Jul 5 2003

When an injury meant he had to give up a career in ballet, Jeremy Sheffield decided to try his hand at acting, writes LORRAINE THURLOW


HEARTS OF GOLD, BBC 1, Saturday, 8.15pm and Sunday, 8.00pm

IT'S the stuff of a comedy sketch show - a male dancer being whisked off to hospital in full make- up, tights and a jockstrap.

But that's just what happened to Holby City star Jeremy Sheffield when his appendix burst during a performance by the Royal Ballet - only it was no laughing matter.

Jeremy, who spent nine years with the company before becoming an actor, was halfway through a show in London when he suddenly collapsed in pain.

"I'd had a long history of what turned out to be a grumbling appendix," explains Jeremy, in an interview that took place before the recent tragic death of his Holby City co- star Laura Sadler.

"Every couple of months I'd get pains, but then I'd puke my brains out and it would be over. I just ignored it."

But this time Jeremy couldn't ignore it: "I was in so much pain I remember being curled up in a ball, swearing and screaming and crying."

An ambulance was called but, in true showbiz fashion, the show must go on. An understudy took Jeremy's place on stage, but there was another problem - no spare costume.

"They had to take mine off and put it on him," says Jeremy. "But ballet is intense physical work and dancers sweat a lot, so it can't have been very nice. I was then put in an ambulance and taken to hospital - wearing tights, a jockstrap and full make- up.

"I must have looked a like a right idiot. I asked a nurse if she had anything I could take the make-up off with, but it was a really busy night and she didn't have time to look."

Jeremy, who lives in London, still had the make-up on when he went into surgery: "When I came round afterwards, I had tubes coming out of everywhere, a temperature of 100- and-something and this smudged make-up and greasy hair.

"I saw my father sitting at the end of the bed. He's not the most emotional man, but my appearance had him almost in tears. I must have looked terrifying."

Jeremy was released from hospital after five days and went home to recuperate - and have a bath.

"I still had the make-up on," he says, laughing. "I hadn't washed in five days so the first thing I did when I got home was have a long hot bath, which I shouldn't have done.

"The result was a nasty infection, and a lot more pain. The wound swelled to the size of an orange and I had to go back to hospital.

"They said, `We're going to have to slit the middle stitch.' And when they did that, it exploded with the most smelly green pus you've ever seen. It was disgusting, just vile.

"I couldn't believe my own body had produced that. And it's all because I had a bath."

That wasn't the only time Jeremy needed medical treatment during a show. It was a fall during a performance of Cinderella that finished his ballet career, which he'd dreamed about since the age of five.

He broke his toe and a tendon in his foot. Three operations failed to fix his ankle problem. With restricted movement, he had no option other than to leave the Royal Ballet.

"I'd already been doing some acting in the ballet," he says. "I was playing a lot of what we call character roles, which are more about the acting and storytelling than dancing.

"I'd started to enjoy this aspect of the job more and more, so when I found out about my ankle it seemed the natural thing to do. But I had no idea of where to start.

"Because I'd spent eight years training at the Royal Ballet School before joining the Royal Ballet, I assumed I'd have to spend years training to be an actor. But everyone I spoke to told me not to do that.

"Instead, they said I should have a few classes and then just go for it, which is what I did."

For the first few years Jeremy clocked up over 40 television commercials, appeared in the video for Natalie Imbruglia's single Torn and won various films and TV parts - both here and in America - that included the lavish adaptation of Merlin, with Sam Neill, Helena Bonham Carter, Isabella Rossellini and comedian Martin Short.

"Martin told me off," reveals Jeremy, who played Sir Lancelot du Lac in the TV series. "I've got a few tattoos and when he saw them he lectured me about how an actor should never have a tattoo because you're no longer able to morph yourself into a character.

"But Johnny Depp has tattoos all the way down his arm and that hasn't harmed his career. He easily gets his covered up for the camera.

"But Martin kept going on about it and said it showed a lack of respect for our art. He was really annoying - so over the top. I just thought, `Yeah, right - whatever.'

"I politely listened to him going on and said, `Well, that's obviously your opinion, but it's not mine. You have a right to your opinion, but please don't force it on me'."

Jeremy, who is hoping to get some more tattoos ("only tiny ones from now on") found fame playing heart surgeon Alex Adams in Holby City.

This week BBC1 viewers will see him playing a doctor again, in the two- part love story Hearts Of Gold.

The charming drama, based on a novel by Welsh author Catrin Collier, is set in South Wales in the `30s. It's a time when social classes didn't mix and women's rights didn't exist - they were ruled by men and if any single woman became pregnant, the baby was swiftly adopted.

Jeremy plays Doctor Andrew John, the pillar of middle class respectability who shocks his family by falling in love with working class nurse Bethan Powell, played by newcomer Kate Jarman.

"This is actually the third doctor I've played," he says. "I played one in The Governor, too. I'm not worried about being typecast - I've played a lot of other things as well.

"But I've accepted that I will probably always be cast as middle-class characters, which doesn't bother me.

"But it's important the characters are interesting."