|31 December 1995
A Square-jawed Bond baddie with an aitch-free Sheffield
accent. What could be more sinister?
There I was, breaking spring rolls in a modest Chinese restaurant with a
Bond baddie, a biblical villain, an IRA terrorist, a Napoleonic hero, a
I waited for him to draw a chopstick from its paper scabbard and stab a
Szechuan prawn through the heart, as if it had just insulted his sister. But
Sean Bean in the flesh is nothing like Sean Bean on the screen. He is shy,
inoffensive, inarticulate, unremarkable. Far from looking like a sex symbol, he
has lank hair, sly eyes, a dodgy complexion and smoker's teeth.
And yet the camera adores him. It makes him taller, hunkier, squarer of jaw,
a broad Bean. It gives him the charisma he lacks in person. In the latest James
Bond film, Goldeneye, he is splendidly sinister as suave Alex Trevelyan, rogue
agent 006. However, if you listen carefully to Bean's mean lines, you will
understand why he was ruled out of the running to play James Bond himself, even
though he was once the favoured contender of the film's producer, Cubby
Broccoli's daughter Barbara. When Trevelyan talks, he sounds dead posh. But when
he shouts - 'Finish the job, James! Blow them all to 'ell!' - there is a
definite hint of Yorkshire.
Bean is a working-class lad from Sheffield. When he refused to assume a cut-
glass accent off screen, Barbara Broccoli had to concede reluctantly that he
could never be 007, that it wouldn't do for the actor playing Ian Fleming's
smooth-talking hero to tell the world's press that he were 'reet chuffed, like'.
He is happiest playing characters from lowly stock, and has just finished
filming the fourth series of Sharpe, in which he again plays the dashing
infantry officer raised from the ranks for saving the life of Sir Arthur
Wellesley, the future Duke of Wellington. As Sharpe, he can keep his Sheffield
accent and let them working-class roots show through. 'Me mother were an 'ore, I
were born in a brothel and raised in an orphanage.' That's Sharpe, not Bean. 'Me
dad's a welder, he runs his own steel fabrication shop. Him and me mum bought
their council house before the deadline.' That's Bean, not Sharpe.
Brian and Rita Bean, his mum and dad, live on an estate in Handsworth,
Sheffield. 'It's lovely,' says Bean. 'A right nice community. Some journalists
have tried to make out it's rundown, a sort of ghetto, like. But it's not.' All
the same, it's light years from the enormous home in Totteridge, North London,
the family Jag, the stretch limo treatment. That's why he paid ú2 to have his
shoulder tattooed with '100% Blade', pledging his devotion to Sheffield United
FC, 'so I'd never forget where I'm from, like.'
As if he, or we, could ever forget. For a split second in Goldeneye, when
Bond's tank gets in the way of Trevelyan's train, he sounds like a Sheffield
joyrider. 'Ram 'im!' he yells. And most of his scraps in Sharpe evoke Sheffield
city centre of a drunken Saturday night - 'Geddup and fight, yer soft bastard!'
While filming the series, in the Ukraine, he once ran up the mother of all
telephone bills, getting his mum to put the phone next to the radio so he could
follow the entire commentary of a derby match between Sheffield United and
Sheffield Wednesday. 'I were worried sick that one of me sister's kids might
knock the radio over,' he says. 'At the end I had this red ring round me ear.'
At Brooke School, Bean (he was Shaun Bean in those days) was leader of a
gang called The Union. The rival gang was called The Firm. 'Sean enjoyed being a
glory boy,' says his former teacher, Ian Footitt. 'He was popular with the
girls, he loved to chase a ball but he didn't work. I am still stunned as to how
this lad in my class got to be a famous actor. He never did plays.'
Bean, now 36, doesn't appear to regret his misspent youth. 'We used to go
'edge-'oppin', steaming down through all the garden 'edges at about 10 o'clock
at night,' he says. For the first time since the won ton soup, his eyes dance
with enthusiasm. 'And cat-creepin', we did that too, where you sneak through all
the back gardens. I never really knew what I wanted to do for a living. I
suppose in the back of my mind was summut like what I'm doin' now. I left school
at 16, with two O-levels. I did some welding with me dad, but basically drifted
for three years. Then I went to art college. I got a bit of stick from me mates,
like, but it didn't bother me.'
In 1981, having discovered acting at Rotherham College of Art and
Technology, Bean applied to RADA, the most prestigious of drama schools. 'I
didn't even know there were any others,' he says. 'I just thought there were one
big acting school everybody went to.' He got in, but his memories of RADA differ
from the usual actorish reminiscences of starting out on the road to luvviedom.
'I were done for ABH (actual bodily harm) when I were a student there. Me and a
mate were looking for a party one Friday night.
Someone tried to shut the door on me and I ended up whacking 'im a couple of
times. I got fined UKL50.'
