In Britain and parts of North America, he’s probably best known as Rifleman Harris, a key character in “Sharpe’s Rifles,” a popular British TV series about English soldiers battling Napoleon’s armies in Spain and Portugal in the early 19th century.
But for some members of the Amherst Regional High School class of 1980, Jason Salkey is recalled as a great classmate, the kid with the British accent who was a dab hand at Frisbee and soccer — or football, as Jason called it — and had a good sense of humor as well.
As one of his old classmates, Tommy Mercer, puts it, “Jason was cool!”
On the last weekend of July, Salkey, who lives in London, was back in Amherst both for the 1980 ARHS class reunion and to sign copies of his first book, “From Crimea with Love: Misadventures in the Making of Sharpe’s Rifles.” It’s an entertaining account of his part in the TV series, filmed in the 1990s in Portugal, Turkey, England, and above all Crimea — at a time when the breakup of the former Soviet Union often led to chaotic conditions on and off the sets.
From bad food to grungy hotels, to water shortages in the middle of blazing summer heat, to the typical mishaps on film sites — one actor accidentally stabbed a stuntman in the armpit with a sword during an action sequence — Salkey’s book recounts how the overall conditions in Crimea helped give “Sharpe’s Rifles” a very realistic look.
“The dearth of edible food, the mistreatments, infirmities and boredom all served to give us the look of soldiers who fought a long attritional campaign,” he writes.
Last Saturday, Salkey, who’s 60, held court at Amherst Books, as a steady stream of old classmates and fans of the TV series came by to chat and have him sign copies of his memoir. Salkey has some significant ties to the area: His father, the late writer and journalist Andrew Salkey, came to Hampshire College from England in 1976 to teach creative writing, so that fall his son suddenly found himself in the ninth grade class at ARHS.
“It was quite the dramatic change,” Salkey said. “We’d been living in London, and I went to a big urban school, so being in Amherst was like living in the country.”
Being suddenly transported to America was a cultural shock as well, Salkey recalled: “I was pretty fiercely determined at first to preserve my British identity.”
But he says he also found his classmates welcoming, and he was drawn to sports, notably Frisbee, excelling on the school’s Freestyle team (he would become a two-time European Freestyle Frisbee champion). Some Americanisms also crept into his speech: He still refers to “gas” stations rather than “petrol” stations, he says.
He earned a degree in acting and directing at Hampshire before returning to Britain in the mid-1980s to try and build an acting career there.
When she spoke with Salkey to have him sign her copy of his book, Michelle Kellogg, one of his high school classmates, showed him a worn ARHS booklet from 1980 that included drawings of some senior class members done by fellow students. One depicted Salkey, like a hurdler at a track meet, lancing through the air on a section of school grounds.
“Oh, would you look at that!” Salkey said with a laugh; he also told Kellogg he’s working on a new book, a family memoir that looks at his father’s career and his own earlier years.
Kellogg said she was not familiar with “Sharpe’s Rifles,” nor the books they’re mostly based on — a series of historical novels by the writer Bernard Cromwell, British-born but for many years a resident of Cape Cod — but that she planned to investigate the TV show once she’d read “From Crimea with Love.”
“It’s so nice to see Jason again,” she added.
By contrast, Daniel and Brendan Cripps, a father and son who’d driven to Amherst Books from Middleborough, said they’d read all of Cromwell’s “Sharpe” novels and seen the TV episodes as well. At the book signing, they sported Napoleonic-era uniforms — they’re both historical re-enactors — and before leaving, Daniel Cripps shook Salkey’s hand and thanked him “for all you’ve done to keep this series alive.”
Back in Britain after leaving Hampshire, Salkey got involved in theater and also scored a role in what turned out to be a popular commercial for Miller Lite Beer, leading in turn to roles on British television and some big-budget films. He was able to employ a serviceable American accent for some of the movies, including “Memphis Belle” and “The Russia House.” (He writes that he also got a role in 1989’s “Batman” but that his character was later cut after he’d been filmed.)
His big break came in 1992 when he was hired to play Rifleman Harris in the “Sharpe” series, a character not part of Cromwell’s novels. Those books are centered on Richard Sharpe, a tough, working class sergeant (he’s later promoted) in an English unit known as the 95th Regiment of Foot (Rifles). Alongside Spanish and Portuguese units, they fought Napoleon’s armies on the Iberian Peninsula from 1809 through 1813.
In the real war, French troops were driven out of Spain by late 1813, and English forces, led by the future Duke of Wellington, won a final though costly battle at Toulouse in southwest France in April 1814. Napoleon, beset by Austrian and Prussian forces in northeast France, had actually been forced to abdicate just days earlier.
To reduce filming costs, production on “Sharpe” began in Crimea in the summer of 1992, and right from the start, Salkey writes, things were a little rough.
Cast and crew members had been advised to bring their own toilet paper from Britain due to expected shortages on site, and the food they were served (and its dodgy preparation, including salad dishes being left unrefrigerated for long stretches) was soon wreaking gastrointestinal havoc.
Since there were no English or other Western doctors initially on site, Salkey notes, anyone with serious stomach gripes had to deal with the only treatment Crimean doctors offered: “copious enemas.” Cast members also had to contend with flea-ridden mattresses, among other things.
“From Crimea with Love” also offers plenty of behind-the-scenes looks at cast and crew misbehavior (there was a fair amount of drinking) and strange incidents during production. The series would employ some significant names, including Pete Postlethwaite, Elizabeth Hurley, Daniel Craig (in one of his earliest roles), and Sean Bean (who starred as Richard Sharpe).
There was one big bonus to Salkey’s time in Crimea: He met his future wife, Natasha, a Ukrainian woman who worked on the set as an interpreter. The couple have a son, Paul, who was born in the summer of 1995.
Salkey spent parts of five years in the series, performing as one of the “Chosen Men,” the core group of soldiers who fought alongside Sharpe. His character was killed off at Waterloo, the last battle (1815) of the Napoleonic Wars. Salkey says he was “devastated” at being written out of the script, as the “Sharpe” series would continue with additional episodes that looked back at earlier battles.
“It was a great experience while it lasted,” he said.
But while part of the series, Salkey kept a diary and filmed his own videos of the sets and backstage action; he later released those homespun films as the “Video Diaries of Rifleman Harris.” He’s also spent years making presentations on “Sharpe” at historical conventions and battle reenactments.
About five years ago, he said, “Someone approached me after one of those talks and said ‘I think you’ve got a book in this.’ So I decided to do that.”
He still gets back to the Valley on occasion — his father died in 1995, but he says he has a good friend from Hampshire College who lives in Southampton — and he maintains ties with many of his old ARHS classmates through social media.
And as Salkey writes in his book, he’s determined to keep beating the drum for “Sharpe” until the series’ theme music “plays at my funeral or for as long as I have the strength to carry on as Sharpe’s unofficial ambassador.”
Steve Pfarrer can be reached at [email protected]