That sinking feeling by Jan Needle

Forgive me for saying so if you’ve bought a ticket, but the idea of all those punters dressed as refugees from Upstairs Downstairs chugging across the Atlantic to rendezvous with the spirits of the unfortunates who sailed in the real Titanic a hundred years ago fills me with a mixture of astonishment and dread. Astonishment that anyone should want to do it, and dread that the whole world’s turning bonkers at a speed gone critical. Do they really imagine their grandchildren hanging on their every word when they breathlessly reveal ‘I was on that Titanic-related luxury non-re-enactment cruise in 2012 when we didn’t see an iceberg and fifteen hundred of us didn’t drown – it was AWEsome!’?

(And why, incidentally, do you think the North Koreans chose to launch their rocket a hundred years after the Titanic sailed? Did they sense an even greater international triumph? Anniversaries, eh – doncha love ’em.)

On the other hand, because I’ve got a rather anally retentive pocket diary, I know they do mean much to many. As I write this, for instance, I’m able to note that on this day in 1954 Bill Haley recorded ‘Rock Around the Clock’, while three days later Doris Day had a number one with Secret Love. The birth of the rock/pop dichotomy perhaps? Nobody knows, and nobody should care, if you ask me. Time is time. It passes. Very little actually changes much.

But thirty years ago this month, a little local war happened which did have quite staggering effects. Margaret Thatcher, who was the most unpopular PM in living memory, sent a task force 8,000 miles from my home town to the South Atlantic to challenge a small but determined gang of armed invaders from Argentina. As a gamble it was almost beyond belief, and in many people’s eyes completely insane. Had it failed, the effects for her, though, would have been appalling. But it did not fail, and Mrs T became the most popular PM since Churchill and beyond. And the luckiest.
We’re remembering the anniversary, inevitably. The trumpets and drums of jingoism are at full volume. Although Jorge Luis Borges described the conflict as ‘two bald men fighting over a comb,’ to a country that had lost an empire and hadn’t found a role (as Dean Acheson had noted twenty years before), it was an affirmation of something great and special – and it only cost a piffling nine hundred and eight lives. There are bellicose rumblings from both the baldies now, but neither we nor Argentina has a navy big enough to have another crack these days. Thank God for failed economies.

Strangely enough I was in Italy when the task force sailed, where the total population found the whole thing shameful and embarrassing. They were astonished that me and my party – a group of Manchester University drama students touring a Shakespeare play – agreed with them. Not long after it was over, I wrote a three part serial which I pitched to Thames TV for their educational drama slot – and thanks to a terrific director called Peter Tabern, they were persuaded to give it a go.

It was called A Game of Soldiers, and the story was very simple. Three Falkland Islands children find a badly injured Argentine conscript lying injured in a sheep shelter, and fired by dreams of patriotic heroism, decide they have to kill him. He’s not much older than they are, and cold, and sad, and hurt, and hungry, but it’s their duty. C’est la guerre.

So far so good. Actors and locations were chosen (the wilds of County Durham), the scripts were written, the long hard cogs of drama-making began to grind. It was hard work (harder for them than me), but finally it was in the can. And everybody, I have to say, was very happy with it. Thames put in it the schedules, ITV were right behind it.

The following year, I sloped off to Greece to have a holiday. When I returned, shortly before it was due to be broadcast,  I picked up a copy of the Guardian in the Clapham flat of my friend Farrukh Dhondy, to find myself all over the front page (a certain Mrs Jan Needle was, at least; the Telegraph made the same assumption). The Government were up in arms, there was a patriotic backlash, and the Defence Minister John Stanley (who hadn’t watched it, naturally) was determined ITV had to pull it from the schedules. It was a schools’ programme, for pity’s sake! Disgraceful.

Times, I suspect, were different in those days. ITV peremptorily declined to pull the programme, although Thames did agree – with charming mockery I thought – to have an announcer say before each episode, ‘What follows is a work of fiction.’ And then, to rub it in, the play was nominated for a Bafta. (Didn’t win it though – that honour went to Tony Hart cutting up wee bits of paper. Oh, what fun!) The point was made though, and Collins got me to write it as a novel, then I did a stage version for Plays Plus.

And now, guess what, it’s the thirtieth anniversary, so everybody remembers it again, as though somehow it’s suddenly much more important than it was. And people get in touch with me, out of the blue, and ask me if it still exists. And I consult my son Matti Gardner (, and a friend called Alex Marrs
( who’s doing a degree at Manchester, and he does photographs for Matti to turn into a cover, and lo and behold, in almost no time at all – there it is again. It lives.

The response on Facebook has been amazing. Lots of people – lots of people – have been in touch, and they remember it from having done it at school, or having seen the TV film or DVDs, or having taught it, even. One teacher told me with touching pride that she still had the copies I had signed for her, and Michael Rosen put it on his ‘wall,’ and it’s been ‘liked’ and ‘shared’ all over the place. I’m grateful, and it’s fun. I could become a convert to new media…

Which brings me back to anniversaries. There’s a chance now that the book will be read again, and hopefully be relevant, and remind someone of those dead British soldiers, and Argentine conscripts, and all the drowned sailors in the Belgrano that was torpedoed outside the combat zone, sailing away, and all the crippled heroes, too. No one’s doing an expedition to the Falklands (Las Malvinas, anyone?) to revel in the atmosphere of Goose Green, but that’s because a group of lonely, windswept islands is nothing like as sexy as Downton the Bottom of the Sea. Not many shepherdesses in the wilderness would pose for a topless portrait as prettily as Kate Winslett did, either.

