Thunder and Lightnings – an Obsession

Phillip Rhodes, a long-time fan of Jan’s, describes his affection for Jan’s first book and his wish to see it adapted for film

While an aspiring writer myself, recently my efforts have been enthusiastically directed towards promoting the work of another, more gifted scribe. My sporadic, on-and-off obsession with Thunder and Lightnings has spanned some forty years. 

I didn’t read Jan Mark’s novel until sometime in the early 1990s, simply because as a child I couldn’t read. However, according to my sister, I could read, but was too lazy to pick up a book. Having said that, my first encounter with Thunder and Lightnings began at 4.30 p.m. on Monday, 3 May 1976, when actor Jeremy Kemp read the book on Jackanory (BBC 1965 to 1996). 

Set in Norfolk, Thunder and Lightnings features the developing friendship between two boys during the summer holidays of 1974. The book starts when Andrew Mitchell moves to East Anglia from Kent with his parents and younger sibling.

Just weeks before the end of term, Andrew grudgingly attends his new school, where he meets Victor Skelton, whose passion is aeroplanes, in particular the English Electric Lightning. They are chalk and cheese, but somehow become friends and do things together, include going to nearby RAF Coltishall to watch the Lightnings take off and land. However, Victor is devastated to discover that his beloved Lightnings will soon to be retired, and replaced by the new Jaguar strike aircraft. 

This heartbreaking replacement of the old with the new represents a significant childhood experience, namely the need, often against choice, to move on. Jan Mark wrote: ‘Small children are very conservative because everything lasts so long when you’re a child. You don’t realize how transient everything is. What seems to have been a lifelong, abiding passion may have lasted only a year in real terms, and nobody else notices it’s gone, but to the child it is everything.”

The thunderous power and sheer beauty of the English Electric Lightning is such that it’s difficult not to feel sorry for Victor. He’s not a simpleton or shy or withdrawn, but neither is he articulate or open to learning new things, unless it’s on his own terms. He’s somewhat outgoing and even unconventional. He stands out amongst his contemporaries. He wants to join the RAF, but you know he has probably spent the last forty years working on a farm.

Andrew is a very well-rounded individual. Because of his father’s job, he has travelled around, attending numerous schools. He’s bright, motivated, and very helpful around the house. He has a good set of social skills. Now, he probably did end up in the RAF or become an engineer. His parents are very laid-back, whereas Victor’s parents are very strict, and don’t spare the rod.

I identify with Victor, and envy him for being able to move on. You see, I was obsessed, but not with an aircraft type, rather an aerodrome. My own personal journey began with a similar car ride, albeit in 1973, when the family moved to RAF Driffield in East Yorkshire. I was seven years old and obsessed with Airfix models, war films and Dad’s Army. We spent five years living on camp, a disused airfield before moving to the nearby town. These were the best years of my life. In 1996 the camp closed, and since then I have campaigned to see this historical site preserved through sympathetic development.  And I failed. The site is to be cleared for housing. That’s half of my life trying to save our heritage, and I have nothing to show for it.

I wrote to Jan Mark circa 2004, expressing my gratitude and love for her book. I also mentioned my interest in seeing Thunder and Lightnings turned into a film. She replied, stating that at one point the BBC had itself expressed an interest in a televised drama, but nothing materialised. I had intended to write to Jan again, detailing my ideas, as contained in this article, but my procrastination got the better of me, and it wasn’t to be. 

Phillip Rhodes equipped for rereading in 2021 …

To become a more accessible film, the original narrative needs to be enhanced or embellished, but not at the expense of the book’s soul. The plot is currently rather thin, and something extra needs to make the film pop.

I have a few ideas, some of which I’m keeping quiet about, but one option is to start the film in present day England, and a car journey, made by an adult Andrew and his sister, which in the original book would have been his brother. They are returning to Norfolk. My original idea was to have the siblings attend the real-life closing ceremony of RAF Coltishall in 2006, but that would prohibitively expensive to recreate. 

As they travel down the A1 road, they pass Balderton, near Newark, and spot the wreckage of a recognisable aeroplane and famous landmark, the aforementioned English Electric Lightning. This famous of all airframes (Lightning F.2a XN728) actually existed, until being scrapped in 2013, which gives us time frame between 1974 and 2013. Here the brother and sister stop for a rest. Andrew is months away from leaving the RAF, after being in uniform for thirty years. His sister is a serving police officer. During the car ride they discuss life. She is too young to remember living in East Anglia.  

Perhaps Andrew only stayed in East Anglia for a couple of years, before the family moved on; and although the two boys kept in touch, they eventually drifted apart, and soon their friendship became a distant memory. But Andrew never forget his friend, and through the internet they rekindle their friendship. It is during this return journey that we travel back to 1974, and to that original car journey which first brought Andrew to East Anglia.

My personal belief is that other changes only need to be slight. Within the original book there appears to be some underlying friction between the two boys. This could escalate into a fight, with Andrew’s mum helping to repair the damage. Maybe Victor finds a girlfriend, or rather a girl finds him. That first kiss? Victor isn’t reckless, and finally accepts change, even if this happens after the film has ended.

One issue I am keen to highlight is the continued demise of our aeronautical heritage (aircraft scrapped and airfields demolished), something that Victor picks up on. Perhaps the boys explore an abandoned aerodrome? Then there are the pitfalls to avoid. This isn’t an emotive Stand By Me (1987) meets an action-packed Top Gun (1987), nor is it Grange Hill. Neither is Victor dim-witted or “Normal for Norfolk”, and please, let’s not add contemporary social issues to the narrative. This is 1974. Thunder and Lightnings will make for an excellent nostalgic, feel good film. We desperately need this.

The English Electric Lightning was finally withdrawn from RAF service in 1988. Sadly none have been preserved in flying condition. RAF Coltishall itself closed in 2006. The airfield is now covered in solar panels, making it unsuitable for location filming.

Because there is no close interaction between the boys and the aircraft, it is advantageous to recreate the airfield and all flying sequences digitally. Apart from RAF Coltishall and the English Electric Lightning (including the aforementioned wrecked XN728), other aircraft need to be replicated. They are the F4 Phantom, Jaguar, Spitfire, Chipmunk, both civilian and military Westland Whirlwind helicopters, and a none descript twin-engine aircraft, such a Vickers Varsity.

Individual CGI shots should be naturally composed and framed, as if real aircraft were being filmed from the ground or if needed air-to-air. While a great script, talented director and cast will make this film, poor CGI will undo all this hard work.  

The original narrative requires studio interiors for two family cottages (living room, kitchen, stairs/landing and child’s bedroom x 2), secondary school interior (classroom and corridor), local post office, shop, and a library. There are a number of locations pertaining to the original book that are vital to the film.  All are located adjacent to former RAF Coltishall (Scottom military cemetery) or in and around nearby Ingham and Stalham. These include the homes of Andrew (Jan Mark’s own home) and Victor, local churches, shops and school. Filming should coincide with the summer holidays and harvest time.    

Thunder and Lightnings will make an excellent 90-minute film. I see my job is to get the right people interested, then step back. That said, if commissioned, I would like to contribute ideas towards the script, and document the production (potential DVD extra). I have experience as both a production assistant and documentary camera operator, in BBC television documentaries and an independent feature film. Fingers crossed!!!

What do other readers think? Jan’s debut still resonates with its original readers all these years later. Here’s another fabulous tribute to the lasting significance of Thunder and Lightnings from Paul Gorman.