Jeremy Sheffield is the first openly gay actor to play a straight lead in a British television drama. Ever. Gareth McLean corners the Holby City Hunk with his trousers down.
Deep in cyberspace, Carol's Jeremy Sheffield Fan Site has had 5661 visitors since November 2000. Some have probably perused the collected interviews (on the subject of Sheffield's appearance in Natalie Imbruglia's Torn video, Heat asked last year "Did you fancy her?" to which he replied "No, not really". Most will have undoubtedly pawed over the photo gallery which includes the usual Beeb publicity shots, screengrabs from Holby City (Hunky Dr Alex with this top off!) and some from Sheffield's days in the Royal Ballet which, were they presented in 3-D, would have you recoiling from the screen lest his packet had your eye out. A couple of 5661 visitors may even have visited the Jeremy Shop, where they can purchase videos and books of the films he's been in, including Barbara Taylor Bradford's Her Own Rules, in which he had sex with Laura from Little House on the Prairie, and Merlin, the American mini-series in which he played Sir Lancelot alongside Same Neill and Isabella Rosselini.
Then there's the guestbook. Within its virtual pages, there are homages to Sheffield's acting ability, screen presence and smouldering good looks. Mostly, they go on about his smouldering good looks. "I think dat Jeremy Sheffield is sooooooo fine. He has such a fit body as well he could be my man one day!!"
Donna, from England, agrees, addressing Sheffield directly, perhaps labouring under the illusion that he runs the website and is leading a double life as Carol, a Yorkshire mum who runs her own business designing and selling address labels by mail order. "I would like 2 say that u are 1 sexy guy and I love the character u play and the way u operate on people and I wouldn't mind being operated by u" Donna says. She is, she concludes, "ure biggest fan." Quite.
Alongside the adoration in the guestbook messages, there is also something of a heated debate raging of the is-he-isn't-he? variety. Sarah P from London muses: "After reading all yr info, im convinced hes gay!! look at the evidence "hes gorgeous, sounds pretty intelligent, he looks after himself & HES SINGLE!! (im not even going 2 mention the ballet) alarm bells r ringing!!! still I guess us humble girlies can go on dreaming huh?!!" Jo from Hertfordshire ponders: "Jeremy is good-looking. However his reluctance to talk of his sexuality and the fact that one of the portraits on the site was commissioned by Attitude leads me to the very very sad conclusion that Jeremy may in fact be gay.
While there is one message - from the enigmatically named "?" - which states "I can DEFINITELY say that Jer is most definitely NOT gay. I am living proof!" Matt from London provides what seems like incontrovertible evidence. "Our Jezza looked very gay last night in Fabric's gay night snogging a very cute bloke! Sorry girls!" That'll be a resounding "he-is" then.
Still, the gutted and humble girlies' loss is the moxy contingent's gain. Having seen Sheffield with his trousers off and his top off (though not at the same time, I should stress), I can confirm just how much of a gain it is. He is as lithe and muscular as a tiger, as elegant and poised as a swan and he has such dreamsome charm that when it is directed at you, passing out is a distinct possibility. Like finding a tarantula in your bed. But much nicer.
All of which is a bit of a coincidence, since Sheffield loves animals. The only programmes he watches on telly are nature programmes. When he did The Holiday Programme, he made sure he went on safari. "I'm not cutesy with animals, it's about observing wildlife. I would love to end up doing wildlife programmes as part of what I do. Nature boy," he grins sheepishly. Since he was six years old, he has kept and bred tropical fish. He even has one tattooed on his calf. (That's the leg kind, not the cow kind).
"Don't put that. It sounds really boring," he frets, after confessing he also loves gardening. Well, I say, I was expecting something a bit more rock 'n' roll - snorting cocaine off of fit young lads, that sort of thing. "Oh, I don't do that any more," he says mischievously.
