|by Kate Lock
"Unique on the actual battlefield!" exclaims the brochure for Waterloo's Hotel
Le 1815, which does indeed nestle just below the ridge where Wellington's
front line once amassed and triumphed over Napoleon's mighty army. In a
single day - Sunday 18 June 1815 - the undulating farmland outside our
windows became Waterloo's killing fields: 40,000 men and horses were
slaughtered in a battle that was a turning point for Europe. "They are still
digging up the bones," says the barman.
I have come here to accompany Sean Bean on a special pilgrimage, a chance
for him to pay homage to the soldiers who gave their lives for King and
Country in a battle that he himself re-enacts in Sharpe's Waterloo, the
third and final Sharpe film in a new run of ITV's action-adventure series that
begins on Wednesday with Sharpe's Revenge. "I've always wanted to come
here ever since I started doing Sharpe and got interested in the Napoleonic
Wars, so it seems fitting, now I've finished, that I should experience the
place for myself."
In the flesh, "TV's hottest sex symbol" - as the Sheffield-born actor is
frequently dubbed - is a shy man who speaks hesitantly and rarely gives
interviews. He has stayed out of the spotlight since his much-publicised
split with his wife, Bread actress Melanie Hill, so it said a lot both for his
interest in the period and his new-found happiness that he was prepared to
do the trip exclusively for Radio Times - and brought along girlfriend
Abigail Cruttenden, who plays Sharpe's (now ex) wife, Jane Gibbons.
The night before our tour it rains heavily, bucketing down as it did on the
night before the actual battle. Unlike the soldiers, who had to sit it out in
their waterlogged greatcoats, we sleep soundly in our rooms which are all
named after Waterloo's main players. I am in "Cambronne", dedicated to a
member of Napoleon's Imperial Guard famous for shouting a defiant "merde"
at his Prussian attackers; Sean and Abigail are diplomatically put in
Events the following morning certainly require something of the Waterloo
spirit. Descending for breakfast we find the hotel deserted: apart from a
confused Belgian chambermaid there are no staff and the only other guests
have been spotted exiting via a ground-floor window. Locked in and with no
signs of any petit dejeuner, we are reduced to foraging in the kitchen for
stale bread rolls left over from dinner. (I'm afraid our two stars get short
shrift when they ring down for room service.) Jacquetta, the make-up girl,
commandeers the coffee machine behind the bar and plugs in an egg-boiling
contraption, all of which goes well until there is a massive power cut. After
these meagre rations we don waterproofs to do battle with the elements -
the wind and rain are still howling - Sharpe's military adviser, Richard
Rutherford-Moore, approving Sean Bean's suggestion that he take some
hard-boiled eggs with him: Wellington, apparently, never went into battle
without a couple wrapped in his handkerchief . . .
Our first stop is Hougoumont, the farm that was so crucial to the Anglo-Dutch
army's victory. Richard Rutherford-Moore, who is conducting our tour, points
out loop holes in the walls where the detachments of Guards knocked out
bricks to fire their muskets through. The farm was attacked all day but the
British held firm, even when a large body of French soldiers entered the
courtyard through the main gates. A lieutenant-colonel named Macdonnell
and his strapping sergeant managed to close and bar them again, trapping
the men inside. They were slaughtered without mercy, all except for a little
drummer boy. Wellington is reported to have said afterwards that the
success of the battle depended on the closing of the gates at Hougoumont.
Although much of the action in Sharpe's Waterloo is set at the other famous
farm, La Haye Sainte, some of the events are taken from Hougoumont.
Entering the courtyard through those very gates is a chilling experience and
Sean Bean is subdued. "It's a bit spooky," he comments, "especially after we've
set up these fights and you see the men falling into fires, and there's the
smoke and the noise and the horses, and then you see it so still and quiet,
the real thing. It's eerie . . . it's quite easy to imagine within the buildings
we've just seen and outside as well, but to think of it on that sort of scale is
mind-blowing. "I just can't imagine how people could function under those
conditions, the sheer horror of the battle. They had no food, they were wet,
cold, miserable and frightened. Any second you could have had your head
blown off and your friends were dying all around you. But they still held that
place and it's still standing today."
