'I felt like a has-Bean without Sharpe': Sean Bean returns to the TV colonel which made his name
By William Clayton
30th October 2008
Nobody personifies the image of the macho actor, both on and off screen, better than Sean Bean. He plays the hard man, from the tough Lieutenant Colonel Richard Sharpe to a Bond villain, as if to the manner born and his private life, what with three ex-wives and, reportedly, a turbulent relationship with the current Mrs Bean, is just as colourful.
But it was while making the latest Sharpe adventure that he demonstrated to me, albeit reluctantly, a surprisingly soft and sensitive side. We were in the arid, drought-plagued heart of India's Madhya Pradesh province where he was filming Sharpe's Peril, the latest instalment in ITV's enduring action drama, which begins on Sunday.
The afternoon sun was beating down mercilessly as I watched him in a scene with actor Luke Ward-Wilkinson, who was playing a young boy soldier. As the director called 'Cut!', Bean quickly walked away, furtively wiping his eyes. Everyone assumed it was sweat, but as he came near I could see the tears.
'I just couldn't help myself', he muttered, by way of unnecessary apology. Later, sitting in the shade of a huge umbrella, cigarette in one hand and glass of water in the other, he reveals what made him so emotional.
'The way Luke said his lines in that scene was enough to break your bloody heart. I could feel myself going. Luke's playing a kid who should be at home with his family and his mates, not putting his life on the line by fighting for his country. I know it's only fiction, but it is based on fact and his situation got to me because it has parallels with what is happening in other places.
'It happened in Sharpe's time, a couple of hundred years ago, when kids were sent off to foreign lands and told to fight, and it happens for real now, too. It's heartbreaking to re-enact all that, and I couldn't wait to walk away because I could feel my emotions getting the better of me.'
As it happens, this wasn't the only scene where Bean had to check himself for fear of breaking down. 'I'm escorting a woman across India, and I open up the locket around my neck to show her the picture inside. It's of a little girl, Antonia, whom Sharpe had to leave behind many years ago, because a soldier's life isn't one that can be shared with a child,' he says.
'So far so good - it's only a story, right? But it got me thinking of my own daughter, Molly, who was around the same age as Antonia when I had to leave her behind to go on location to the Ukraine to film some early Sharpe stories all those years ago.
'I missed her terribly, and I bet she missed me. Afterwards, I couldn't get that scene out of my mind. At least I was away for weeks, not years like Sharpe, and I was able to see Molly and my other two daughters on a regular basis.
'It must be very painful for a father to be separated from his child for so long and only have a tiny picture in a locket for memories. It was bad enough that I had to be away filming for weeks and months, rather than the years that soldiers like Sharpe had to endure, and at least when I did get home I was able to spend all my time with my family.'
In addition to Molly, now 17, he has Lorna, 21 - both from his marriage to actress Melanie Hill - and nine-year-old Evie from his marriage to actress Abigail Crittenden.
'In an ideal world, I would have loved never to have gone away, but it was the nature of my work,' he explains. 'When I first started shooting Sharpe, back in the early 1990s, I'd kiss my two elder daughters goodbye at the end of August - Evie wasn't even born then - and I wouldn't see them again until Christmas. That was tough. They were hard times. That's why the picture in the locket brought it all back to me and made me so upset.'
This latest story - the 16th Sharpe adventure - took him away from home for only six weeks, but if shooting had gone on any longer, he says, he would have definitely flown the girls out to join him on set.
Someone who did turn up on set was his fourth wife, actress Georgina Sutcliffe, who at 29 is 20 years his junior. They married in February, a month later than when they were first due to tie the knot. Friends and family were already on their way to the register office in London's Marylebone when they heard that the wedding was off. The guests were told it was because of 'personal issues'.
The cancellation was so last minute that the wedding cake had already been delivered to Brown's hotel in London's Mayfair for a lavish reception.
Some family members speculated that the couple had had a row. The previous summer, Georgina had allegedly launched an abusive verbal attack on Bean when she spotted him apparently flirting with another woman at the prestigious Cartier Polo event.
And they also fell out in July 2006, when security staff were called to Bean's suite at the Four Seasons hotel in Los Angeles.
The hotel's incident book recorded that 'Ms Sutcliffe had numerous bruises on her upper body, face and scratches on her legs'. Bean was bleeding from scratches to his face and arms.