Jeremy Sheffield grew up in rural Essex in a village called Coggeshall, just outside Colchester. His dad was a businessman and his mum a teacher. He describes his parents as "artistic, educated and open-minded", his upbringing as "very regular, very middle class" and his hometown as "beautiful, if a bit twee".
His first ambition was to be a dancer, led onto that path by his sweetheart at the time. He was five. "My little girlfriend was going to ballet and I wanted to go wherever she was. I enjoyed it for a while, but then, as children do, I lost interest and wanted to watch telly instead. I kept changing my mind as to whether I wanted to do it or not. After changing my mind one too many times, my mother told me she was fed up with cancelling. I had to decide what I wanted. So I went."
When he was nine, his teacher suggested he audition for the Royal Ballet School. He duly did, and out of 500 boys who applied, he was one of the 11 chose. "I'm not sure if it's the healthiest thing, to be asked at nine years old to make a decision that will affect the rest of your life. But, I was never very academic and an awful lot of adults gave you attention when you did because it was unusual and I suppose that appealed to me too."
So began nearly a decade in the Royal Ballet system which he says was great "but also quite damaging. You're sort of brainwashed; ballet is all that everyone talks about." After dancing with Rudolf Nureyev and Sylvie Guillem but having sustained a series of injuries, Sheffield decided he wanted to act. "The only real reason to be a classical ballet dancer is that you love it. You hardly get paid any money, your career's short lived, you don't have a life and your body's in pain most of the time. I fell out of love with it."
And so he left, but not before coming out, rather late he says, at 25, "You would think it was an easy place to come out but I didn't think so. It was the usual story. I knew for a long time I was gay but was too scared. The persona that loads of people knew me to be I knew wasn't really me. I found it difficult to express myself freely. I lived with a girl for three years and it was a great experience but it wasn't right. It wasn't fair on her or me so it became inevitable that we'd split."
When he told them, it wasn't an issue with his family, Sheffield says. "They already had an idea and they are of a certain background that intellectually don't make it a problem. Emotionally, I'm sure they have issues, but not big ones." Yet for him personally, coming out wasn't all it was hyped up to be. "You feel like once you've come out, it's going to solve all your problems and heal your issues but once you've actually made the statement, it doesn't stop you feeling terrible sometimes. So you're like, "Damn. This was supposed to be the Holy Grail."
Upon leaving the Royal Ballet, Sheffield embarked on what many would say is an even more precarious life - that of an actor. When he first appeared in Holby City, he was the-bloke-from-the-Torn-video but there are also 57 commercials to consider as well as Merlin, the BTB movie, Safe Haven, a low-budget Brit-horror in which he played a psychopath, Anna Karenina alongside Sophie Marcea and Sean Bean and a year with the Royal Shakespeare Company doing Troilus and Cressida with Joseph Fiennes (Hunky Dr Alex in threesome with Joe Fiennes' shocker! I can see the headlines now). As an extra on Eastenders, he has even delivered crisps to the Queen Vic.
When Sheffield auditioned for Holby City, he had just missed out on a part in the highly-acclaimed (but now cancelled) American series, Beggars and Choosers. From the way he talks about it, Sheffield likes America a lot. He has a house in Miami, friends there and in New York and in Los Angeles and it is where he has left his CD collection. (Last CD bought: Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Californication).
"I find England quite a negative place in a lot of respects, which I think may have something to do with the class system. There's still a class system in America but it's nowhere near as strong. When I first went there, I really felt there was a sense of possibility and it really rubbed off on me. I can be very negative and self-critical to the point where I don't function at all. So going to the States was pretty inspiring."
America is also where he met the first - and only - great love of his life, a man named Jody. They spent three years together. There hasn't been anyone major in his life since. It must have been a really great love if no one else has come close, I venture - Or it just put me off," he replies implacably.
Right now, Sheffield is single but he admits he would like to meet someone special. "I think I'd like more than just meeting somebody, doing whatever and that's all. So to do that, there are things I need to deal with. Like so many men, straight or gay, I have commitment issues, but I'm really trying to look at them. I'm 35 and I think it's about growing up; I'm not very mature. I think look at things a bit more seriously. Something has to change."
