|1 May 1993
by Margaret Forwood
When they told Sean Bean he was being promoted as a sex symbol in his new TV
series, Sharpe, his reply was succinct. "Oooh, bloody 'ell," he said, in the
rich, ripe accent of his native Sheffield. Handsome, lean and capable of
looking quite mean, 33-year-old Sean is the former welder who has become one of
the hottest actors of his generation.
With the Royal Shakespeare Company he notched up a Romeo which had young girls
swooning in the aisles. He played the terrorist stalking Harrison Ford in
Patriot Games, and in BBC2's Clarissa, he was chillingly vulpine as the upper-
But 1993 is going to be Sean Bean's year. He stars in two films, based on the
Bernard Cornwell best-sellers about a soldier in the Napoleonic Wars, made by
Central TV at a cost of 10 million pounds.
The first is Sharpe's Rifles. Sharpe's Eagle will be shown a week later. And he
plays Mellors the gamekeeper in Ken Russell's nervously-awaited version of Lady
Chatterley, starting on BBC1 on June 6.
But Sean remains resolutely ordinary. You can take the lad out of Sheffield,
but no one is going to take Sheffield out of the lad, if he has his way.
He's a dedicated Sheffield United fan, still hangs out with friends he made at
school, deliberately keeps his accent and frequently falls back on the sort of
grammatical colloquialisms -- "I were" and "it were" -- which would make John
Patten's hair curl.
He brought our meeting forward so that he could attend a local Derby between
United and Sheffield Wednesday, spent at least a third of the time we were
together talking about football, and proudly showed me the tattoo on his
shoulder. It reads "100% Blade" which, decoded, means "I am a whole-hearted
supporter of Sheffield United".
It's not some youthful aberration, he had it done quite recently.
"It cost 2 pounds. Well, I paid for me mate's as well, so it were 4 pounds."
He's never called anyone "luvvie" in his life. I might say: 'All right then,
loov,' but that's it," he insists. He's shy to the point of shaking with
nerves. In fact, it's bewildering to an outsider how anyone so un-actorish has
ended up playing the classics.
When he went up for the part in Clarissa, someone advised him to modify his
accent for the audition, but he couldn't. When he's acting, it's different. He
can imitate any type of speech.
"I think I've proved I can speak differently when I need to," he says, "so I
don't think my accent's done me any harm."
He doesn't recall learning anything about Shakespeare or drama at school, or
having any urge to act. He left at 16 with two O-levels, desperate to start
earning, and went to work for his father's welding business.
That didn't last, and after a variety of odd jobs, he decided to try art
school. He was lucky that there was a drama course on the curriculum, and even
luckier that a tutor spotted his potential and recommended that he try the
Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.
"I didn't even know there were any others," he said. "I just thought there were
one big acting school everybody went to." He was already in his twenties and
married to a local Sheffield girl when he won a place. The marriage began to
drift apart as he discovered his vocation.
"I was settled in my mind at last that this was what I wanted to do. But things
became a bit difficult and we went our different ways."
At RADA he met Melanie Hill, who later played Aveline in Bread. "I'd met her
when we went for our interviews on the same day, but it was halfway through the
course before anything happened.
"We were doing The Country Wife and she were playing a busty maid in a very low
frock. I remember looking and thinking, that's nice. So I asked her out."
They're now happily married with two daughters, Lorna, five, and Molly, one,
and have just bought a new house in Muswell Hill. "It sort of sobers you up a
bit having kids," he says. "It brings you down, keeps your feet on the ground.
I miss them when I'm away. Before I went to Russia for Sharpe, Molly was only
crawling. When I came back I opened the door, and there she was walking around
like a little elf. It was a strange feeling."
Central TV have invested heavily in Sharpe. The stories were filmed in the
Crimea, doubling for Spain, and in Portugal.
The films are shot in a wide-screen format to give an epic feel and if the
first two are a success, a whole series will follow. They're just waiting for
the nod from ITV's all-powerful network centre.
Sean is ideally cast as Richard Sharpe, the rough, tough sergeant and son of a
whore, who's never known any other life except the army.
After saving the life of Sir Arthur Wellesley, later the Duke of Wellington,
during the Spanish campaign, Sharpe is promoted to Lieutenant and sent on a
desperate mission behind enemy lines with a bunch of men who resent a leader
who hasn't been born to officer class.
He exudes charisma and -- luckily for Central's promotional plans -- sexual
magnetism. Yet he wasn't first choice for the role. Paul McGann had been
filming for eight weeks when he broke his leg.
Central tried to salvage what they could from the footage already shot. Sean
was sent the scripts, and four days later found himself in Russia. "It was
chaos at first, it looked as if everyone was going home just as I arrived, but
then they all came back. And everybody made me feel that welcome."
Although they're being described as romantic adventures, there's very little
romance in the first story. Sharpe is too busy trying to stay alive, although
he does briefly get the girl. But there can be no doubt about the sexual
content of Sean's next project, Lady Chatterley.
He plays opposite Joely Richardson, whom he knew at RADA. The fact they were
old friends made it easier to play the love scenes, he says.
Director Russell also tried to relax them with mood music, and the sex scenes
were filmed over the space of a few days, rather than looming up throughout the
filming like large hurdles.
"It's very faithfully done," he says, "though obviously you can't put as much
sex on TV as there is in the book. People will only be offended if they were
upset by the book to start with.
"It's a bit of a shock having to film scenes like that, but then again, it's
part of the story so it should be there. It weren't a big problem for me, once
I'd got over the initial thing of taking my clothes off.
"They kept the crew as small as possible out of courtesy to Joely and me, but
even then I wouldn't walk around nude smoking and drinking a cup of coffee
between shots. I put a towel on. You don't get carried away. When you've been
doing scenes like that for a week, you get tired out instead. I am shy, but you
just have to concentrate and give it 100 per cent."
Despite the book's obsession with Mellors's "John Thomas", Sean won't be seen
full-frontal, unlike his co-star.
"At least if I am, I must have missed it. It depends how closely you look, I
suppose. But as far as I remember, you see my backside, not my front."
Even so, showing your bottom on TV must count as a bit risque among fellow fans
of Sheffield United. "Aye, well, we'll have to see what they say," he says,
grinning. "I still go back to Sheffield a lot. I've not cut off. I can relax
with my mates and my family and still be what I used to be. I'm not an actor up
there. I'm still Sean of Sheffield."
In Russia, he called his mother and got her to put the radio next to the phone
so that he could listen to a United match.
"I were worried sick that one of my sister's kids might knock the radio over,
but I managed to listen for two hours. At the end I had this red ring around my
That's what they call 100% Blade.
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