He is clearly moved and stands brooding, looking out across the walled
garden to the ploughed field beyond, now the site of an unmarked mass grave.
"Where we were standing there were 4000 Frenchmen buried, yet you look
at the soil and it's so hard to conceive what has happened here. I'm really
pleased I've come . . . I think it's important that people do remember this,
that thousands of people died for a reason. It would be tragic if that were
Later, we adjourn to a café near the Lion Hill, a massive pyramid raised as a
memorial in the 1820s, and talk about the effect playing Sharpe has had on
him. He has read up on the period - "You can't help but get interested, it's
fascinating" - and has a collection of mementos sent to him by ex-soldiers. He's
also hung on to a few of his props: "Sharpe's invitation to the Prince Regent's
Ball, that's up on the wall, and I've got me sword, an original, made in 1810,
and me green rifleman's jacket, I love that."
Playing rough diamond Richard Sharpe has been a Boy's Own dream come true
for Bean, 36, who does his own stunts, rides, shoots and fences like a veteran
himself. "Sharpe's always been the character I've loved playing more than
any other and I've got a lot of good feelings for him. I'll be sad to let him go.
It's been a big part of my life over the past five years, hanging around on
battlefields. I'm going to miss it."
Fortunately there is still the possibility of a feature film, Sharpe's Tiger, for
him to look forward to, and he remains close friends with the actors playing
the Chosen Men, a handful of whom are reunited in the final film. Filming the
scenes at Waterloo - which were actually shot in Turkey with 1000 extras -
was, he laughs, "quite an adrenaline rush. The cavalry comes charging at
you and you can hear the thunder of hooves and feel the ground shaking.
They're supposed to stop and they did, but on each take they got a bit
closer! You're running through crowds and explosions are going off and
you're dodging weapons - I know it's not the real thing but it does give you
a bit of a feeling as to what it must have been like."
Fuelled by much-needed plates of omelettes and frites we set off again
across this remarkable yet somehow unremarkable landscape. The battlefield
has changed very little since 1815 and it is still farmed: a quiet,
unprepossessing agricultural vista bisected by the busy N5 Brussels to
Charleroi road. Do the motorists speeding along it realise that this is the
road up which Napoleon and his army of 100,000 men advanced? Certainly
Sean Bean doesn't until I point it out, causing him to exclaim in surprise,
"That's what I was galloping up and down in Sharpe!"
We turn into the courtyard of La Haye Sainte with its restored white-painted
buildings and red roofs, also a working farm and normally closed to the public.
It was here, in the heart of the battle, that some 350 soldiers defended
Wellington's position, holding out until 6.00pm when, having run out of
ammunition, they were reduced to hurling tiles at the enemy. Trapped
and with the French closing in they tried to escape through the house.
A gruesome fight with bayonets ensued and the cobblestones ran red with
blood. Only 42 of them made it back to Wellington's ridge alive.
"Our set really did look like this," says Bean, "though it's much more broken
down and gets more and more wrecked as the battle goes on - it actually
did catch fire and the roofs were missing and people were running in and
out stacking up wood and using wagons to reinforce the gates, just as
Richard described. "When he said, 'Don't forget the privates, the small people,
it wasn't just the generals', it was quite emotional. He said they're still
here now, and they probably are. It's an unbelievable experience."
We file out through the archway in silence, humbled by our encounter
with history. On returning to the hotel the staff have reappeared and are
apologising profusely for the morning's domestic catastrophe. As everywhere
in Waterloo, the decor shows a distinct bias towards Napoleon, something
that Sean Bean remarks on as we leave. "It's as if Napoleon won the war and
Wellington didn't . . . I think you've got to put it in perspective that we did
actually stand up against him and that changed the course of history - after
Waterloo there was 99 years of peace. I don't want to sound jingoistic
but I do think there's a time when you should feel proud of what the country
has achieved and the battle of Waterloo is one of them."
Copyright BBC Worldwide Ltd 1997
|Radio Times UK