What is the secret of Biggles?

The creator of Biggles writes about this famous character who, played by Nevil Whiting, begins a new Granada adventure series on Friday

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From the TVTimes for week commencing 27 March 1960

WHAT is the quality, the universal factor, that causes a man to be regarded with admiration and affection in every country of the world, no matter of what race, colour or creed? What, in this context, has the Scandinavian in common with the Latin, the Asiatic with the African?

Biggies has proved there must be one, otherwise the stories of his exploits would not have been translated into nearly every European language, read by young and old and even used as school readers in many foreign countries.

Captain W E Johns

His creation was fortuitous. Designed as a representative type of British serving officer in the accepted tradition, there was nothing particularly remarkable about him except a natural aptitude for air pilotage.

He was never a strong man physically.

Born in India of parents with a military background, he was rather a sickly child who had to be sent home for his health and education.

As a schoolboy, he had no academic success. He played no games. Inclined to be shy, he shrank from fisticuffs and avoided horseplay. If he had any particular charm of manner it has never been recorded. He was not even good looking.

In short, there was nothing about him of the standard hero except perhaps an intense patriotism now derided as nationalism. He was taught to be proud of being British, as were most boys of his generation.

Where, then, lay his appeal? Why did others readily accept his leadership?

The answer may be that, from an ordinary boy in whom others of a similar retiring nature could see themselves he developed, under the stress of war. into the sort of man most men would like to be; fearless but modest, efficient and resolute in what he undertook.

Like others in the early days of war flying, he had killed a dozen men in combat before he was 20. Living with death forever in the cockpit either makes a man or breaks him. It made Biggies what he subsequently became.

But there must have been more to it than that, and an international fan mail reveals some basic facts which those who are now worrying about the state of the world would do well to ponder.

In the great multitude of ordinary people throughout the world, good, bad or indifferent in their way of life, there has developed through the ages an acceptance of the dividing line between right and wrong, good and evil; a belief, whether practised or not, in the fundamental virtues without which the human race could not have survived

It could hardly be otherwise, for these have been extolled by the founders of every religion since the earliest civilisations. Indeed, the virtues have been a religion in themselves, with temples erected to them.

Biggies may not be particularly virtuous, but at least he represents right versus wrong, law against disorder, which is something most people appreciate.

He does the right thing. It is expected of him, and those who know him well would be shocked if he did anything else. Yet he has the faculty of seeing the other fellow’s point of view. If he hates any thing it is tyranny.

Thus, for years his most dangerous opponent was a Prussian secret agent who had also been a soldier and an air pilot But that to Biggies did not make him a villain.

His code of ruthless efficiency was different, but he recognised in him a man who, in his own way, was doing for his side what he. Biggies, was trying to do for his. He could make excuses for him.

The enemy pilots against whom Biggies fought in the war were also brave men. to be respected. Why pretend otherwise? What are the virtues for which he stands, by instinct or intuition rather than by deliberate intent? Naturally, they are those which I myself would have been happy to possess, or, failing in that, was able to admire in some of the men with whom it was my good fortune to serve in the Army, the RFC, and later the RAF.

Virtue covers a wide field. Courage, truth, loyalty, integrity, reliability, chivalry (now, alas, outmoded) and other qualities not easy to define.

Biggies is a man of his word. He has in strong measure the British conception of fair play and repugnance of hitting a man when he’s down. He says what he thinks, regardless. He abhors humbug and double dealing, and says so, and he talks in plain straightforward English. Propaganda he ignores as a despicable form of cheating.

He dislikes physical effort and makes no secret of it, but with a tenacity of purpose is capable of tireless endurance when pushed to it. He shrinks from brutality and fights with his brains rather than his hands. He can be tough when occasion demands.

These attributes really add up to personality, and this being perceived by the higher authority in his first campaign resulted in him being given difficult assignments.

These inevitably made him shrewd and calculating, so it was not surprising that when after the war his old CO, Air Commodore Raymond, was asked to form a cadet unit of aviation specialists to deal with increasing airborne criminal activities, the first man he sent for was Biggies who, from squadron leader RAF, became a sergeant CID, still in flying cap.

He now wages war on the parasites of society and other enemies of the State with the same dispassionate intensity that made him an ace fighter pilot.

Having flown far and wide, he now knows what most of the world looks like from the air. He has also learned a great many other things that have made him the efficient Interpol officer he has become.

So the saga has run on from his schooldays through a changing world to the present day. He has made, and still makes, mistakes, a human touch that keeps him what he has always been, an ordinary man.

In his early days he had an unfortunate love affair, falling for a girl who turned out to be a spy, a shock which left a scar that is never mentioned but can sometimes be seen.

Well, that is Biggies. A sense of being real, which people are quick to notice, introduced through the author’s own experiences, may have helped to make him popular. Imagination can go a long way, but to know how it feels to be shot down, captured, to escape, be on the run and on recapture be thrown into a civil prison and sentenced to death is likely to make a story more convincing.

If, as I hope and have reason to believe, Biggles has set an example of decent behaviour to the youth of the world, I shall feel I have achieved something worthwhile.

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