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Neil hits the high Rhodes; OUT OF AFRICA: Donkey star blazes a new trail.

Memories of Wild West movies flooded back as Neil Pearson eased his horse down the riverbank and the wagon train started crossing.

The sexy star of Between The Lines and Drop The Dead Donkey had been transformed into the classic image of the western hero.

With his wide-brimmed hat, riding breeches, boots and a flowing coat, the 37-year-old heart-throb might have been re-enacting a scene from Once Upon A Time In The West. But Neil was a different continent and time away from his western heroes.

Out in South Africa, at the Vaal River, on the border of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State, he was acting out one of the great adventures in African history.

Martin Shaw and Neil head an all-star cast in the pounds 10 million drama, Rhodes, an eight-part series about Cecil Rhodes, the controversial adventurer and founding father of Southern Africa.

Neil plays Dr Leander Starr Jameson, the Scots surgeon who became Rhodes' commander in the bloody battles against the Matabele tribe.

I was the only Scots journalist invited to meet the stars on location while they filmed the ambitious drama.

And during a break in filming under a blistering African sun, Neil told me about one of his most challenging roles.

He was thrilled by the opportunity of a six month stint in the Dark Continent and portraying the Edinburgh medic-turned- mercenary.

But Neil confessed with a grin that he was hardly ideal casting.

Jameson was short, balding and from Edinburgh. He could speak Zulu and was a skilled horseman.

Neil didn't qualify in any of those areas.

Horse-riding was a real headache because, until he was cast in Rhodes, he hadn't done any.

"Luckily, at first I was only needed for five days filming. So while everyone else was working, I was on horseback every day, practising," Neil told me.

"It was an intensive course, which, if I had done it back in London, would have taken four years."

By the time I caught up with the filming, Neil had progressed to be fairly comfortable in the saddle.

He even talked about continuing horse-riding as a hobby after he was home.

And he was thrilled when a bunch of actors had to ride into the set of the diamond mining town of Kimberley.

"There were seven of us and it was suggested we should call ourselves The Magnificent Seven ... we settled for The Mild Bunch," he joked.

Neil also saw the funny side of the whiskers he'd to sprout for his role.

"The moustaches make us look like The Village People," he said.

"But I do like the outfits I wear as Jameson, who actually rode out on his Jameson Raid wearing a polka dot tie.

"When I saw the coat I wear I thought: `Sergio Leone, eat your heart out', because it's just like Henry Fonda's coat in Once Upon A Time In The West."

Neil was pleased that in the series these men would be depicted warts and all.

"Jameson was a charming man and got what he wanted, but he did horrible things," he said.

"He injected morphine to cure a Zulu king of gout, even though he knew that he would become an addict. They slaughtered people, convinced that right was on their side. They believed any methods were acceptable to turn who they regarded as heathens into God- fearing men."

Martin Shaw, who has come a long way since he was Doyle in The Professionals, shares Neil Pearson's enthusiasm for this epic drama.

"It's easy to see Rhodes in retrospect as a 19th century Napoleon, Hitler or Saddam Hussein," he said.

"I see him as a political monster. But I had to put my own beliefs away."

Martin was first approached about tackling this complex role 10 years ago, when Rhodes was originally planned.

Now he's delighted that it took so long to get the TV series off the ground.

Because the delay meant that Martin's son Joe was able to be cast as the younger Rhodes.

Said Martin: "I couldn't help remembering him as a tiny baby. But now he's starring in one of television's biggest-ever productions. I'm a very proud dad."

Tomorrow, BBC1, 8.30pm
COPYRIGHT 1996 Scottish Daily Record & Sunday
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1996 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Features
Author:Millar, John
Publication:Daily Record (Glasgow, Scotland)
Date:Sep 14, 1996
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