So let’s not be cynical about random dates, let’s thank Mrs Thatcher for making it all possible. And I really, really hope the people who’ve sailed out to see the very patch of water where the Titanic went down have a really, really lovely time, and become better persons in the process. Think of the grandchildren! Won’t they be astonished! No, really…
Enough bile. I’m probably only jealous. And I do recognise the value in thinking of and commemorating great tragic disasters. It's just that sometimes, nowadays...well.

Let's change the subject, shall we? Last month I missed the date to blog about my other latest book published by Skinback Books at 99p, which is actually brand new, not a reprint, and which has lived in my mind for many years. Although Treasure Island is recognized as a classic, I’ve always felt that its dark, dark sub-text was pretty generally overlooked – which is a perennial problem with books perceived as being ‘for children’. My version is called Silver and Blood, which is what I think the original was inspired by. Treasure and greed.

A parlour game for you. How many ‘good’ men are there in Treasure Island? What are their names? What was Dr Livesey doing serving with Butcher Cumberland? Why didn’t Squire Trelawney ask someone on the Bristol waterfront about John Silver’s history, character and motives before embracing him? I know the pub trade’s a hard one, but don’t you think Mrs Hawkins was just a little bit remiss in letting her dear son sail to the Caribbean in an era of such rampant piracy? And why was Captain Smollett always such a grumpy git?

Would it happen today? That’s what my book’s all about. I’ve sailed in the Caribbean, but believe me, there are some places that you just don’t go….

Happy anniversary!

Silver and Blood

A Game of Soldiers

Killing Time at Catterick 

 My Mate Shofiq

Albeson and the Germans

Skinback Books:


Folk were discussing A Game of Soldiers on Youtube 3 days ago Jan...yearinthelifeofaneng has been waiting 30 years nearly to see Part 4...
They should show it on TV, Tumbledown was shown again not long ago.
Aye, Thatcher eh, those were the days...(whistle whistle)...I'm still considering going to the European Court of Human Rights to get my milk back!
All best, John
(copy/paste link into browser to view)

Published on Mar 24, 2012 by CaptainSiCo
Part One of Jan Needle's drama 'A Game of Soldiers', shown as part of Thames Television's series for schools Middle English. Originally transmitted in September 1983.

I may be remembering this incorrectly, but I think there were only three episodes (the soldier was killed at the end of the final episode). Unfortunately, I only have part one at present.
CaptainSiCo in reply to yearinthelifeofaneng (Show the comment) 3 days ago

My teacher got us to watch this in 1983 but only recorded the first three episodes, so we never got to watch the fourth and final part. I've been waiting 30 years, so if you have it...
yearinthelifeofaneng 3 days ago
P.S. Yes, that dark, subliminal undercurrent that's in "Christmas feel-good classics" like It's A Wonderful Life...or in Roald Dahl's work (and the 1971 film version of "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory") often passes into the subconscious "under the radar" so to speak, but then perhaps that is the best way for art to work, and the only way to get Truth past certain perennial gatekeepers etc...I remember as a child it was only the material that "rang true", that had some dark subliminal strand to go with the light, which excited my imagination.
Jan Needle said…
so much for ambiguity, eh? there were only three episodes. whether or not the soldier was dead, or whether he killed himself or was killed by the soldiers, was left open - not purely for artistic reasons. i wasn't trying to blame anyone. even then, one wasn't sure who exactly to blame for what. sorry about your stolen milk though, john!
Jan...just realised...lazy Sunday thinking...I may have just posted a spoiler for the story in that first problem, I can delete it, and this one...and you can delete your reply, if I've posted an important plot point there like an ixxxt...just let me know if you need that done...not since Watergate can paper trails be erased so readily!
Jan Needle said…
i wouldnt bother thanks, john. i work on the headline principle - tell em someone's minced, and they'll want to know how, where and why! it's the whole sad process of the serial and the novel that i was interested in. not many people, sadly, expect a happy ending from me. and edward bond thought the stoning of the baby in saved meant it was an optimistic piece...
Jan Needle said…
just been hauled over the coals by vivien for that. bond described the ENDING of the play as 'almost irresponsibly optimistic.'because someone mends a broken chair, i believe. ah well, it's a pov.
CallyPhillips said…
Will try to stop laughing about the final Bond comment for long enough to make a sensible comment. But I've been frazzled all day by trying to work out twittering and virtual attendance at the Digital Minds conference. I should stop doing that and start work on reviewing Mr Needle's finest latest ebook offerings. Get back into my reviewing box. I feel safer and more comfortable there than in the world of twitbook where I'm going down more certainly than the Titanic. And if you don't mind spoilers you should all check out Peter Tarnofsky's They all Die at the End... (reviewed, inevitably on indieebookreview site) And Jan... oh yes, it's all a POV isn't it? I'm going to have that tattooed on my forehead. NOW.
julia jones said…
Just reading Andrew Motion's Silver to get myself in the proper mood for fast boats and violence in Silver and Blood. Thanks for a great post

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