|28 May - 3 June 1994
Despite a string of sexy roles, Sean Bean says stripping off makes him squirm. He's much happier with a sword in his hand as 19th century action man Sharpe. Galloping full pelt down a Ukrainian hillside with a beautiful blonde clinging desperately to his waist, Sean Bean looked every inch the Boy's Own hero.
As Richard Sharpe, the rugged British Army officer and veteran of dozens of brutal battles with the French Forces of Napoleon, Sean was 100 per cent convincing.
Best-selling novelist Bernard Cornwell, whose Sharpe books are the basis for ITV's lavish three-part production, watched in wonder. "Sean's wonderful," said the writer. "He doesn't just get close to my Sharpe. He is Richard Sharpe. It's much easier to write now I can imagine him in the role."
Suddenly, as Sean went to cross an icy mountain stream for the tenth time, disaster struck. His horse stumbled awkwardly - and unscripted - into the water, and both hero and distressed damsel crashed down on to the rocky bottom of the stream. The crew rushed forward as actor and actress scrambled to their feet, shaken but not injured.
"Great," shouted director Tom Clegg. "Don't dry them off, we'll keep that fall in. It looked brilliant!"
Sean grinned ruefully and quickly continued his flight from French forces on foot, dragging his woman with him. Richard Sharpe is a soldier who carries out dangerous missions in Spain during the Napoleonic wars. This week he goes to the rescue of Lady Isabella (Elizabeth Hurley), the wife of an English Colonel who has been kidnapped by a gang of deserters. But when he finds her he discovers she's not all she seems.
The stories are heavy on romance and action. Tanned and unshaven, clad in a tattered 18th-century uniform, Sean has a charisma which almost convinces spectators that Sharpe is real and all the 20th-century technology is fiction. Later, in a hotel room so full of imported food that it looks like a remote outpost of Sainsbury's, Britain's hottest screen heart-throb explains why, out of all the roles he's played, Sharpe is special.
Sean, 34, was born in Sheffield and he proudly hangs on to his Yorkshire accent. The down-to-earth one-time welder has none of the airs and graces of many actors.
He is married to former Bread star Melanie Hill and admits that during four months of location filming in the Ukraine, he's greatly missed his wife and daughters - Lorna, six, and Molly, two.
"We film here because it's cheap," says Sean. "The stuntmen are brilliant and the countryside looks a lot like Spain, where Sharpe was supposed to be fighting.
"But the economy is a mess and there is not much to do. That's why I brought my microwave and loads of food out. I miss home like hell.
"I missed both girls' birthdays and Molly took her first steps when I was away. I was choked when I got home and she walked to me."
He and Melanie met at drama school. On their first date Sean, never the great romantic, took his future wife to see the powerful war film Gallipoli. And his proposal was hardly something out of Mills and Boon. While watching a documentary on marriage he said bluntly: "Ow do you fancy a bit of that?" Melanie accepted rather more gracefully and the couple were married within days.
Still, the relationship clearly works and Sean insists: "We're very ordinary. We'd much rather have a Chinese takeaway in front of the telly than go to a fancy restaurant." After raising female pulses in the BBC's Clarissa and Lady Chatterley and ITV's A Woman's Guide to Adultery, he is closely associated with raunchy roles.
But he says: "I'd much rather play Sharpe than any of those sexy parts. I'd rather be sword fencing than doing bedroom scenes."
"I squirm when I see some of these naked scenes. I remember how stupid I felt when Ken Russell filmed me for Lady Chatterley, running stark naked through a field with the corn just covering my naughty bits. I thought, what the bloody hell is this all about. I wanted to burst out laughing."
"I'm no sex symbol, I'm just a fellow doing a job. You only have to take your trousers off to get called a sex symbol."
"Sharpe is a great counter to all the sex stuff. An adventure story. You have to throw caution to the wind in the action. It's a war film. I like all the fighting, the swords, and I've done all the stunts myself."
Sean's childhood hero was the gifted Sheffield United footballer Tony Currie - "the greatest player I've ever seen" - but he still feels there are parallels between his own background and that of fictional hero Richard Sharpe. "We both dragged ourselves out of where we grew up," says Sean. "Of course, he was born in a brothel and I had a very happy childhood. But like him, I wanted something else and I went out and got it."
Sean left school with two O-levels, in art and English, and no thought of becoming an actor. "I started work at my dad's firm as a welder," he says. "But at 17 or 18 I was interested in other things."
He also found time to read. While his pals were in the pub he was often at home reading Brecht and his interest in acting was born.
"I started going to college at Rotherham to do art but there was a drama course there and I got the bug," says Sean. "I went to RADA and hated London at first. Even now I prefer Sheffield, the people are much more optomistic.
"And I prefer Sharpe to any other part I've played. He's a lot like me. An ordinary bloke who has had to drag himself through the system to get where he wants to be."
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