Film moguls to make a new man of Biggles
THE TIMES, FRIDAY MAY 12, 2000
BIGGLES, the fictional fighter ace who has fuelled the imaginations of British schoolboys since the 1930s, is to be brought to life on the big screen in a production that "l censor the political incorrectness of the original stories.
Captain James Bigglesworth, nicknamed Biggles, will not talk about "natives", "coons", "half-castes" and "half-breeds". Nor will be smoke. But the fact that he never goes to bed with a woman will not mean anything because this is tongue-in-cheek family entertainment, according to Peter Mackenzie, the film's writer and producer.
Indiana Jones was never seen in bed with a woman, despite his many female co-stars, and no one questioned his sexuality, Mackenzie said.
Biggles was created by Captain W.E. Johns (1893-1968). His daredevil tales drew on his experiences as a fighter pilot who was shot down and imprisoned. Biggles first appeared in the monthly Popular Flying, which Johns founded in 1932. It led to more than a hundred novels, spectacular adventures with titles such as Biggles Defies the Swastika or Biggles and the Dark Intruder.
With his companions Ginger, Algy and Bertie, Biggles became a model of toughness and decency, a man with a daredevil streak and an innate sense of duty. Johns, whose novels are published in 23 countries, is the second biggest-selling British author of all time for children's books, after Enid Blyton.
Mackenzie, who will be announcing, the £19 million film at the Cannes film festival today, has waited 20 years for the rights to become available. He now could make any one of 96 books and plans a series of the action adventures.
A previous film, made in 1986 with Neil Dickson as Biggles, failed to do the books justice, be said, adding: "It was like a very bad episode of Dr Who, alien to all the people who knew and loved Biggles."
The original character was certainly "jingoistic and racial", Mackenzie said, with "a British colonial attitude". But all that will go out of the window in the film. "By and large, he will be in keeping with current-day values," he said, adding that his swashbuckling image would not be diminished in any way.
Whereas in his previous life Biggles lit up a cigarette in every second paragraph, he has definitely kicked the habit now, although he is not a "PC character". Mackenzie said: "He's a non-smoker, not a militant non-smoker.
As for women, he said: "He certainly wasn't gay. He was in love with a girl called Marie Janis, a Belgian who turned out to be a German spy. He didn't follow order and let her escape. He was going to marry her. He had a great crisis of conscience."
In the film Biggles will not have an affair, bur women will always find him attractive. As a great British superhero, he will have similarities to James Bond.
The first film will be based on Biggles Flies North, written in 1939. In this version, with references to the war avoided to make it timeless and accessible to modern audiences, Biggles works for Scotland Yard as chief of the police Flying Squad.
With Ginger and Algy in his team, he sets out for remotest Canada to help an old flying friend in need, a woman, only to be confronted by the dastardly Von Stalhein.
A leading man and a director are yet to be found. Maekenzie said that the actor would have to be someone prepared to commit to a three or four-picture deal. "We can't keep changing our Biggles, he said.
The film is scheduled to begin production early next year. Interactive computer games, leather jackets and aftershave are among the merchandising being explored for the modern Biggles fan.
Scott Millaney, Mr Mackenzie's co-producer, whose films include Sid and Nancy, said that this was one of the last great publishing franchises to become available to the screen.
Ace flies off without a care
"I didn't care much for the chap. He was a shifty-eyed oily-looking type." "I see. He wasn't British" (Biggles Forms a Syndicate, 1961.)
Even inanimate objects behave according to national stereotype: "A taxi whirled round the corner in a typically French fashion."
In Biggles in the South Seas, 1940, Johns writes: "A hundred years ago there were more than a thousand people on this island; now there aren't more than two hundred. The rest have died from the diseases white men have brought."
Biggles took to the skies again in 1992, ditching the racist language that had offended many. Republished in 1992 by Red Fox, a Random Century imprint, modern editions of Johns's books remove references to "niggers", "coons" and "dagoes". They have been replaced by "equally vehement but slightly less offensive words" such as "swine".
Only Huns, Japs, Boche and Jerry remain.
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