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James Bigglesworth, universally known as "Biggles", is a character in a long-running series of books written by "Captain" W.E. Johns (the rank was self-awarded; Johns retired from the RAF as a Flying Officer, equivalent to a Lieutenant in the army) between the 1930s and the 1960s.
Biggles originated in a series of short stories that Johns (himself a former airman) wrote for Popular Flying magazine, and the original intention was to provide the fighter pilots of the future with an entertaining way to remember the "tricks of the trade" learned the hard way during World War One.
The stories became very popular with children, particularly young boys, and Johns began to write more to this audience. The story was advanced to the inter-war period, with Biggles and his friends acting as freelance adventurers, sometimes working for the British Secret Service.
When World War Two rolled around, Biggles naturally joined up and flew with the Royal Air Force throughout, having many adventures along the way.
The books continued after the war, with Biggles now a member of the Special Air Police, and Johns continued writing until his death in 1968, though the later books are not as highly regarded.
Although originally written as a realistic Great War airman -- hard-drinking, running on pure nervous energy, often murderously vindictive towards the enemy, and only a matter of time until his number was up -- Biggles then went into Contractual Purity. He became a strict teetotaler, and one of the early stories was retconned to replace whisky with lemonade, leading to the bizarre idea of squadrons of young pilots risking their lives to win a crate of lemonade. Similarly, while Biggles had a brief affair in one of the early stories, his young fans were outraged that an Australian radio adaptation had Biggles "go soft" by having a romantic escapade.
Biggles has in many ways dated very badly. Very much a product of its time, Biggles embodies the British values of Decency, Fair Play and Courage, and the casual racism of British society in the 1930s, though Biggles himself is shown to have been born and raised in India and speak fluent Hindi. The books are now generally considered fair for their day.
The colourful "ripping yarns" style of the prose is often parodied in British media, and Biggles is in many ways the archetypal Boy's Own story. Particularly satirised is Johns' habit of substituting colourful verbs in place of "said" in dialogue tags, and in particular his use of the verb "ejaculated" in place of "exclaimed".
Biggles holds a place in British popular culture comparable with Flash Gordon in the US, and it's probably not too much of a stretch to suggest that, if Biggles had been an American series, there would have been numerous screen adaptations by now. As it is, only a short-lived 1960s TV series and the So Bad It's Good 1986 Biggles -- Adventures in Time movie (in which Biggles is joined by a time-travelling American salesman) have been made.
Biggles was referenced multiple times on Monty Python's Flying Circus (thus paying homage both to Biggles' importance as British pop hero and to underline/mock the show's supposed "aviatorial" nature); he was also featured as "cardinal" in the infamous Spanish Inquisition sketches.
Biggles was heavily deconstructed and subverted - most egregiously in the character of foul-mouthed alcoholic working-class Brummie Major Wooley, in Derek Robinson's trilogy of WW 1 fighter pilot novels.
Biggles is spoofed by blogger Reed dé Buch in Biggles Over Baghdad, an ongoing series of short stories, setting Biggles in contemporary Iraq and Iran - definitively not part of the Biggles canon.
Tropes used in Biggles include:
- Ambiguously Gay: Biggles being at least a non-practicing gay can be inferred from the books given a modern dirty mind. It is a verifiable detail that only one woman even came close to seducing Biggles away from the manly embrace of his chums. A blonde Mata Hari called Ilse plays the Femme Fatale role, twice: on both occasions acting as agent for the dastardly villain, Count Erich von Stalhein of the German Intelligence Services.
- Ace Pilot
- Anachronic Order: His origin story, Biggles Learns to Fly, was not the first book to be published.
- Biggles Goes to School and The Boy Biggles explore his childhood. The latter was one of the last stories written.
- Badass Grandpa: Biggles ages naturally during the course of the books. His last excursion as an over-age and deniable James Bond is a mission into the Russian Gulag in 1965, when he would have been as old as the century, to liberate old antagonist Erich von Stalhein from Soviet incarceration.
- Celibate Hero
- Diesel Punk
- Distaff Counterpart: Flight Officer Joan "Worrals" Worralson of the Women's Auxiliary Air Force appeared in a number of stories between 1941 and 1950. She was created largely to encouraged girls to become pilots.
- Fake in the Hole: In The Movie, the lead character is drawn back in time after taking a shower and is clad in only a towel. He holds off a group of German troops by turning on his cordless razor and throwing it, yelling "GRENADE!"
- Frothy Mugs of Water: The Biggles stories were originally written for adults. When they were republished for children, references to whisky were changed to lemonade. Pilots would willingly risk their lives on dangerous missions when offered the reward of a crate of lemonade. (It was whiskey in the original version.)
- Improbable Piloting Skills
- Inconvenient Summons: Happens to Jim Ferguson in Adventures in Time.
- Kid Hero: Biggles is a borderline example, being eight months shy of his claimed seventeen years when he arrives as New Meat at the Air Training School in Biggles Learns To Fly. Most of the franchise is set some time after he reaches adulthood, however.
- A couple of stories are set during his childhood.
- Military Alphabet: Uses the old World War One era British one (Ack for A and so on).
- Said Bookism
- Sky Pirate
- Universal Driver's License: In The Movie Biggles: Adventures in Time, Biggles (transported in time from World War One to the late twentieth century) is able to work out how to fly a helicopter after a few minutes experimentation. He even says, without apparent irony, "If you can learn to fly a Sopwith Camel, you can learn to fly anything!" (the Camel was a notoriously hard to handle aircraft, with a well deserved reputation as a pilot killer)
- Vapor Trail: A Sky Pirate encounters Biggles' deHavilland Mosquito fighter variant (four 20mm cannon plus or minus four .303 machine guns) in place of the unarmed bomber-turned-civilian-transport he'd planned to attack. When Biggles nails his opponent's fuel tank, the fellow panics and attempts to return fire through his own vapour trail. Because he's using tracer rounds, which basically trail a stream of fire behind them for up to six hundred yards... well, you can guess the rest.
- World War One: Although only a fraction of the books are set during the First World War, this is the period with which Biggles is mostly associated.
- World War Two