All went smoothly for the February wedding, but the fragile peace was broken in July when police were called to their North London home and Sean was arrested on an allegation of assault.
However, he was later released without charge and the new Mrs Bean - whom he first met in 2003 when she was managing the bar at the West End theatre where he was playing Macbeth - explained: 'It's all been blown out of proportion. Everything is fine between us.'
Sean sighs when I mention these incidents: 'All this focus on my private life is the most unappealing aspect of being an actor. I don't like it, but it goes with the territory and I have to put up with it. I certainly don't set out to attract attention.'
The 'personal issues' that led to the postponement of the wedding can, he says, be explained: 'Georgina's father suffered a fall just before the wedding and he had to go into hospital. There was no way that Georgina wanted to get married if he couldn't attend, so we waited until he was well enough.'
Four wives and three children may have taken their toll on Bean's pockets, but he is hardly strapped for cash.
His high-profile acting career has taken in a Bond baddie (Janus in GoldenEye) and the role of Boromir in the Lord Of The Rings trilogy, as well as leading parts in the Jodie Foster film Flightplan and the 2004 epic Troy.
His movie CV would probably have been more extensive, had he not chosen to devote so much time to playing Sharpe on TV. He calls it: 'a labour of love' even though he became so synonymous with the role in the 1990s that it brought his career to a juddering halt.
'We took a break from filming Sharpe in the late 1990s and the work just dried up for me. I was still being offered parts but they were rubbish. I wasn't prepared to do any old tat so I just sat at home, slowly being driven up the wall, waiting for something decent to come in.
'I felt demoralised and dejected and it was a difficult time in my life. Like anyone who has been out of work will tell you, it really gets you down.
'I finally did a small British film, called Essex Boys, which didn't do brilliantly at the box office but got me started again. I don't know if being unemployed had made me difficult to live with, but it probably did [Bean was married to his third wife Abigail at the time. Their union was short-lived]. I know that I was pretty unhappy with life'.
Almost a decade on and Sean has seen his career kick- started in fine style. These days, he combines occasional forays into the early 19th century world of Richard Sharpe (Sharpe's Peril is only his second outing as the character in the last decade) with a bevy of other work.
At the moment, he is filming the part of John Dawson, a man with dubious links to the police, in Channel 4's drama Red Riding, which is being filmed in his native Yorkshire.
And after completing work on Sharpe's Peril, he played Robinson Crusoe's father in an American TV series called Crusoe, which was filmed in South Africa and the Seychelles.
He is still whippet-thin, with barely an ounce of fat lurking beneath his character's tight-fitting green woollen tunic. But there is a more lived-in look to Sean's appearance now than when he took over the role of Sharpe from Paul McGann in 1992 (McGann seriously injured his knee playing football six weeks into the initial shoot).
In Sharpe's Peril, filmed entirely on location in India, he has to take up arms to protect a disparate bunch of people as they make their way through Indian bandit country.
But amid the fighting Sharpe has time to reflect on the futility of war and the sacrifices he has made during a quarter century of soldiering for his country.
'He's disillusioned,' explains Sean. 'He's come to realise that wars are orchestrated by governments and fought over for money.'
There's a line in the script where Sharpe comments: 'I'm too bloody old and too bloody wore out.' Does Sean feel his days as the character may be drawing to a close?
He visibly bristles at any suggestion that age is catching up with him in the way it is with his character, insisting: 'I feel fine, I feel in as good a nick as I was in the Nineties and I'd like to carry on playing Sharpe for as long as I can.
'Coming back to play Sharpe again was a bit of a culture shock and required plenty of visits to the gym, but it's just a question of building yourself up to a level of fitness where you can do all the sword fighting and horse riding.
'Sharpe's Peril may have been a bit of an emotional rollercoaster for me - a stark reminder of the sacrifices both he and I have had to make to pursue our careers - but, physically, I've been A1.'
Anyway, if it all goes wrong, he says, he could always make a living as a sculptor.
'I love creating things, especially out of metal,' he says. 'There's something truly satisfying about shaping a piece of metal and seeing the impurities peeling away as you weld it into your chosen design.
'I saw this metal sculpture in a shop window in London, two pieces of metal welded together and on sale for £800. I thought, "I could do that - and look how much I could make from it!"
'And I would need never go away on location again, I could work from home! Now that would be nice.'
SHARPE'S PERIL is showing on ITV1 this Sunday and the one after.