Revisiting BIGGLES - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Revisiting BIGGLES

Martin Rayburn searches for his 1980s time twin.
The Boy's Own adventure-style Biggles books by W.E. Johns were, I have to admit, something of a guilty pleasure for a brief period of my childhood. I don't think I ever owned any, rather would scour the shelves of the mobile library that visited our neighbourhood every week. I'd long grown out of them probably a good decade before a film based upon the character appeared, but out of curiosity I still went to see it in the cinema back in 1986. It certainly wasn't the film I expected it to be, but as someone who was embracing the eighties full-on at the time, I loved it! Of course, watching it 35 years later through adult's eyes, I can spot all its numerous failings. But I still very much enjoyed the hour and a half nonetheless.
Biggles, or Biggles: Adventures In Time as the DVD now proclaims its title to be, takes a lot of liberties with Johns source material. If you're a die-hard fan of his books about the fictional First World War pilot then you may find it hard to accept the changes employed to bring him to the big screen. Yes, he's still a loop-the-looping daredevil of the skies, but he also travels through time. Or rather a down-on-his-luck 1980s New York salesman Jim Ferguson keeps slipping through a hole in time to help out Biggles whenever he gets into a jam. The pair are "time twins"; two people from different eras who inexplicably appear next to each other whenever the other is in mortal danger. It's a very eighties plot device, but it's used to good effect and injects some fun into proceedings, even though the cynical side of me suspects this screenplay was greenlit to cash-in on the success of Back To The Future (sadly Jim Ferguson is no Marty McFly).

To get the most out of Biggles now, you really need to be in the mood for some full-on eighties cheese. Biggles is very eighties. The music is eighties electronic, completely over the top synth-pop. It's ok for the scenes set in the eighties, but it really doesn't fit the mood in the slightest when we switch to 1917 and watch a World War One battle with a new romantic score. It's not a million miles away from the style of Flash Gordon and how the soundtrack by Queen dominates that film (equally in taking a classic hero from yesteryear and bringing them into the 1980s), although obviously in a more classic adventurer style like the Indiana Jones films. It does have to be said though that Flash Gordon was far more successful with the amalgamation of sound and style, as it's a tad too jarring at times here.
Another aspect which was lost to me all those years back, but is sadly all too blindingly obvious when viewed now, is the rather unfortunate choice in leading man. No, not Neil Dickson as Lieutenant James 'Biggles' Bigglesworth, even though he should technically BE the leading man. Instead, and cynically some might say in order to sell the film to our American cousins, the story is more about Jim – our overworked catering salesman from the Big Apple. Played by Alex Hyde-White with all the range of a mahogany church pew, poor Jim finds himself dragged this way and that through time but Hyde-White's expression never really changes.

On the other hand, Dickson as Biggles is pretty damn good. Capturing the Boys Own spirit of adventure which defines the character. I suspect Dickson's casting would be one aspect W.E. Johns would've approved of, as the story itself is not at all Biggles-esque - basically the Germans are trying to develop a sonic weapon in 1917, threatening history as we know it! Hence the 'time twins' MacGuffin. On revisiting today, the plot brought back memories of the largely forgotten early 80s TV series Voyagers! and the recent Netflix series Timeless (if you know either of them and enjoyed them then you will likely enjoy this).

Getting back to Dickson, though, he is Biggles to me. I've not watched this film in 35 years but he is the image I have when I think about those books I read when younger, it's his personification now embedded in those adventures. That's some achievement. He really should've been more forefront in the film. It's not like he's entirely sidelined but you always want more of him and less of Jim (that's not helped by Hyde-White's portrayal), especially given the title, and one would've hoped that any sequel (which must've at least have been considered at some time prior to release, surely?) would've addressed this, but alas Biggles bombed and it wasn't to be. Dickson did, though, reprise the character in all but name in the Pet Shop Boys' feature film, It Couldn't Happen Here.
The aerial photography and dogfights between bi-planes are very well realised. Not Top Gun Hollywood standard, but for a British production it's admirable. Remember this was 1986, well before the advent of commonplace CGI effects, so real planes are used here and it's pretty breathtaking to watch them in action (even to the sound of eighties electro!). And one last huge tick in the plus column for Biggles is the inclusion of Peter Cushing as Air Commodore William Raymond. This would be his last on-screen role, and even though he looks a little tired he's still very much got it.

I think, for me, the delight in revisiting Biggles 35 years on is it reminds me of a time in my life that was highly enjoyable. It's ironic really, as mid-eighties Jim found his time twin and popped back to 1917 to help Biggles, when I pop Biggles into the DVD player I'm transported back to the mid-eighties and my late teenage years as life was just beginning. In a sense, I revisit my time twin from that era.

Biggles works as a time-capsule in so many ways. If you saw and perhaps loved Biggles back in the eighties then everything you loved about it will still be there when watching it today, even if some of the sheen has come of the gloss. If you're coming to it fresh then you may wonder what you've let yourself in for, but if you're in the mood for an hour and a half of adventurous fun with an eighties cheese-laced synth-pop soundtrack, if you got a kick out of films like Flash Gordon and Back To the Future, maybe recently watched Timeless and enjoy the Boys Own classic adventure style, then you may want to also put this one on your radar and spend an hour and a half with Biggles.

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