Interview: Jason Salkey, Chosen Man Rifleman Harris from the Sharpe Series

Jason Salkey is best known for his role in the British TV series about Napoleonic War soldier Richard Sharpe as Rifleman Harris, one of Sharpe’s (played by Sean Bean) “Chosen Men”. An outstanding description of the role and a biography of Mr. Salkey can be found at HERE. If you have read the books that the series was based on by Bernard Cornwell and have seen all 16 episodes of the series, then you can appreciate the talent of Mr. Salkey. If you haven’t, then what are you waiting for? While filming the Sharpe series, Mr. Salkey kept his own videos and written diaries of his experiences and has created 8 video episodes of his own thus far entitled The Video Diaries of Rifleman Harris. Episodes 9 and 10 will be coming soon.
MDC: Before filming Sharpe, you had to go to “Chosen Man School.” What were you taught at Chosen Man School? How was this school structured? Who taught the Chosen Men?
JS: I use the term ‘school’ very loosely here. The military adviser to the show (Richard Moore) trained us for two weeks, one week in the classroom learning about the Peninsular War and the greater Napoleonic wars followed by one week of learning all about being an authentic 95th rifleman. Including, getting into to full kit as quickly as possible. Loading, firing and rifle care. Our military advisor is one of the foremost re-enactors in the UK and he played Rifleman Moore in the several episodes, as well as a disgruntled French soldier who lives at Lucille’s farm in Sharpe’s Waterloo.

MDC: You met your wife Natasha while filming the first episodes of Sharpe, correct? How did you two actually get introduced? (Natasha has her own website showcasing her jewellery creations.)

JS: Natasha was a native of Yalta, Ukraine, where we filmed the first three seasons. She was an interpreter for the camera department and then the make-up department. Two departments I worked very closely with. We got together toward the end of the first series. After the second series Natasha came to London and by the third series we were on the way to starting our family.

MDC: MDC: Did you name your son Dan after Chosen Man Daniel Hagman (played by John Tams)?

JS: I let Natasha believe we named our son Daniel because there is a Russian equivalent pronounced ‘Daneel’ and when he’s hanging back in the old country his name wouldn’t stand out. I was happy with the fortunate coincidence of Daniel being Hagman’s first name.

MDC: Tell me about your Frisbee career. Did you play what we call Ultimate Frisbee (like soccer in America) where you have teams and move the disc from one end of the field to the other, or was it more like golf? Or, was it exhibition Frisbee where you did tricks and showed your skills?

JS: I was lucky enough to have lived in Amherst, Massachusetts in the mid seventies, and yes, there was a thriving ultimate scene up and down the east coast with Hampshire College being leading exponents. Hampshire also attracted a particularly high concentration of world champion freestylers. After catching the freestyle bug during my senior year in high school, I arranged to do my gym class down at Hampshire with one of the world champions (John Dwork) as part of an ‘Alternate Learning Program’. As my father was a professor at Hampshire I got to go to school there. In the summer before my freshman year of college I returned to the UK for the European Freestyle championship which I won.

MDC: Which medium is most enjoyable to you—television, film, or stage?

JS: Film because of the wide audience it can reach and the money it pays. Television is great for the immediacy of the feedback you receive from the general public and stage is great because of the buzz you get during rehearsals from creating something as an ensemble and the adrenalin rush of early nights in the run. After a while though, doing the same play night after night makes you want to take a Baker rifle and blow your own brains out. So, I guess that means I like doing film the best.

MDC: From looking at your website and CV, I note that you have worked alongside Peter O’ Toole, Harvey Keitel, Roy Scheider and other names. What has been your favorite role besides Harris? Who has been your favorite actor to work with (excluding Sean Bean and the other Chosen Men)?

