N FROM THE MOVIES
Graham Caldwell meets the airborne ace in the guise of Neil Dickson.
Major James Bigglesworth is one of the most enduring and popular heroes ofour time. He is also one of the most misunderstood. He has. in his time. been accused ofeverything from racism to sexism and imperialism to facism. This. as every true fan knows. is nonsense. His creator. Captain W E Johns. who wrote more than 80 Biggles books between 1932 and 1968 described him as ‘the sort ofman most men would like to be; fearless but modest. efficient and resolute in what he undertook.‘ Old-fashioned, privileged and reactionary Biggles may be. but he is also intelligent. caring and healthily sceptical of politicians - in fact there are times when he is positively anti-establishment.
Someone who would agree with this is the man who stars as Biggles in the long awaited film ofthe same name. Neil Dickson describes him as ‘a very good natured person who likes the truth. He doesn‘t stand for bullshit although he‘s certainly no prude, he‘s an old-fashioned gentleman.‘ Dickson. who succeeds such suggested Biggles as Dudley Moore. James Fox and Jeremy Irons to be the first on the big screen. has already been called upon to defend Biggles‘ character from attack. ‘lt does amaze me when people start things like that,‘ he said, ‘Biggles never had a girlfriend. Biggles was racist. Biggles was right-wing etc because when you read the books. he‘s not. Things were different in those days. These boys were coming out ofschool with a life expectancy ofa week . . . . it took an enormous amount ofcourage really.‘
Born with the century, Biggles is indeed a man of his time. When he was young he called the Germans Huns. he had certain standards, both in war and peace and if he seems archaic at times then that is only to be expected.
One of the most common barbs aimed at Biggles is that he was a racist. but his last. unpublished book. Biggles Does Some Homework he decides to retire and introduces his successor - a young Indian pilot and in Biggles Delivers the Goods. Johns writes: ‘while men are decent to me I‘ve tried to be decent to them. regardless of race, colour. politics. creed or anything
GThe List is. 29 May
else,‘ asserted Biggles curtly.‘
By far the best study ofthe character comes in By Jove, Biggles by Peter Beresford Ellis and Piers Williams. This splendidly researched book is both a biography ofJohns and an examination of his hero. In the course of the book they easily disprove ofevery criticism of Biggles there has been. ‘These two are the real Biggles experts,‘ says Dickson. He told me how they visited the set one day during shooting and Piers made a beeline for Dickson’s hands, examining them minutely before exclaiming: ‘Yes, you’re Biggles!‘ Biggles hands. if you recall, being described as ‘small and delicate, like a girl‘s.’ Neil says he was unsure what to think about this, but was nevertheless glad to have their approval.
He was well aware when he accepted the part that it might be difficult to reach people’s expectations. ‘I thought it would be
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hard to live up to what people thought,‘ he says, ‘and l was worried about getting it right and not disappointing them. Much as you think, ‘God, I‘m in the firing line here‘ at the same time you think: ‘thisis exciting.’
Although very few Biggles books were set in the 1914-18 period. it is at the cockpit of his Sopworth Camel that most people picture him. Even here, Johns is not without his critics. He has been accused of romanticising the war— emphasising the chivalry and glorying in the carnage. For someone who himself served with distinction in the RFC, Johns knew what he was talking about. There is evidence of combatants breaking off a dog-fight when one‘s guns jammed and British pilots did drop a wreath on the aerodrome of Baron Von Richhoven, their arch enemy and deadliest foe, as a mark of respect. We are frequently told how sickened
Biggles is with it all. . . . ‘there were times when he loathed war and everything concerned with it with a whole-hearted hatred,‘ wrote Johns.
To anyone who has read Biggles in any depth. it is apparent that he is not the stiff upper—lipped, gung-ho character many assume him to be. It is not widely known that Biggles fell deeply in love with a double agent early in WW1 and lives until he is 64 believing he was responsible for her death - which explains both his apparent asexuality and world-weary cynicism. He does, however. ultimately discover he alive and rescue her in Biggles Looks Back.
The film is unusual in that it is concerned with time travel and involves Biggles in some unlikely escapades with a helicopter amongst other things. While this may affect the purists, it was done for a specific reason.
‘When I first got the script,‘ explains Dickson, ‘I read it and thought, ‘What. . . .what has this got to do with Biggles?‘ but then I realised that it is actually very clever. Kids today don’t know who Biggles is and they are much more sophisticated now. so by involving
the time travel and special effects we I
hope the film will be much more ofa traditional Biggles.‘
It is nice to think that Biggles might take his rightful place again on the bookshelves and that we might be allowed to thrill to the adventures of Biggles, Algie. Ginger and Bertie without so-called liberals telling us they are bad for us and ought to be banned and leave us alone to enjoy a good old-fashioned hero. Who knows, I amy even find a copy of Spitﬁre Parade. . . . but perhaps that‘s too much to ask?