He first appeared in the story "The White
Fokker", published in the first issue of " Popular Flying" magazine, in 1932. The first collection of Biggles stories, "The Camels are Coming", was published that same year.
In his first appearance, Biggles was a scout (fighter) pilot in the
Royal Flying Corps(RFC) during World War I. He joined the RFC in 1916 at the young age of 17, having conveniently "lost" his birth certificate. The original Biggles stories were based on Johns' experience — and stories he had heard from other pilots — during his time in France. (Johns, unlike Biggles, did not fly scouts: he was in a bombersquadron.) Biggles was supposedly based on Cyril Lowe. While the purpose of the Biggles stories was to entertain young men, Johns paid attention to historical detail and helped recreate the primitive days of early air combat — when pilots often died in their first combat and before devices such as respirators and parachutes had become practical.
Throughout his career, Biggles flew a number of planes which almost delineate the early history of British military aviation, from
Sopwith Camels during World War I, Hawker Hurricanes and Supermarine Spitfires in World War II, and even the Hawker Hunterjet fighter in a postwar adventure "(Biggles in the Terai)". This is made possible by a kind of "chronological licence" whereby Biggles and his chums essentially age about one year in every four - at least from around 1925 onward.
James Bigglesworth was born in India in May
1899, the son of John Henry Bigglesworth, an administrator in the Indian Civil Serviceand Catherine Bigglesworth (née Lacey), the daughter of the Governor of Bengal. James was the younger of two sons, Charles being the elder by five years. The young James had little contact with European culture, and commenced a lifelong affection for India, befriending the local Indian boys, exploring the countryside and learning to speak fluent Hindi.
However, he did spend holidays in England, with an eccentric uncle, a former Brigadier-General and inventor known as "Bonzo" Bigglesworth, who lived in rural
He then attended Malton Hall School in Hertbury, England. His first encounter with an aircraft was with a Blériot that was forced to land on the school cricket pitch.
First World War service
Biggles left school and initially joined the army as a subaltern in the Rifle Regiment in 1916. He transferred to the RFC and learned to fly in the summer of 1916, at No. 17 Flying Training School, which was at
Settling, in Norfolk, flying solo after two hours of instruction. He then attended No. 4 'School of Fighting' in Frensham, Lincolnshire.
Posted to France with just 15 hours solo, he first flew in combat in September 1916 with 169 Squadron, RFC, (commanded by Major Paynter). His observer was another youth named Mark Way, a
New Zealander. Biggles began flying the FE2 "pusher", and later the Bristol F2B. In late summer 1917, he was transferred to the fictional 266 Squadron RFC, commanded by a Dubliner, Major Mullen. With 266 Squadron, Biggles flew the Sopwith Pupand the famed Sopwith Camel, developing a friendly rivalry with 'Wilks' (Capt. Wilkinson ) and the S.E.5’s of 187 squadron and forming a close friendship with his young cousin Algy (the Hon. Algernon Lacey). A study of the short stories featuring his World War I exploits, suggests that he claimed at least 32 kills, and was shot down or crash-landed eight times. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order, and the Military Crossand bar.
Between the Wars
After the ‘Great’ war, Biggles' adventures as a freelance charter pilot took him around the world in an unidentified amphibian named the "Vandal" (often illustrated on covers, anachronistically, as either a
Supermarine Walrusor Supermarine Sea Otter). His partners in these adventures grew when he and Algy met young Ginger (Hebblethwaite) while foiling a possible Russian plot against Britain. Ginger brought the energy and daring of youth to these, and many of their later, adventures. Between the wars Biggles and his small team mix their own escapades with ventures on behalf of British Secret Service.
Second World War Service
Biggles returned to service in
World War II, initially with a Supermarine S6Btype machine in the Baltic and then to defy the Nazis and their allies in Norwayand Finland. He then took up his post as Commanding Officer of 666 Squadron, RAF, a Special Duties squadron that fought in the Battle of Britainbefore being sent around the world on specific assignments. Bertie (Lord Bertie Lissie) joined the team at this time.
Special Air Police
World War II, Biggles takes up a role as head of the new Special Air Police division of Scotland Yardunder the command of his old chief, Air CommodoreRaymond. With Algy, Ginger and Bertie making up the flying squad, they take on criminals who have taken to the air, both at home in Britain and around the globe. The team fly a wide variety of machines, with Austerand Percivaltypes doing much of the work.
Biggles' greatest opponent is the German spy officer Erich von Stalhein. They first meet when Biggles acts as a spy in the Middle East in
World War I, where Biggles has some narrow escapes. Von Stalhein returns as an adversary in numerous other adventures. As the Cold Warbegins, Von Stalhein enters the services of the Communist bloc, until his former masters imprison him on the isle of Sakhalin, from where Biggles helps him escape (in "Biggles buries a Hatchet", 1958). After Von Stalhein settles in London, he and Biggles remain in touch.