JS: I not sure I have a favourite actually. Keitel was very cool and we hung out a little on set. Bruce Willis was very concentrated and didn’t fancy small talk, but I respected that and thought he was great–Diana Rigg, Alan Bates, Derek Jacobi, and Peter Postlethwaite. Yes, I had worked with him five years before he pitched up as Hakeswill. And because of that I have to nominate Peter as my favourite.
–Peter Postlethwaite as Obadiah Hakeswill in the Sharpe series, from www.sharpecompendium.com
MDC: I think the first episode of Sharpe, Sharpe’s Rifles, was already complete before you began the video diaries. What gave you the idea of keeping a video record of your Sharpe experiences?
JS: Yes, the first two series–Rifles thru Honour–had passed by with only a photographic journal and written diary to document everything that transpired on those two tumultuous years. On the third year I decided capturing moving pictures of us at work in a country that we knew very little about might be neat. I knew a wider audience might appreciate what I had shot, but I was really filming everything to show friends at home what a different place the ex-Soviet Union was.
But the attempt to recall my Sharpe adventures was initially inspired by the real Rifleman Harris who’s book The Recollections of Rifleman Harris was my first foray into what life was like for a 95th Rifleman.
MDC: Did you just keep a written diary of the first shows? How did the Sharpe cast and crew first react to your camera when you decided to keep a record of your experiences during the filming of the early episodes? I noticed one gentleman did not like your camera in particular (but maybe he was acting)?
JS: As mentioned previously, I did have written diaries on the first two years, though on the first year I gave up fairly quickly in to the shoot. Since I was a regular on the show I had the tacit agreement of the entire unit which anyone new to the set didn’t think to question. The chap you mention was Stephen Moore–someone I’d known since childhood (at school with his son) and he was always messing around with me pretending to object to the Harriscasm. Unless he was double bluffing and wasn’t kidding? But I haven’t received a letter from his lawyers yet!!!!
MDC: Have you done any more narration for any audio books besides The Recollections of Rifleman Harris? This book was dictated by an actual soldier from the Peninsular War named Benjamin Randell Harris and the book inspired Mr. Cornwell to create the Sharpe character. Did you enjoy making that audio book or would you rather not do many of those?
JS: I loved recording the ‘Recollections’ audio book, it was great to work so closely with the actual text that inspired my character. The producer does have other plans to record something else Sharpe connected with a proposed project with Bernard Cornwell.
MDC: You now go to many reenactor conventions in the UK and in the US. Do you participate in the actual reenactments or do you meet and greet fans and sign memorabilia only?
JS: I have a saying which I’ve concocted over the years in answer to that question when invited to join the skirmish line, or sleep out in the wet and cold to wake up to a breakfast of hard tack biscuit and brackish tea. I say “I am an actor, not a Reenactor!
MDC: How many of Mr. Cornwell’s books did you read before filming Sharpe began or did you have a chance? Had you read The Recollections of Rifleman Harris before filming began?
JS: I read Rifles, Eagle, and Gold before we departed for location for the first time. I then went on top devouring the rest of the novels, finally finishing Waterloo half way through the second series. Naturally, I read the novels Bernard wrote after the series was aired: Sharpe’s Escape, Havoc, etc. And while writing the script for Harris 9 re-read Waterloo and Revenge. Which has lead to me rereading Rifles and I’ll bet I reread Eagle after that. Mr Cornwell’s Sharpe stories are truly brilliant and his other ones ain’t half bad, too. Particularly the Uhtred stories.
MDC: Have you read all of the Sharpe books by Mr. Cornwell? Have you read many of his other books or series? Besides Sharpe, which has been your favorite?
JS: See above? Yes. I read all the Sharpe books and I’ve read all of the Uhtred series.
MDC: There are two more video diary episodes in the works, encompassing the last shows through Sharpe’s Waterloo. What can we expect in these maybe last two episodes?
JS: Harris 9 is so very close to the final touches on the edit and laying in the music, some stuff used before, some new stuff as well. Expect quite a lot heavy stuff revealed, loads of photos of Paul McGann as Sharpe and a small soupçon of sadness. The episode ends at the eve of Harris ‘senseless demise’. And Harris 10 will start the day before our death scenes are shot, go on to the end of the shoot and continue with an attempt to tell what’s happened to my life after Sharpe.
MDC: How important have your friendships with the other Chosen Men been for you? Do you still remain in close contact with them? I hated when Rifleman Cooper disappeared, as well as when Isaiah Tongue was killed. But the death of Perkins was especially sad. It is too bad all of the Chosen Men could not have made it through the series to the end, but I guess that would have been unrealistic. Any comments?
JS: My fellow Chosen Men mean the world to me, the things we all went through has bonded us much in the same way a combat unit who’d experienced heavy fighting. I speak with Daragh (Harper) and Lyndon (Perkins) the most, then Mike (Cooper) and Paul (Tongue). And hardest of all to get a hold of are Sean and John Tams so I speak to them the least.
MDC: Jason, thank you so much for being so accessible to your followers and for the interview and your time in answering these questions. Also, thanks to your friend and collaborator, Drew Sutton, for helping to create the diaries. I cannot wait to see Episodes 9 and 10 of the Video Diaries!

  2 comments for “Interview: Jason Salkey, Chosen Man Rifleman Harris from the Sharpe Series

  1. November 3, 2010 at 9:19 PM

    Fantastic interview Denise, you have convinced me to check out Sharpe’s — thank for the great read! Allie Baker

  2. November 4, 2010 at 12:59 AM

    You’re welcome, Allie. Glad you enjoyed the posting.

    Start with the book Sharpe’s Tiger if you want to read chronologically or with Sharpe’s Rifles if you want to watch the videos in order. Sharpe’s Eagle was the first book Mr. Cornwell wrote about Richard Sharpe. And you can see clips on YouTube, too.

    Can’t wait to read some of your upcoming interviews as well. MDC

Thanks for the comments . . .