Actor and author Jason Salkey speaks with Francesca Tyer about Sharpe, Crimea
and his recently published book.
Jason Salkey, best known for playing rifleman Harris in the hit series Sharpe, was born
in London in the early sixties. His father is a Jamaican poet, novelist, writer and
broadcaster and his mother a Londoner.
Having moved to America at the age of fourteen for his dad’s work, Salkey then
returned to the UK to begin his acting career. With an acting and directing course
already under his belt, he began searching for an agent.
‘I got a good agent after a couple of years,’ Salkey begins. ‘I did a pretty good play at
the Man in the Moon pub called 'Short Eyes'. It’s about a New York detention centre and
was quite controversial at the time.’
In 1988, Salkey landed a role in a campaign for Miller Light Beer UK. The advert was
like a mini-movie and remained on the television for about five years.
‘They used the music ‘He Ain’t Heavy, He's My Brother’ which went to Number One for
two weeks,’ Salkey recalls. ‘That got my face seen everywhere and about four years
after that I landed something called Sharpe, which is why we’re talking at the moment.’
Salkey as Harris (October 1992)
Salkey admits that he knew nothing about the role of Rifleman Harris when faced the
audition in May 1992.
‘I was told by my agents there was an audition for this thing that was shooting in Russia
for 16 weeks,’ he explains. ‘Just 16 weeks of employment was enough to grab my
attention. At the audition, we didn't really talk much about the text or going to Russia or
the Napoleonic War or anything to do with Sharpe really. We just talked about various
things, one of them being my father.
‘In the 60s, my father had worked at BBC World Service. He was a writer and he
was living in America at the time. The director seemed very interested in that. I was
thinking, Well, he's gone off on a tangent. The job’s gone, on to the next one.'
Season 1 - October 1992
It was a number of months before Salkey heard back about the audition. The result
was surprising, as he recalls.
‘I had forgotten all about it. I didn't bother researching Sharpe after the audition because
I didn't want to get my hopes up. Out of the blue, two months later, my agent called to
say I’d got it. It was a massive surprise. I knew it was an adventure going to the broken-up Soviet Union.’
The cast soon learnt that they were actually heading to Crimea, Ukraine. A realisation of
the harsh realities that might be faced began to set in.
‘We got a letter from the production office secretary telling us we were going to have
shots of diphtheria and this, that and the other. The last sentence was, Oh yes and
bring your own toilet paper. That was a shocker. So we knew there was something up
before we arrived in Crimea in August 1992, but we had no idea what we were going to
Season 1 - October 1992
Such an experience inevitably changed Salkey’s life. He speaks about the meeting of
his wife, as well as the inspiration behind his Sharpe diary.
‘It's changed my life completely,' he begins. 'I met my wife, who was an interpreter,
out in Crimea. Our child is one of a brigade of Sharpe children. So in that way,
absolutely, it’s changed my life.
'The role didn't necessarily enhance my career, but it's given me a whole new avenue.
After getting the job I read the Sharpe books and I also bought a book called The
Recollections of Rifleman Harris. Harris was a soldier from the Peninsular War who
recorded all of his gritty tales of the famous march to Corunna.’
The recollections detail Harris’ recruitment in the army and early campaigns in Denmark,
before sharing depictions of the horrific march and the Battle of Corunna.
‘I read that book and I took the idea to document everything in a diary and to take
pictures,’ Salkey explains. ‘I was Sharpe’s archivist, so I was able to go to historical
events, multi history battles, living history events, toy soldier events, wargame events.
They all have a connection to the military and to Napoleon. Anyone who likes that loves
Writing the diary during Season 2
These event invitations soon developed into tours where Salkey began sharing the
video he’d made based on the notes from his diary.
‘All the way along I had the idea for a book,’ he states. ‘I was at the Chalke Valley
History Festival, run by James Holland, and I had worked up a lecture taken from my
written diary. In the audience was Don Snow, his dad and a plethora of BBC 2
historians and it was wonderful.
‘Afterwards, this chap sidled up to me, Thomas Dolby, who had worked with Penguin
and many established publishers. He said, “Jason, I think there's a book in your lecture.”
I thought, “Oh, great,” thinking I was going to get a fat advance and be able to sit in the
South of France and write books. That didn't quite happen.’
It was after this encounter that Salkey discovered Unbound, a crowdfunded publisher
where the author does the pitching and brings the money in while the publisher creates the books and takes it to market.
‘This began the book journey at the end of 2017,’ Salkey reflects. ‘I raised most of the
money, or all of it, within about a year and all the time I was writing as well. The book
came out on July 8th this year. So Sharpe has changed my life and I basically have a
second career being an ambassador to the show and the book.’
Season 3 - August 1994
Although Salkey had the idea for a book from the beginning, writing was never at the
forefront of his mind, as he explains.
‘I was exploring much easier options like being an actor,’ he laughs. ‘But I watched my
dad as a writer and publisher and spent my life surrounded by bookshelves. My dad
was also a book reviewer for various BBC outlets, including the Caribbean World
Service. We had loads of books so I felt by osmosis I'd sucked them all in.