Bean was in the same year at RADA as Kenneth Branagh and James Wilby, and
for the first time felt a little insecure about his South Yorkshire accent. He
was willing to soften it, maybe even flirt with a few aitches, but a lecturer
told him to stick with the regional imprint. It was sound advice for the green
Bean. For a few years he cornered the market in rough Northern crumpet, and when
Ken Russell wanted a Mellors for his BBC drama Lady Chatterley, there was no
other contender. 'Along came this boy with grotty skin and grotty teeth,' says
Russell, with customary hyperbole. 'But the camera transformed him. I think he's
a marvellous actor.'
For the humping sequences with Joely Richardson in Lady Chatterley, Russell
used a casual fern to obscure the Bean tattoo. It was one of the few parts of
his anatomy that was covered, in scenes that confirmed his status as a sex
symbol. 'I read all this 'sex symbol' stuff,' says Bean. 'And I sometimes get
sent Polaroids, like. But it doesn't change me opinion of meself. Everyone who
takes his shirt off on TV becomes an 'eart-throb.' Of course, Bean has taken
more off on TV than his shirt. And he insists that having your bottom filmed in
close-up is not, pardon the pun, all it's cracked up to be.
'It's not very nice having a camera up yer bum,' he says. 'And when me and
Joely were running through this field with nowt on, with loudspeakers blaring
bloody Elgar, a double-decker bus went past. There's a difference, like, between
people seeing it on telly and from the top deck of a bus.'
According to Joely Richardson, 'Sean wanted to be as extreme as possible
with those love-making scenes. I wanted to be more under control. But we got on
really well. He's very relaxed, he has a wonderful, wry sense of humour. He
adores his family. And he's a fantastic actor. He has a special quality that
Marlon Brando had. When you meet him in real life you don't see it, but it's
there on the monitors. I loved him in Stormy Monday.'
Stormy Monday, in 1988, was Bean's first biggish film role, alongside
Melanie Griffith. He quite fancied her, he says. 'That squeaky voice of 'ers is
just the same in real life. I think it's quite sexy. She's got a good face and
that, but she's also big and buxom, which I like. I don't like skinny birds.'
Bean is not a New Man. He believes that a woman belongs in the home,
bringing up the children, and that the man 'should be the provider, like'.
He married his first proper girlfriend at 20, 'because that were the thing
to do in Sheffield', but his acting ambitions put the marriage under mortal
pressure. Now he is married to the actress Melanie Hill - who played Aveline in
Bread, and Jimmy Nail's sister in Crocodile Shoes - and strongly disapproves of
her doing raunchy scenes. It is rumoured that this marriage too is in
Bean met his wife at RADA - he admits that he was attracted to her breasts
first - and they had a small daughter, Lorna, by the time he proposed in 1989.
'We were watching a TV programme about marriage, and I said 'How d'yer fancy a
bit of that, then?' ' They now have a second daughter, Molly, but Bean craves a
boy. 'Taking a son to watch Sheffield United, I imagine that would be close to
bliss on earth.'
If going to watch Sheffield United seems like an unlikely definition of
bliss on earth, I know women who claim to reach it simply by putting their feet
up and watching Bean. A female former colleague once poured a glass of water
over me when I dared to criticise him. Plenty of women have seen Goldeneye to
drool over Bean, scarred cheek and all, rather than the more conventionally
dishy Pierce Brosnan. And for some, he even out-dished Harrison Ford in Patriot
Games, Bean's first Hollywood film, in which he established himself as a top-
notch screen villain, playing an IRA terrorist. 'I got on right well with
Harrison Ford,' he says. Although Ford accidentally smashed him in the face
during rehearsals, the black-eyed Bean was eager for more Hollywood action. He
may be inarticulate, but he's far from unambitious.
He is the first to admit that he's had his flops. 'I were crap in A Woman's
Guide To Adultery,' he says. Nevertheless, everyone who's worked with him
underlines the way he seems to grow the instant the camera is pointed at him.
And if one fears a little for his career when the Bean bottom loses its
tautness, he has nothing to worry about at the moment. Even the theatrical giant
Sir Peter Hall cast him in his biblical epic Jacob - 'a camel and loincloth sort
of thing,' says Bean - which was shown on Sky on Boxing Day. As Jacob's nasty,
philandering brother Esau, Bean was required to speak in an American accent. As
usual, the Sheffield vowels poked through in moments of rage, but otherwise, he
again made a fine baddie. And the Bible says that Esau was covered in hair, so
the Blades tattoo presented no problem.
We are coming to the end of our Chinese lunch. 'I'll 'ave some tea,' Bean
tells the waiter. He is extremely disconcerted to find that it's not PG Tips,
and doesn't come with milk. I wait for him for push the table over, or at least
to snap at the waiter, but the villain of the year asks for a glass of water
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