Johns continued writing Biggles short stories and novels up until his death in 1968; in all, nearly 100 Biggles books were published.
In the Biggles stories, there are several females and love affairs. However, despite brief affairs, Biggles and his chums remain steadfastly single. Biggles suffered a disappointment in World War I, when he fell in love with German spy Marie Janis in the short story "Affaire de Coeur" (set in 1918); he later rescues her from Czechoslovakia in "Biggles Looks Back". In one book Biggles is described as preferring cigarettes to women.
In "Biggles Fails to Return" (published in 1943), Ginger falls in love with the sister of the French pilot who has flown Biggles into France on a secret mission, and at the end of the story Ginger gets to spend several weeks in her company while awaiting transport back to England. The young Ginger is also smitten by the beautiful Polynesian girl, Full Moon, in "Biggles in the South Seas" (1940).
There is a documented discussion of the issue of Biggles, sex and alcohol in "By Jove, Biggles: The Life of Captain W.E. Johns" (1981) by
Peter Berresford Ellisand Piers Williams.
In the 1950s, a popular Australian radio version of Biggles was made under licence to Johns.Johns did not write the scripts and apparently ended the contract after receiving complaints from young readers that the storyline had made Biggles "go soft" by taking up a blonde female lover. Because most of the popularity of Biggles was with children, he was unable to include sexual storylines which bored them. (When the early World War I-based Biggles books were reprinted for children, book publishers also edited a case of "whisky" to a case of "lemonade" bottles, resulting in absurd episodes of squadrons risking their lives for a prize of fizzy pop ["The Balloonatics"; Biggles of the Special Air Police] )
Another female character appears in the form of
Worrals, eponymous heroine of a related series of books featuring this resourceful and "plucky" member of the WAAF. (A further Johns creation, the commando Captain Lorrington "Gimlet" King, also features in a series of books that intersect with Biggles at times. His regular colleagues are Corporal Albert Edward Collson, nicknamed "Copper" (he is an ex-policeman), Private "Trapper" Troublay, and Nigel Norman Peters, nicknamed "Cub".)
Criticism and controversies
Though Biggles and his friends age in the books, they do so more slowly than appears historically credible. The books somewhat obviously chronicle developments in aviation technology and also social changes. In an early book, the evidence points to an English nobleman as the perpetrator, but Biggles can dismiss this out of hand as the gentry would never commit a crime; in a later novel, one of the gentry is the villain.
Biggles books have been satirised for their archaic use of language, notably terms such as "opined" and "ejaculated" and the use of what are clearly racial stereotypes and characterisations (Germans are often referred to as "the Hun", for example). During the 1960s there was a reaction against what was perceived as a right-wing 'imperial mentality' in Britain; this led to the books being removed from most British libraries, a move which was derided in some circles as a classic example of
political correctness, since some attitudes in the books could be seen as typical of the time in which they were written.
Regardless of the debate over their racist content or lack thereof, the Biggles books remain popular, both with younger and nostalgic older readers.
Written for children, the stories contain no strong swearing and no explicit sexual content, but alcohol is mentioned occasionally and cigarettes are much in evidence. Assumed British values of bravery, honesty and fair play are stressed.
There are a number of positive non-white characters in the books, from the Oxford-educated Chinaman, Li Chi, in "Biggles Flies Again" and the perky Polynesian girl, Full Moon, in "Biggles In The South Seas", to the Indian man set to inherit Biggles' job in "Biggles Does Some Homework", Johns' multiracial characters challenge his critics' expectations. Biggles himself was brought up in India, speaks fluent Hindi, and has a number of Indian friends and colleagues; on one occasion he asserts to Air Commodore Raymond that "while men are decent to me I try to be decent to them, regardless of race, colour, politics, creed or anything else" [Biggles Delivers the Goods, Hodder & Stoughton, 4th ed, 1951 p12.] .
The stories have their dark side, with Biggles setting out on at least one occasion with "
red mist", inspired by the death of a comrade. They also touch on the emotional strain of combat, with Johns often describing Biggles as "highly-strung" fidgeting pale youth lacking in a sense of humour. The latter World War I stories can be read as implying that Biggles was suffering from combat fatigueand stress.
The inter-war books are reasonably typical of boys' adventure literature of the time, and similar plots and characterisations could be found in comics and books of other genres. "The Cruise of the Condor" (1933), for example, is representative of this period. By the time of the Second World War, the characterisations and some plot devices had clearly dated, but their popularity was assured, perhaps by a public desire for reminders of past success, and by the way "
The Few" caught the popular imagination. Post-war Biggles books often feel anachronistic, but the character's adventures with the fictitious Special Air Police do provide numerous well-written short stories, some of which stand the test of time.Fact|date=June 2007
Biggles in later popular culture
Most of the Biggles books are out of print, but
Red Foxis reprinting many of the titles. The books are a common target for collectors, with some titles fetching high prices, especially the handful that were deleted before being reprinted into paperback. The rarest title, "Biggles and the Deep Blue Sea", has been known to fetch $1,000 on eBay.
