If you think today is a miserable time to be British (given Brexit and its associated economic and political chaos), spare a thought for those Britons who lived through the early 1990s. A severe recession inflicted misery on millions. Interest rates and unemployment soared while house prices and incomes crashed.
Unsurprisingly, a weary public sought respite in front of their TV sets with escapist series such as “Sharpe’s Rifles”, set in Portugal and Spain, particularly popular.
First broadcast in 1993, the show featured a tough Yorkshire soldier called Richard Sharpe (played by a then relatively unknown Sean Bean), who battled and eventually overcame assorted rogues and scoundrels, many on his own side, during the Peninsular War that raged across Portugal and Spain in the early 19th century.
Chaos and corruption
Every week, 10 million Britons tuned into “Sharpe”, and the series also become immensely popular across the globe. Yet, the story of the making of the show, much of it filmed in the Ukraine, is as dramatic as the battles in which the eponymous hero fought, according to the actor Jason Salkey. He played one of the most prominent characters, Rifleman Harris, who memorably introduced himself to Sharpe as “a courtier to my lord Bacchus and an unremitting debtor”.
I recently talked to Jason about a book he is writing entitled Crimea with Love. It documents “the mishaps, blunders, incompetence and downright corruption that made Sharpe’s Rifles go down in British television and film production folklore for its tales of hardship, disaster and chaos only rivalled by the Ukraine itself.”
Jason explains: “Initially, Paul McGann was given the lead role of Richard Sharpe, but Paul hurt his knee playing football six days into the shoot sending the production into chaos, which ended only after Sean Bean came in to save the day.
“The incompetence lay in the decision to take a Western film unit into the disarray of the newly-splintered Soviet Union and to link up with Russian co-producers, adept at overcharging the British producers and underpaying the local crew. But the Soviet Union was run like a mafia; corrupt to the bone, so it was the only way they knew how to operate!”
However, as Jason details in the book, which he is crowdfunding (see link at the end of the article), Sharpe changed his life: “I met my wife, who was on the show as an interpreter, and we even managed to conceive our very own Sharpe baby while we were on ‘active duty’. In addition, playing the part of Rifleman Harris allowed me to make a small contribution to a legendary TV series, which in turn has given me a new career catering to the questions of Sharpe fans worldwide.”
In one incident, when shooting switched from the Ukraine to Portugal, art imitated life. During the Peninsular War, British troops were notorious for their liking for liquor. Indeed, Wellington once said of his men, “they have all enlisted for drink”. Each man received a daily issue of either a third of a pint of rum or a pint of wine.
After a night of carousing in Lisbon, of which Sharpe and his riflemen would have been proud, Jason and other members of the cast and crew took umbrage when presented with a ridiculously large bill and decided to do a bunk.
“Well oiled on the vino and well stuffed with pent up anger after numerous rows with my girlfriend, I vaulted up the stairs wrenching the waiter aside and unbolting the door. I defiantly yanked it open to find a most fearsome, ugly-looking Lisbonite, standing in the street waiting for us, and armed with a small knife. Before I could raise even an eyebrow, I felt a massive shove on my back that left me in the gutter staring at the moon. In a couple of seconds, it was all over; our whole party was in the street unharmed. It turns out that Sean, who wasn’t averse to a little agro from time to time, in his haste to smash the bloke’s face in, had shoved me out of the way to have a clear run at the ‘enemy’. Maybe Sean was just protecting me, either way the sight of Sean Bean charging at you with intent made the guy run a mile!”
Overall, however, Jason has “very happy memories” of Lisbon and Cascais, which felt like “paradise” after spending three-and-a-half months in the Crimea. Jason adds, “shooting in the country where the action took place adds an extra level of authenticity which always helps an actor.”
Since taking part in the series, Jason has become a fan of the riflemen and the era. The men who belonged to the Rifle brigade that features in the TV series were the elite troops of their era. They were armed with Baker rifles, which were far more accurate and had a much greater range than the muskets carried by most soldiers of the time.
Jason says of the riflemen: “A hardy breed, they would have no problem dealing with post-Soviet Ukraine. Being an absolute newcomer to everything Napoleonic before I got the role on Sharpe, I got my introduction when reading ‘The Recollections of Rifleman Harris’, a memoir written by a real rifleman called Benjamin Harris.
“I was aghast at the horrors faced by a foot soldier of the 95th on campaign in the Peninsula. The Napoleonic campaigns represent the true First World War. The conflict spanned the globe and involved numerous countries.
“The Napoleonic era was also a time of great change coming just before the dawning of the industrial revolution. I’ve always liked the anecdote that Robert Stephenson sought advice from rifle maker Ezekiel Baker on how to bore metal for the cylinders used in his ‘Rocket’. That, of course, led to the invention of the steam train.”
Finally, I asked Jason when he realised that Sharpe was going to be a success.
Jason responded that he knew the show had the potential to be a hit after he had read some of the Sharpe novels by Bernard Cornwell. He adds: “I thought Sharpe was special, almost a Bond-like hero capable of amazing feats of heroism. Did I realise the show might have the longevity it’s experienced? Not really, but actors always hope they are in on something that will stand the test of time and is enjoyed across generations, so I suppose the thought was somewhere in the back of my mind.”
Jason hopes to have his book released by late November saying he has written most of the first draft. People can still support the project by purchasing their hardback copy ‘up-front’ before publication.
You can also catch the entire series of “Sharpe” on Amazon Prime in Portugal and the audiobook of the memoirs of real Rifleman Harris, voiced by Jason, is available via his website below.
The Peninsular War 1807-14: Napoleon’s Vietnam
Napoleon Bonaparte outsmarted military commanders in battle after battle as his revolutionary army rampaged across Europe. Yet, this tactical genius made enormous strategic blunders, including the invasion of Iberia in 1807, and Russia in 1812. Of the 680,000 members of the Grand Armée who entered Russia, just 27,000 eventually struggled back across the border.
The Peninsular War also took a terrible toll on French troops. The campaign began when Napoleon invaded Portugal in 1807 to punish the country for continuing to trade with the British. The French emperor had sought to impose a blockade on Britain’s commerce with continental Europe. France was initially allied with Spain but the Spanish rose up against the French occupation in 1808.
During an epic campaign that traversed Iberia, a small British expeditionary force under the command of Sir Arthur Wellesley, who later became the Duke of Wellington, fought alongside their Portuguese and Spanish allies against a vast French army of 250,000 men.
A war of national liberation
The British were far from angels. But Wellesley, realising the importance of winning ‘hearts and minds’, imposed a savage discipline on soldiers who mistreated locals: looting was punishable by instant hanging. The French troops, by contrast, treated civilians with appalling, casual brutality. In a forerunner of the guerilla wars of the 20th century, the French soon had to contend with the bitter resistance of the Portuguese and Spanish people.
Eventually, the French were driven back across the Pyrenees with Napoleon banished to Elba soon after.
Bernard Cornwell who wrote the Sharpe series of books, says: “We (the British) think of that war as a great British triumph … Yet what Sharpe does and what I do is to perpetuate a myth, that we won the war. We didn’t, the Portuguese and the Spanish people turned Napoleon’s occupation of their countries into a nightmare, which the French called ‘the Spanish ulcer’.
That Spanish Affair, said Napoleon after he was exiled to St Helena, is what killed me.
Anthony Beachey is a former BBC World Service journalist now working on a freelance basis in Portugal, where he specialises in economics and finance.