It began as a joke. Two days before Christmas in 1974, bestselling novelist Frederick Forsyth’s first wife Carole was hunting through the cupboards in their bedroom, hoping to find her present. But after ransacking every shelf and coming up empty-handed, she turned to her husband in exasperation, wondering if he had purchased her anything.
“I’d bought her a diamond ring, but it was in my pocket,” Forsyth laughs. “Mockingly, I said: ‘I’m so sorry, I forgot to buy you anything.’ She was rather miffed, and said: ‘Oh, well, write me a ghost story then.’”
And so, almost 50 years ago, was born one of the most beloved Yuletide ghost stories since Charles Dickens penned A Christmas Carol. “In one sitting, I think it was Christmas Eve afternoon, I just wrote it, then gave it to her the next morning wrapped with a pink ribbon around it – and the diamond ring.” The story was published the following year, coming in the wake of Forsyth’s blockbuster three first novels, The Day Of the Jackal, The Odessa File and The Dogs Of War. Though short by comparison, the novella has remained a firm favourite ever since.
Today Forsyth, 85, a veteran former Daily Express columnist who has sold 70 million books in more than 30 languages and had 12 of his stories adapted for film, has seen the haunting mystery of The Shepherd finally brought to life in a movie starring John Travolta and streaming on Disney+.
“The Shepherd is quite a simple story,” explains Forsyth, from his home in Buckinghamshire. “A young pilot flying back from Germany to Britain on Christmas Eve 1957 has a total and catastrophic electrical failure which knocks out all his radios and his compasses. Bad enough – but then he finds below him the landscape is covered in thick fog and he is going to die because he cannot find his way down.”
When all seems lost in the darkness above the North Sea, a Second World War aircraft emerges from the clouds to guide the young pilot – like Forsyth, named Freddie – to a safe landing… with a ghostly twist. He is the eponymous “shepherd” of the book’s title.
Having long nurtured childhood dreams of flying, Forsyth joined the RAF aged 17 – the youngest enlisted pilot – and after two years earned his wings in 1957. He flew the twin-boomed de Havilland Vampire jet which becomes the mechanically-plagued death-trap that stars in The Shepherd, but left when RAF brass refused to guarantee that he would be given command of a frontline Hunter jet fighter.
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Travolta, who stars as the veteran pilot guiding the beleaguered Freddie, played by Ben Radcliffe, had long hoped to film The Shepherd.
The star of Saturday Night Fever and Grease is a seasoned pilot himself, with his own Boeing 727, three Gulfstream jets, a Bombardier Challenger 601, a Dassault Falcon 900, and an Eclipse 500. He had acquired a vintage Vampire jet in 1989 and recalls: “I instantly fell in love with this book. It had been my dream to one day make it into a film.”
Bringing it to the screen has been a labour of love for the veteran actor. He first purchased the film rights to The Shepherd more than 30 years ago, but recalls: “Right after Pulp Fiction I was doing one movie after another. After ten years I just let it go and decided I was never going to get to do it.”
In an incredible twist, Travolta suffered his own mid-air electrical fault that left him fearing death.
“I actually experienced a total electrical failure, not in a Vampire but in a corporate jet over Washington D.C. prior to discovering the book,” he says. “So when I read the book, it resonated more because of this experience I’d personally had. I knew what it felt like to absolutely think you’re going to die.
“Because I had two good jet engines but I had no instruments, no electric, nothing. And I thought it was over, just like this boy, portrayed so beautifully [by Ben Radcliffe]. He captured that despair when you think you’re actually going to die.”
The Grease actor added: “I had my family on board and I said, ‘This is it, I can’t believe I’m going to die in this plane’.
“Then, as if by a miracle, I descended as per the rules to a lower altitude, I saw the Washington D.C. monument and identified that Washington International Airport was next to it. Then made a landing, just like the boy in the film. So I was reading the book saying: ‘I lived this’.”
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Travolta originally wanted to play the doomed Vampire pilot, but three decades later, now plays the lifesaving pilot flying a Second World War-era RAF Mosquito.
“I have a lovely letter from John saying how much he loved the book,” says Forsyth. “The letter is framed and hanging in the downstairs toilet – no reflection on John.”
The film’s writer-director, Iain Softley, says: “It is an exquisite, contained Christmas fable, both mysterious and profoundly moving with a couple of unexpected twists.”
Travolta, who also executive produced the 39-minute film, suggested that Freddie’s aircraft take off to the sound of a choir singing Carol of the Bells. “When… I saw that, I bawled,” he confesses.
Some 3,268 Vampires were built, but just one remains in flying condition in the northern hemisphere, brought from Norway to the airfield in West Raynham, near Fakenham, in Norfolk, that doubles in the film as both the RAF’s German airbase and the fictional RAF Minton base.
The vintage Vampire was used for the film’s flying scenes, but the West Raynham runway proved too short to film the ancient jet landing, so a facsimile was constructed. Softley explains: “The art department did the most amazing thing of finding a rusty wing here, an undercarriage there, scouring barns and sheds all over the country, and they created a perfect replica of the plane.”
Fake snow and fog machines transformed the spring evenings into a crisp winter, and a few cold nights ensured that the mist on the actors’ breath was genuine.
As a new legion of fans discover his work, Forsyth’s Day Of The Jackal is also taking flight again, being remade as a Sky television series starring Eddie Redmayne as the unnamed assassin, originally played by Edward Fox, who targets French president Charles de Gaulle. “I have nothing to do with it, and no idea what they’ll do with the story,” says Forsyth brusquely. “Does anyone even remember de Gaulle today?”
Forsyth began writing for the Daily Express in the 1960s, but penned his final column in August on his 85th birthday.
As a journalist, he covered the Biafran war, and researching novels he travelled to hotspots including war-torn Somalia and Guinea-Bissau where he was almost caught in a violent coup. He was even recruited as an asset by MI6 in the 1960s, smuggling out spy messages from behind the Iron Curtain.
But he is not immune to mistakes. “I almost started World War Three,” he admits, sparking panic with a report of massed soldiers and artillery in East Berlin marching toward the Wall in 1964, sending alarm bells ringing, before discovering it was a May Day parade rehearsal.
“After a few close escapes my wife made me promise to stop researching dangerous hotspots, so I’ve written my last thriller,” he says, having penned his latest novel, The Fox, in 2018. “I miss it up to a point, but 85 is a good age to sit down and have a cup of tea. I don’t miss risking my life. I don’t have a bucket list because everything I ever wanted to do, I’ve done.”
But he’s not done writing yet. “I have one last short story I plan to write, called Home Run, about an agent in East Germany who has to smuggle out a vital piece of military information from a Russian tank colonel who turned against the Soviets. It’s based on a true story. After that, I can relax.”
His second wife, Sandy, now lives in a care facility, visited by Forsyth daily, and he envisions the day when he too may need full-time care. “But right now I still enjoy reading the papers, going down to the Jolly Cricketers for a glass of wine and a light lunch, then having a nap,” he says.
It seems a sedate epilogue for a writer whose characters are typically hard-boiled men of action, decidedly non-PC.
Forsyth shakes his head at today’s increasingly woke society. “It’s pathetic,” he adds. “All the standards that we were invested with as boys 70 years ago have gone.
“We used to say: ‘Don’t make a fuss – we’re British.’ Now everyone makes a fuss about everything. You can’t even say women are women! It’s not my world, and I’m not comfortable with it.”
* The Shepherd is streaming on Disney+
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