Biggles was parodied in a series of skits on the 1970s British comedy television show, "
Monty Python's Flying Circus", including one titled "Biggles Dictates a Letter". [ [http://orangecow.org/pythonet/sketches/biggles.htm Biggles: dictates a letter] ] In the sketch, Biggles behaves in a naive and overreactive manner about the sexual orientation of his fellow comrades; shooting Algy in the process. "Cardinal Biggles", complete with flying helmet and goggles, assists in the interrogations in the Spanish Inquisition sketch. Text stories in the "Papperbok" included "Biggles Flies Down". There have been many other references to the character in film and literature. The fictional title "Biggles Flies Undone" was mentioned in the "Biggles Dictates a Letter" Monty Python's episode, but was never actually produced. In the first "Comic Relief", Michael Palinread the skit "Biggles Goes to See Bruce Springsteen". In " Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl", a customer in The Bookshop Sketch, also found on their " Monty Python's Contractual Obligation Album", requests a fictitious title, "Biggles Combs his Hair".
In 2005, the British television show "
Doctor Who" created a Biggles-based character called Captain Jack, for the episode " The Empty Child". [ [http://www.tv.com/doctor-who-2005/the-empty-child-1/episode/407900/summary.html Doctor Who (2005): The Empty Child (1) - TV.com] ] The Captain had adopted the personaof an RAF volunteer, and had a friend called Algy; a nod to W.E. Johns' creation.
Biggles appeared in a short-lived 1960 TV series based on the books with
Neville Whitingplaying the title role.
He was also featured in a 1986 feature film called "", directed by
John Houghwith Neil Dicksonin the title role. The film attempted to add appeal to the character by adding a science fictionelement, but it was a commercial and critical failure. Dickson reprised the character in all but name, in the Pet Shop Boys' feature film, " It Couldn't Happen Here".
"Biggles - The Authorised Biography" by John Pearson, published in the 1980s, added new and embellished elements to the character's history, including the ageing Biggles' (apparent) suicide in a vintage Spitfire circa 1970. A4 format cartoon adventures in which the Biggles characters use a mix of vintage and modern aircraft were published in the 1980s.
The lyrics of the Jethro Tull song, "
Thick As a Brick", has a line that mentions Biggles ("So, where the hell was Biggles when you needed him last Saturday?"). Additionally, Biggles is mentioned several times in the elaborate album cover, which is a parody of a local British newspaper, most significantly in a story entitled "Do Not See Me Rabbit".
In an episode of "Top Gear", the "tame racing driver" known as
The Stigwas introduced with the line: "Let's hand the old crate over to our resident test pilot—Stiggles!". In a later episode, where Clarkson was driving and his two colleagues were flying, he referred to them as "Algy and Ginger".
"Biggles Recounts the Falklands War", by D. Chauvin, M. Uderzo, B. Asso and J. Rideau appeared in 2007.
In 1983, the Australian Commonwealth government used RAAF aircraft to take surveillance photos of a then-controversial part of Tasmania, resulting in the Attorney-General Gareth Evans being memorably nicknamed "Biggles".
In 1986, a Biggles
computer gamewas released by Mirrorsoftfor the platforms Amstrad CPC, Commodore 64and ZX Spectrum. [ [http://www.mobygames.com/game/biggles Biggles - MobyGames] ]
Terry Pratchett/ Neil Gaimannovel " Good Omens", Aziraphalecollects a book titled "Biggles Goes to Mars".Fact|date=September 2008
A number of Biggles characters appear in
Kim Newman's alternate historynovel " The Bloody Red Baron". A large number of the characters are vampires and the Germans fight for Count Draculain an alternate World War I.
Red Dwarfseason 3 episode "Marooned", Lister burns a book owned by Rimmer entitled "Biggles Learns to Fly" to stay warm while stranded on a hostile moon. Rimmer admits that the book is not art.
A list of comics was released in 1990 featuring the Biggles team. [ [http://www.biggles.nl/en/miklo.html Miklo & Lombard Biggles Comic Albums] ] The titles are separate from the books though they cover the same war or after war investigation operations of Biggles.
