London Fun: Before James Bond There Was Biggles

Its 1985 and The London Storyteller’s parents are staying at the Tower Hotel next to Tower Bridge.

By coincidence at the same hotel a British action legend was in the process of being born to the silver screen.

Before there was Bond, Britain had Biggles.  Appearing in the books of Capt. W.E. Johns first in 1932 (in the brilliantly titled, The White Fokker), Biggles or Captain James Bigglesworth to use his full name is the World War I flying ace whose adventures of derring-do lived were part of British boyhood decades before James Bond was even a glint in Ian Fleming’s eye.

Fast forward to 1985 and Biggles having already sold over a hundred million books was ripe for a big screen adaptation and London was to play centre stage.  As a national hero (albeit fictional), opportunities were abound that probably no other film character could enjoy.  Even perhaps not James Bond.  Pierce Brosnan’s Bond may have raced up the Thames on a speed boat and jumped around on top the much maligned Millenium Dome but Bond didn’t fly a helicopter through the middle of Tower Bridge until the 2012 Olympics.

Even then, it wasn’t James Bond, it was Daniel Craig playing James Bond with a stunt pilot flying.  Childhood recollections of the Biggles movie provide a confident basis upon which to reject any such similar slur upon the fine reputation of the nation’s greatest aviator.  Did Daniel Craig travel back to 1917 when he went through the middle of Tower Bridge?  I don’t think so.  I’ll see you Jimmy!

Cue victory roll!  A great British hero who even had a Royal Gala Premier attended by Prince Charles and Diana.

So, who is Biggles?  Starting out as a fighter pilot with his Sopwith Camel on the Western Front in 1917, Biggles’ escapades with his Royal Flying Corp chums Bertie, Algy and Ginger would see him on adventures around the world including serving the Special Air Police.  They are just four chaps going on adventures together wearing leather, smoking pipes and waving their weapons around.  Heroic.  Modest.  Dedicated.  Noble.  Courageous.  That’s Biggles.  Far more effective a guardian of the nation than even the great Roger Moore’s masterful portrayal of 007.

And so to London in 1985.  What is our erstwhile WWI fighter ace doing in 1985?

The added special sauce of the movie adaptation was a curio of the movie making business.  Some claim that the success of Back To The Future made time travel very bankable, so significant licence was taken to introduce this into the plot line through a revision of the original script.  Biggles however had already wrapped up filming by the time and so the whys are wherefores of this science fiction addition to the universe of our hero’s adventures are somewhat lost.  Perhaps, one can say, in the mists of time.

Besides, as Biggles’s ageing commanding officer William Raymond played by Peter Cushing in his last role, helpfully clarifies from his lair in Tower Bridge that “time travel is not unknown in human history”.

Cushing also provides the rational explanation for the manifestation of a Manhattan TV Dinners executive, Jim Ferguson, in the adventure that this is a result of him being Biggles’s Time Twin.  A concept that once again one can take the reassurance from that time travel is possible.  It is not unknown in human history, after all.  A statement best taken as a definite and easily so for any five year old boy watching.  One need only to jump behind a sofa as our American chum does early in the movie when he is transported to the Western Front of 1917.

Therein lies the magic of Biggles: Adventures In Time.  All small boys regardless of age are effectively transported into an adventure with Biggles.  There are guns and lots of them.  This after all is a movie from time of the A-Team and when guns belonged to either beret wearing miscreants, crack commando units living in the LA Underground or the military.   This is a time when even children’s TV favourite Blue Peter in their special on the making of the movie were keen to sell the film on the basis that there was plenty of fire power to keep the kids entertained.

There are bad guys with the correct non-realistic teutonic accent and bad ass uniforms that are anachronistic.  We also see weapons grade full length leather aviator coats, a look that was subsequently adopted by The London Storyteller in the halcyon days of his philandering glory and that proved irresistible to a select group of inamoratas with the correct understanding of what heroic fashion should look like.

The film also offers many world class one liners including:

“I say ‘let’s kick some ass, Old Boy’!”

“Lets teach those sausage guzzlers a lesson!”

“He’s turned into a religious transvestite!”

“Choir practice is over!”

Oh, and just in case you had missed it:

“Time travel is not unknown in human history”.

On that last quote remember, time travel is possible.  Get it? Got it?  Good.

At Tower Hotel, we see Biggles time travelling twin from New York staying as he meets William Raymond.  Once ready for his next eighties SFX lightning induced time travel escapade as WWI British Tommy, only to give the cleaning lady a shock and again having returned from 1917 dressed as Nun.

There is some terrific kicking off around the ancient St Katherine’s Dock where 1917 meets 1986 but best of all are the adventures that ensue around Tower Bridge where Biggles’s -now quite ancient commanding officer – lives in Apartment 1A in one of the turrets of the world’s first bascule suspension bridge.

More golden gems occur, when on the run from the police Biggles takes refuge and in his full WWI flying gear uses a gang of authentic London punk rockers to evade capture before stealing a helicopter.  Some have questioned the feasibility of his quick mastery of a 1980s police chopper.  These cynics must be silenced.  As Biggles explains,

“if you can fly a Sopwith Camel, you can fly anything!”.

Of course he can.  He’s Biggles.  Only Biggles could make an 80s soundtrack from prog-rocker Jon Anderson of Yes fame seem credible against the horrors of a World War I battlefield.  Biggles can even handle the bizarre contributions of a Queen’s John Deacon on bus man’s holiday.

The airborne stunt sequences around the bridge that ensue around and under Tower Bridge are the kind of territory only Biggles would have been allowed to go.  He is after a national hero.  However, there is another thread to this story that is rooted in real history.  Step forward the heroic protest of one Flt Lt Alan Pollock who on April 5th 1968 flew his Hawker Hunter jet through Tower Bridge in protest at the lack of commemoration for the RAF’s 50th operational year. It was to be his last flight, as the RAF were stuck for what to do with him afterward.

Or was it him at all.  Could it have been a certain WWI flying ace?   Well, time travel after all is possible.

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