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Jack’s Game: Celebrating the golden days

It is almost two years since Jack Charlton died but Mark Lorne says the legend lives on in his trailblazing television series on fieldsports

Jack Charlton on Jack's Game

Jack Charlton during a fishing trip to Galway.

It was only a few months after I left school in the autumn of 1983 that the ground-breaking new TV show ‘Jack’s Game‘ was aired on Channel 4. Broadcast on a Sunday afternoon, at around 4pm, the series featured the legendary England and Leeds United central defender Jack Charlton enjoying a variety of fieldsports and country pursuits.

Jack had been the archetypal hardman defender during his footballing career and perhaps to some he was a strange choice to front such a series. However, Jack was a popular, humorous and charismatic figure, and his straight-talking manner made him an ideal central figure for a series of this kind.

Other than Jack Hargreaves, with his Out of Town and The Old Country series, and Anglia Television’s Countryman with Ted Eales, I can’t remember anything of this kind being broadcast before. It must have been a brave gamble for the fledgling channel to have commissioned such a series and not something I’d imagine Channel 4 would consider at present.

Jack Charlton reading Shooting Times

Jack and his children avidly reading Shooting Times in 1974

Jack’s Game – a documentary record

Jack’s Game is now a fantastic documentary record of our nation’s vibrant fieldsports movement during that era. I bought several of the official VHS videos and watched them untold times. Then, in the noughties, they came out of storage when my nephews studied them as training films to ready them for the beating line and days spent pigeon shooting with their babysitting uncle.

But, going back to 1983, the series was a wonderment to a 17-year-old country boy. In fact, I can remember many pensioners in the village asking me if I “watched Jackie Charlton”, which shows how popular it was with an audience of a broad age group. There was a paperback book that accompanied the series and I still have my copy after all this time.

It’s been two years since the death of Jack Charlton on 10 July 2020, which prompted me to watch the series once again.  (Read Former Lord Mayor of York forced to apologise after welcoming death of fieldsports fan and World Cup hero Jack Charlton.) With no VHS player, I was initially stumped, until my nephew advised me that most episodes were available online. The ‘Rough Shooting’ episode is one I can watch again and again as it reminds me of countless similar days spent with friends and family.

‘Pigeon Decoying’ featured Major Archie Coats, the doyen of that branch of sport. The major preferred using dead birds as decoys and it’s interesting that he made his living as a professional pigeon shooter without the aid of a bouncer or magnet. Mind you, had they been around, I believe he would have modernised because his throwing of a dead bird from the hide was designed to create that all-important movement above the decoy pattern.

Top-drawer cast

The researchers for Jack’s Game certainly assembled a top-drawer cast, most of whom were regular contributors to Shooting Times. The sublime ‘Wildfowling’ episode featured Arthur Cadman, a fine fowler and naturalist, sportsman and writer, who was taking parties out after his beloved grey geese in his eighties.

Big Jack joined Richard Prior for the ‘Roe Stalking’ episode, while Lea McNally was the gillie who helped a clearly emotional Jack grass his first red deer in the Highlands.

Watching the driven game episode on John Ransford’s shoot made me realise how much and how little our sport has altered in the intervening four decades. Fashions have changed remarkably little, with Barbour wax jackets and tweeds still having their place in the field, albeit that the latter might now incorporate a breathable and waterproof lining. (Read our list of the best shooting jackets.)

It’s not quite so common to see so many Series II and III Landies or Range Rover Classics nowadays, but there are still a good many Defender models around on shoot days.

Jack’s excursion after rabbits is another classic. His description of the exponents as “high-tech” ferreters was extremely accurate at the time. Only a decade or so before, a bramble barb was as good as it got when trying to locate a rabbit killed by a laid-up ferret. My ferreting friends both had Deben ferret-finder locators, which I understand are no longer manufactured. I was recently told that good working examples are now making solid prices second-hand . They certainly saved a lot of digging.

Of course, while the shooting sports have survived change and developed with progress, there are episodes featuring Jack in pursuit of hares and mink, and that has altered considerably. Although the American mink is still a pernicious pest species, the hunting of them with packs of hounds was banned in 2005.

Maddeningly, the hunts are allowed to follow a trail or hunt brown rats, which I find difficult to understand. What is the difference between a mink or a brown rat as a pest? Like the mink packs, beagling is now a sport that can no longer pursue live quarry. So instead of hares, the beagle packs follow an artificial trail. At least the timeless spectacle, terminology, camaraderie and traditions of these old country pursuits have not been entirely lost. (Read ratting with terriers.)

Having had a nostalgic look back at the episodes of Jack’s Game, I can only conclude that it was a remarkable achievement for a major network to have filmed this series. Even in the early 1980s, the fieldsports world was aware we had opposition and only a strong character like Big Jack would consider going public in its defence.

In recent times, we have had a few celebrities who have been happy to appear on camera in support of our movement, most notably Sir Ian Botham. I also remember Jamie Oliver shooting driven partridges prior to cooking the birds a few years back.

While English and Irish football fans would possibly disagree, I think the Jack’s Game series was Charlton’s defining achievement as a media celebrity. Wouldn’t it be great if we could find a current popular sporting character who could inspire a production company to sanction a modern version of Jack’s Game? 

Read more on Jack Charlton in Is British shooting selling itself short?