This article was originally published in March 2015 however due to the interest many people had in it I got in contact with one of the lead actors of the program, Tim Bentinck, and asked him if he would provide some more behind the scenes information. He kindly agreed and so I have reuploaded it including Tim’s contribution which you can find below.
In the early 1990s, Yorkshire Television began negotiations with the RAF to produce a TV movie which would serve as a pilot (no pun intended) for a future series. At the time the series Soldier, Soldier was doing wonders for the British Army’s recruitment and PR image as well as being a high ratings winner for ITV. Both the RAF and ITV hoped to repeat this success with Strike Force.
The story revolved around the formation of an elite team of Tornado F.3 aircrews within the fictional No.555 Squadron. At the same time a secondary story concerned an incident involving the loss of a Tornado over Bosnia to a shoulder-launched surface-to-air missile and the subsequent covering up by the pilot involved. The show was also meant to deal with attitudes towards women flying fast-jets and the stresses of military service on the crews and their families.
Strike Force aired in 1995 but sadly was not a great success. Interest proved far below what was hoped and consequently the series was never picked up. To date the film is not available on DVD and has disappeared in to ITV’s archives but a few clips have surfaced on the internet in recent years.
The following is an extract from Tim Bentinck’s autobiography – Being David Archer–and other unusual ways of making a living – which is due to be released later this year. It is used in this article with direct permission from him and I would like to thank him for this kind contribution.
I was very nearly a pilot. When I was at school, I imagined my future either doing what my Pa did, advertising, or flying planes. I flew light aircraft with the CCF and got Flight magazine monthly. My favourite reading was about Spitfires and Hurricanes and I seriously considered joining the RAF for a while. The appeal of flying never left though, and when I landed this part, it was as though it had been written by my guardian angel.
Wing Commander Jonathan Raikes was “awesome in the air,” as one of my pilots put it. Bliss. I so nearly blew it though. Having got the job, two weeks before filming I was meeting Judy in a pub in London for my birthday when some bastard smashed a pint beer glass full in my face. I was millimetres away from being blinded in one eye and my face was cut to bits. I had to go up to Manchester to show the producers the damage. I remember standing in a hotel car park as the two execs peered at my lacerations.
“No, I don’t think we’ll have to re-cast.” Phew, but it meant I spent hours in make-up every morning and was the palest fast jet pilot you’ve ever seen.
The ‘Strike Force’ would be an elite group of Tornado pilots trained to instantly answer the call to scramble anywhere in Europe, based in Cyprus. This pilot episode (yes, we did that joke to death) was about the selection for the team. I was the boss. If the pilot episode was successful it would go to series – like Soldier Soldier in the air, so we were all very keen to make it work. We filmed it on location at RAF Leeming in Yorkshire, and we pilots met up on a train at King’s Cross. We’d clearly all had the same idea – look butch. Leather jackets, shades, stubble and mono-syllabic grunts failed to cover the fact that we were all like excited schoolchildren, let loose with millions of pounds worth of toys.
We were “555 Squadron” and, amazingly, as we wandered around the base in uniform, the real RAF would fire off salutes and call us ‘sir’. One day we were lounging in the mess room and one of our number, a delicate soul, came in flapping and saying,
“Oh my God I’ve just been saluted!”
We, butch as hell and Ray-banned to the nines, said,
“Yes, and what did you do?”
“I went Aaaaaaaaahhahaahahhaaaa!!!”
We very nearly all died. We were filming in a stationary Tornado just off the main runway with me fully togged up in the pilot’s seat, when the Queen’s flight took off in formation for a fly-past over Buckingham Palace. The leading plane got a sudden complete engine failure, and in order to miss him, the plane behind pulled up and to the left, heading straight for us. Someone was filming it on a camcorder and when we looked back at the footage, its wing can’t have missed us by more than a foot. “Not ideal,” as they say in the forces.
I was invited to follow the real Wing Commander around on his duties, to get the style of the man and see how it was really done. We went into the ‘hard’ bomb-proof shelter for a briefing and instead of introducing me as “the actor prat who’s pretending to be me,” he said, “this is Wing Commander Raikes, O.C. 555 Squadron”. I left the briefing walking on air. He offered to take me up for a flight but the insurance wouldn’t cover it. I’d practiced for hours at home on a Tornado computer game, but when it came to the simple matter of shooting down a Russian MIG with cannon on the training sim – a computer in an office – I was dead meat within seconds. However I did get to actually land the full size simulator – real cockpit, full G-kit and helmet, talking to the ops room, they talked me down – and I didn’t crash it, which made it easier to play the part.
It didn’t go to series. The problem with pilot episodes like these is they try to cram too much in. The RAF wanted it to be a recruiting film, and kept changing the lines to make it accurate but dull, and the writer wanted to fit everyone’s back story into an hour, so there were about four storylines going on at the same time. The result was laudable but messy, the flying shots were great and it would have got better – good actors and great potential. We heard that the caterers had been booked for Cyprus, but that was it, it was broadcast but never picked up.
Incredibly, ITV would almost repeat history when it tried to make a drama about life aboard a Royal Navy destroyer in 2004 called Making Waves which suffered a similar fate.