‘I wasn't great at English in my early years at school. Translating onto the page and
showing the dedication and diligence to write a story – I didn’t know if I wanted to try
that yet. The Sharpe journal was my first attempt. Yes, I wanted it to be a book but I
didn't think it would be thirty years later. In a way, the perspective I gained in the years
helped. At the time, I wanted to put Sharpe in my rear-view mirror, so I think it's been
good to have that distance.’
Salkey (third in from right) and Sharpe cast members
Naturally, Salkey came across some obstacles during the writing process. He suggests
that one such challenge was having to rewrite and refine the manuscript.
‘The hardest part is writing the whole thing and then going back in and writing it again.
When I handed in the first draft they didn't even want to read it. They said, "That's too
long, you need to get it down quite a bit." That was hard because I had to chuck out
material I was attached to.
‘Other times, there were passages that evoked memories and were quite
uncomfortable. I felt uncomfortable writing them and didn’t necessarily feel any
catharsis afterwards. I think those are the hardest things.’
Season 3, August 1994
These uncomfortable memories relate back to Salkey’s experiences in the broken up Soviet Union. He explains that while it was an adventure, it was also a great challenge.
‘In the end, I loved every second. In the beginning we were caught off guard. We were
going into a place where we couldn't do the normal things we wanted. There was no TV,
no telephone, no place to get a beer. We didn't have interpreters, didn't know the lingo.
That was all a bit rough, but for me it was a challenge which I tried to override.
‘I did end up learning lots of the language. By halfway through the first year we were
happy to exist and get on on our own. However, that had come at the cost of losing our
leading man, Paul McGann. He started as Sharpe and hurt his knee and had to quit.
There was a steep learning curve, especially after that, to make sure we were safe in
our environment and not going out of our minds.’
Filming in action
Season 4, 1995
Salkey confesses that, alongside these environmental challenges, the acting part was relatively straightforward.
‘It's not like a play where you have to stand there for an hour,' he states. 'It was hot sometimes in the summer when we were dressed in all the woolen kit. Then four months later we were
up in the mountains freezing cold. We did a lot of waiting around, but that's filming. So we complained about those times because of various deprivations but we learnt how to
deal with it and they were the best years really. The best of years, the worst of years.’
With his book, From Crimea with Love, now published, Salkey is looking to the future. He suggests that while the promotion of this book comes first, more writing may follow.
‘The $64,000 question,’ he laughs. ‘My wife is pressing me every day to start writing, so it's pretty hard to resist. The writing process was a lot of fun, transcribing from pencil scratchings in my notebook. When I was allowed a little bit of freedom to create, that was a lot of fun.
‘When I was researching stuff, like things I did as a kid with my dad, specifically a Soviet
Expo at Earls Court in the late sixties. So I imagine creating something out of your own
head would be very satisfying. So yes, I do want to do some writing but I want to
promote the hell out of this book first.’
Season 5, September 1996
While a proper launch party has been put on hold until next year, Salkey says that there
is still plenty of promotional work to do.
‘I've been attending living history events and battle reenactments,’ he explains. ‘I will
also be contacting branches of Waterstones in London and elsewhere to see if they're
interested in doing a signing. I can get some of my Sharpe friends to come and join me
perhaps to make it more of an event.
‘Unbound has a publicist, Debbie Elliott, who's doing a great job. I did a double-page
spread in the Express so that pushed my book up into the top 10 of Amazon bestselling
TV personality biographies. So yes, telling the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker.’
Salkey admits, with a smile, that he’s not shy about letting people know he’s written a
book, a fact that has led to a bit of joke on Facebook.
‘They have a game called Salkey Bingo. We did a series of podcasts where I'd invite
actors on and we'll talk about Sharpe and share pictures. Every so often I say, "Did I
mention I’ve written a book?" That became a catchphrase. The people listening would
say they’d have a drink every time I mentioned the book.’
Season 5, September1996
Given the chance to reflect, Salkey says there are several things he hopes readers will
take away from his book.
‘I want readers to be entertained and to laugh. I want them to get a real taste of what it
was like in those days for Westerners to go over into the broken-up Soviet Union. I want
people who are interested in the behind-the-scenes view. There are actors who have
written biographies, but to have kept a diary during the show and brought it into a book
is quite unique.
‘For all those readers, it's an adventure, a deeper look into a period of history. It's a love
story; boy meets girl. I'm not trying to be an Oxford Don, not trying to battle anyone with
$50 words. It's an accessible read and above all it's a gripper, I’m told.’
As our interview draws to a close, Salkey speaks of the surprising things he has learnt
as a writer.
‘There's this funny little extra level of respect,’ he concludes. ‘People love to talk to
actors but there's something that makes people stand up and listen when you’ve written
a book. It's a great door opener; a bit of a step up. It might only last for a month, but it’s
a good thing to have under your belt. Of course, it's only been since 6th July so it might
even get better than this, who knows.’
With many thanks to Jason Salkey for this interview.
(All images used with permission)