List of Biggles books
# "The Camels Are Coming" (1932)
# "The Cruise of the Condor" (1933)
# "Biggles of the Camel Squadron" (1934)
# "Biggles Flies Again" (1934)
# "Biggles Learns to Fly" (1935)
# "The Black Peril" (1935)
# "Biggles Flies East" (1935)
# "Biggles in France" (1935)
# "Biggles & Co" (1936)
# "Biggles in Africa" (1936)
# "Biggles - Air Commodore" (1937)
# "Biggles Flies West" (1937)
# "Biggles Flies South" (1938)
# "Biggles Goes to War" (1938)
# "The Rescue Flight" (1939)
# "Biggles in Spain" (1939)
# "Biggles Flies North" (1939)
# "Biggles - Secret Agent" (1940)
# "Biggles in the Baltic" (1940)
# "Biggles in the South Seas" (1940)
# "Biggles Defies the Swastika" (1941)
# "Biggles Sees It Through" (1941)
# "Spitfire Parade" (1941)
# "Biggles Hits the Trail" (1941)
# "Biggles in the Jungle" (1942)
# "Biggles Sweeps the Desert" (1942)
# "Biggles - Charter Pilot" (1943)
# "Biggles in Borneo" (1943)
# "Biggles Fails to Return" (1943)
# "Biggles in the Orient" (1945)
# "Biggles Delivers the Goods" (1946)
# "Sergeant Bigglesworth CID" (1947)
# "Biggles' Second Case" (1948)
# "Biggles Hunts Big Game" (1948)
# "Biggles Takes a Holiday" (1948)
# "Biggles Breaks the Silence" (1949)
# "Biggles Gets His Men" (1950)
# "Another Job for Biggles" (1951)
# "Biggles Goes to School" (1951)
# "Biggles Works It Out" (1952)
# "Biggles Takes the Case" (1952)
# "Biggles Follows On" (1952)
# "Biggles - Air Detective" (1952)
# "Biggles and the Black Raider" (1953)
# "Biggles in the Blue" (1953)
# "Biggles in the Gobi" (1953)
# "Biggles of the Special Air Police" (1953)
# "Biggles Cuts It Fine" (1954)
# "Biggles and the Pirate Treasure" (1954)
# "Biggles Foreign Legionnaire" (1954)
# "Biggles Pioneer Air Fighter" (1954)
# "Biggles in Australia" (1955)
# "Biggles' Chinese Puzzle" (1955)
# "Biggles of 266" (1956)
# "No Rest for Biggles" (1956)
# "Biggles Takes Charge" (1956)
# "Biggles Makes Ends Meet" (1957)
# "Biggles of the Interpol" (1957)
# "Biggles on the Home Front" (1957)
# "Biggles Presses On" (1958)
# "Biggles on Mystery Island" (1958)
# "Biggles Buries a Hatchet" (1958)
# "Biggles in Mexico" (1959)
# "Biggles' Combined Operation" (1959)
# "Biggles at the World's End" (1959)
# "Biggles and the Leopards of Zinn" (1960)
# "Biggles Goes Home" (1960)
# "Biggles and the Poor Rich Boy" (1960)
# "Biggles Forms a Syndicate" (1961)
# "Biggles and the Missing Millionaire" (1961)
# "Biggles Goes Alone" (1962)
# "Orchids for Biggles" (1962)
# "Biggles Sets a Trap" (1962)
# "Biggles Takes It Rough" (1963)
# "Biggles Takes a Hand" (1963)
# "Biggles' Special Case" (1963)
# "Biggles and the Plane That Disappeared" (1963)
# "Biggles Flies to Work" (1963)
# "Biggles and the Lost Sovereigns" (1964)
# "Biggles and the Black Mask" (1964)
# "Biggles Investigates" (1964)
# "Biggles Looks Back" (1965)
# "Biggles and the Plot That Failed" (1965)
# "Biggles and the Blue Moon" (1965)
# "Biggles Scores a Bull" (1965)
# "Biggles in the Terai" (1966)
# "Biggles and the Gun Runners" (1966)
# "Biggles Sorts It Out" (1967)
# "Biggles and the Dark Intruder" (1967)
# "Biggles and the Penitent Thief" (1967)
# "Biggles and the Deep Blue Sea" (1967)
# "The Boy Biggles" (1968)
# "Biggles in the Underworld" (1968)
# "Comrades in Arms" (1968)
# "Biggles and the Little Green God" (1969)
# "Biggles and the Noble Lord" (1969)
# "Biggles Sees Too Much" (1970)
# "Biggles Does Some Homework" (1997)
# "Biggles Air Ace: The Uncollected Stories" (1999)
Johns died while still writing "Biggles Does Some Homework". Although never completed, it was released as a strictly limited edition of 300 copies in paperback. A further limited print run of 300 hardback copies have been printed in 2007 by Norman Wright publishing.
*"Biggles- The Authorized Biography" -John Pearson (Hamlyn 1978)
* [http://www.biggles.com The Biggles Information Web Site]
* [http://www.biggles-online.com/ Biggles Online: Bibliographic data and information site]
*imdb character|0032561|James 'Biggles' Bigglesworth (film character)
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