in blue) in 1995
Imodium is in great demand on set, especially as the alternative is a ‘Soviet-era enema pump’, administered by a nurse who’s ‘a dead ringer for Myra Hindley’.
Worse, Paul McGann, playing main character Richard Sharpe, injures his knee in a football game during a break from filming. (Salkey keeps his head down about the fact that the game was his idea.)
McGann limps on for a while — literally — but it is soon clear that you can’t operate as one of the Duke of Wellington’s bravest fighters on one leg. Filming is halted, prompting the largest insurance claim in British television history.
However, this turns out to be a blessing. McGann’s replacement, Sean Bean, is such a ratings hit that Sharpe secures several more series.
Though if Salkey thinks this will mean an end to the programme’s jinx, he’s mistaken.
There are flea-ridden mattresses, vans that break down on pre-dawn trips to the set (Salkey and another actor hold up cigarette lighters to stop other drivers ploughing into them), and an actress who is ‘economical with the truth’ about her horse-riding skills (a stunt-woman takes her place).
The make-up budget runs out, and cheaper alternatives irritate the actors’ skin. Rockets misfire, setting a field of dry brush ablaze.
Book tells the tales of the drama and camaraderie among the cast including when Paul McGann, (pictured, centre, on crutches) playing main character Richard Sharpe, injures his knee in a football game during a break from filming in 1992
However, McGann’s replacement, Sean Bean, (pictured) is such a ratings hit that Sharpe’s Rifles, ITV’s dramatisation of Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe novels, secures several more series
It’s a good job the local fire brigade aren’t needed, as in another scene, shot in a drought, their hoses are used to provide fake rain — and the result is ‘pathetic’.
At least the food improves, thanks to movie catering firm Set Meals. In fact, the egg mayonnaise is so good that a Ukrainian crew member, who has shown up to work drunk, tries to steal a plateful to feed his family at home. Oh, and someone goes AWOL with the petty cash. The injuries keep on coming.
Understandable when you’re filming re-enactments of the Napoleonic wars, but even so the actor who gets a boot in the face, smashing his jaw in five places, is not best pleased. Salkey contracts Russian flu and pulls a muscle in his back, while Sean Bean clouts a stuntman on the head with a sword.
Bean of all people should know the risks involved — shooting the movie Patriot Games he had ‘almost lost an eye to a hooked spear wielded by Harrison Ford’. In the end, though, the disasters bring them all together. ‘Our shared experience of hardship and upheaval,’ writes Salkey, ‘had served to bond us much like a regular army unit who’d seen heavy combat.’
When they film a long-standing character’s death scene, the tears are real.
The book also reveals secrets from set – including the fact that Liz Hurley, playing Sharpe’s wife, was an ‘outrageous’ flirt
Jason Salkey claims that Liz Hurley appeared ‘disconcerted’ that Sean Bean didn’t fancy her (pictured together in 1994)
The camaraderie comes in handy when they’re filming in Lisbon, and a restaurant owner tries to cheat them over the bill. A knife-wielding waiter proves no match for a full-on charge from Sean Bean. The visiting Bernard Cornwell grins ‘from ear to ear’ at seeing his characters brought to life so well.
The book is probably aimed mostly at fans of the series. (Salkey still attends their conventions.)
We get to enjoy snippets about the stars: Brian Cox steals nuts in the bar, Daniel Craig destroys someone’s electric alarm clock as power cuts keep setting it off, and Liz Hurley (playing Sharpe’s wife) is an ‘outrageous’ flirt. She appears, he claims, ‘disconcerted’ Sean Bean doesn’t fancy her.
Throw in an airline pilot who unwittingly eats some of the team’s cannabis cake, and an actor who is invited to a local Tatar wedding where sheep are slaughtered, and this is a revealing account of the tricky reality behind TV’s glamorous image.
The most enduring legacy of Salkey’s time on Sharpe? His relationship with Ukrainian interpreter Natasha. By the time the fourth series comes around, their baby son Daniel joins them on set.
However, the most enduring legacy of Salkey’s time on Sharpe was his relationship with Ukrainian interpreter Natasha (pictured together)
By the time the fourth series came around, their baby son Daniel joined them on set (pictured in 1995 at six months old in Silifke, Turkey)
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