Sheffield says he's attracted to men who have "a strong sense of themselves and their own identity and what I perceive to be a certain maturity." He gets letters from both men and women asking him out and he does get hit on a lot, but mainly by women , who he has to let down gently, either by "sending out very clear messages that are non-sexual [or] if that doesn't work, I'll bring my sexuality into conversation. I am very honest about it because I got into some messy situations when I was younger. I don't play games."
Of course, there is always room for misinterpretation and it is a trap into which Sheffield has fallen more than once. "You know the way someone looks at you across the room and there's a sense of attraction? That look is identical to the look you get from somebody looking at you and recognising you from something. You make big mistakes that way. You think 'Great. Someone likes me,' go up to speak to them and they say 'Why were you staring at me? I know why I was staring at you because I recognise you - but why were you staring back?' It is very confusing." He bows his head and smiles a goofy-but-sexy smile.
Inevitably, we talk about Sheffield's looks. "I'm aware that I am perceived in a certain way and that is no bad thing. As an actor, you have to be aware of what you are likely to be cast as - I'm not going to be a leading man's best friend or a character actor - or you'll be forever disappointed. Having an awareness of how you look is fine but thinking about it the whole time is a bad idea. One, I'm 35, so it's not going to be here for much longer, and two, you don't make a very good actor if you're constantly thinking 'How does this look?' Ultimately, you have to let it go."
Do you worry that you'll become "just a pretty face?" "I've always been worried about that but there's not a lot I can do about it. I work against it: I dress scruffy and unkempt and I don't think I make a big deal of it."
As for his body, Sheffield has, you should remember, effectively been an athlete for more than half his life. He says it would be odd for him not to have a physical aspect to his life. "Going to the gym definitely has something to do with vanity, but fitness is the most natural thing in the world to do. If you want to be able to run upstairs, if you want to have freedom in your life to do what you want to do, if you want to have good sex, you need to have a body that can do it."
So being fit makes you a good shag?
"That's not what I said."
So what makes a good shag?
"A strong sense of self, a sense of confidence." He raises an eyebrow conspiratorially.
Sheffield isn't too concerned about the future. Once he went to see a psychic who was a friend of a friend. She told him that he could ask anything about his future he liked. He didn't want to. "There's nothing I want to know until it happens. I don't have a very specific dream. I aim in certain directions, career-wise and personally, but you have to go with the flow."
At the moment, those "certain directions" include staying on in Holby for the forseeable future and doing good work on the show, which, he won't quite admit, is hardly Bafta-winning stuff. "It is what it is and we all try our best to make it as good as it can be within the genre that it is," he maintains diplomatically, though admits "It's not the kind of television I watch and I have a problem putting so much time and effort into something I wouldn't watch."
Whatever he ends up, he will have been the first romantic lead in a mainstream, middle-of-the-road drama to be played by an openly gay man. Regardless of what you think of Sheffield or Holby City, it's worth crediting him and the Beeb for that much.
"I made a decision from the start to be out. I had to have these bizarre conversations with producers which began 'I don't know if you know this.....' but they were very supportive. I felt a bit silly but it was the right way to do it. We watch George Clooney in ER and we know he's not a doctor and we know that he's not with Julianna Marguiles but we suspend our disbelief for the sake of the story. I don't see how different it is to take that extra step and believe that a gay actor can play a straight character. I don't see where the difference is. What will be interesting is what happens after Holby."
Indeed it will. In the meantime, however, the hunky, bashful, sweet, animal-loving Jeremy Sheffield will continue to take the Thameslink to Elstree every morning, make his new house in Clerkenwell a home and feed and breed his tropical fish. He may even snog someone else at Fabric, much to the chagrin of Jo, Donna and Sarah P. Stay tuned.
Many thanks to my friend Marika for typing this up for me.