From Crimea with Love

By Jason Salkey

A memoir from the actor who played Rifleman Harris on Sharpe's Rifles

My name is Jason Salkey and I’m a Sharpe-aholic. Despite repeated interventions and countless trips to rehab I can’t shake my Sharpe habit; I’m a fan boy, still hooked. I’ve bought three box sets in different languages, I’ve read all the novels twice and I’ll quite happily settle into an episode of Sharpe when I alight upon one during satellite channel hopping.

How did I acquire this monkey on my back, what lead me down the path of Sharpe addiction? Where can I begin to explain the odyssey that constituted my time on Sharpe; a crazy journey that has shaped my life? A long, strange trip that to this day resonates down through the years, pursuing me whether I court it or not!

I suppose we should start at the beginning to the summer of 1992, I use the word ‘summer’ loosely as in the UK summer in London is often a rainy affair. And precisely because of this regular inclemency, I find myself watching the Wimbledon final which has been forced to schedule an extra day’s play, running-over for the first time in years (or ever) due to the exceptionally heavy rain. A typical actor, I was killing time between auditions, waiting for my agent to call with something juicy. I became a professional actor in 1987 a couple of years after graduating college in Massachusetts, New England. I had done all the dues-paying jobs imaginable, educational theatre, pub theatre, student films, you name it – I did it.

My big break – before Sharpe – was a long running advertising campaign for Miller Lite beer which regularly placed my face in almost every living room in the UK. Great exposure for an up and coming actor, but I’d rather it had been in a respected long running series or a part in a hit movie. The money was nice though, it came in regular lumps and I was quickly lulled into the false impression that it would never end; I spent accordingly, saving very little for the (now-arrived) rainy day.

The days leading up to July 6th were as rainy as they come in British summer, both weather- and otherwise. I’d fallen behind on my income tax; high repeat fees meant high taxes. I was not only in arrears, but I’d missed an instalment of the rescheduled payments too. I was up shit creek with no money and no jobs lined up, in the coming days I was to receive a visit from the Inland Revenue demanding to know what’s going on

So, I was sitting in my kitchen, quite thrilled at the prospect of watching this highly unusual, extra day’s tennis; yes, a jobbing actor has to find thrills in even the most mundane. Little did I know that the serve volley was about to be interrupted by a life-changing phone call bringing news far more exciting than an extra day’s play at Wimbledon!

Actors are used to never hearing news either way of how you did at an audition, unless of course you’ve got the job. Even in that event there’s no time scale on how quickly you’re offered the role from the time of the original audition to acceptance.

My casting for Sharpe was on May 12th 1992; Wimbledon ends in the first week of July, so fantasies of scoring a regular role on an attractive sounding job in the former Soviet Union had long faded. My meeting with the then director, Jim Goddard, was as unremarkable as they come. I arrived at the office of Hubbard Casting above a newsagent in Soho feeling positive – a compulsory mood for an out of work actor – but no more so than for any other audition. I really didn’t know what to expect as I’d been sent no text and I’d avoided reading any of the Sharpe novels.

Customarily you read a prepared piece at an audition, they provide you with a script on the day, or at the very least someone from production chats with you about the project while taping you on a handy cam. At my Sharpe audition we did none of the above. In a cramped, narrow rectangular, or almost pie slice-shaped room, I sat across from the imposing figure of Jim Goddard. Jim, a well-established director known mostly to me as the man who directed Madonna and Sean Penn in Shanghai Surprise, a movie that made a splash publicity wise without much critical or box office success. Never the less I was impressed!

Later, while on location with Sharpe during one of the lighter moments, Jim encountered the same problem Guy Ritchie faced: how do you address Madonna? Jim settled on ‘Daisy’; we all thought if that’s how he dealt with Madge then he’ll chew us up and spit us out if we don’t cut the mustard. Fools won’t be suffered.

At my first meeting with Jim he sat on a stool, one elbow propped on a table gently chucking questions my way. Where did I grow up, what sort of stuff do I get up to? Nothing about the job, the bare minimum about the Sharpe story and certainly no mention of the former Soviet Union, it was a very low key chat. He did show an interest in my father, a New England professor who’d written thirty novels, anthologies and books of poetry. With little knowledge of the part I was up for, let alone the character’s name, I had no inkling Jim’s interest in my dad’s career would be significant. I left the offices of Hubbard Casting with no clue as to the chances of getting the Sharpe job; it was time to put it very far to the back of my mind.

After getting the call from my agent confirming the sixteen week engagement in Russia, I was simply happy for the work and the ability to pay my overdue tax bill. What I couldn’t possibly have foretold was that phone call was to set off a chain of events that changed my life forever and led me to the point of writing this very book.

An essential part of an actor’s defensive armoury is the ability to forget! Hold on there a minute, I here you saying, surely memory is key to an actor learning lines? But I’m referring to the skill of completely wiping from your memory the last casting you’ve attended, especially if it’s a really juicy one. Quite easy for a training film audition to slip your mind, much harder when it’s sixteen weeks playing soldiers in a costume drama based on a popular set of novels, filmed in a formally shut-off foreign land; it was a dream job and during the intervening two months I had put it out of my mind with alacrity.

Usually to make myself look knowledgeable at an audition, I’ll do a little research into the project. I was tempted to read Sharpe’s Rifles before my meeting with Jim Goddard, but it would only serve to whet my appetite, creating a longing for the job that would be hard to erase from my mind. So, when the agent phoned I thought it was news of another, more recent casting also for something quite big, a medieval miniseries for US television - Covington Cross. With the Sharpe audition I’d’ employed my ability to forget admirably.

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