HIGHLIGHTS OF A CONVERSATION WITH MICHAEL PALIN - ABOUT HIS INTEREST IN BIGGLES AND CAPTAIN W. E. JOHNS
7TH JUNE 2011
MP - Hello
RH - Mr. Palin, hello - thank you for giving up your time.
MP - Very nice to meet you. I'm sorry time is always short.
RH - I know you are very busy.
MP - I have to apportion all the things I've got to do - fire away, fire away.
RH - I understand you are a big Biggles fan?
MP - Yes, I suppose a lot of people growing up of my age (Michael was born in 1943) of that time, mid 1950's, would have been Biggles fans. It came slightly later than the 'Just William' books which I also read. I can remember going to the libraries, Sheffield City Library - The Children's Libraries downstairs, my father went upstairs and I went downstairs - and looked for the latest Biggles books, or even ones that he had already written that I hadn't read. I actually did some research for you, I've got my old Letts schoolboy's diaries and at the back is a section on films you've seen and what book's you've read and in 1955 I noted, it might have been the first one I read, I'd have been 12 then - and that was "Biggles Defies the Swastika".
RH - A brilliant one. One of the best.
MP - There is a note afterwards, because it has a little column "remarks" so I've written "Biggles Defies the Swastika" - "Smashing"
MP - The next one was "Biggles - Second Case"
RH - Another good one
MP - "Thrilling". As a schoolboy you are completely undiscriminating - it's all wonderful. Then two years later, I was still reading Biggles and "Biggles - Charter Pilot" - "jolly good, very imaginative"
RH - Not very good that one.
MP - (Laughs) You're having a go at my choice!
MP - "Biggles Delivers the Goods"
RH - Another classic
MP - "Really exciting. V. Bloody" - and then Biggles Flies West "V. authentically written" so I was using the word "authentic" at the age of 12. I hope you're impressed.
RH - Did you collect them yourself or did you just borrow them from the library?
MP - I borrowed most of them from the library, I couldn't really afford books. I might have got them in soft back and my father might have got rid of them. But I've got a number. I've got about two or three in hardback and I've since bought a number. If I see them in a shop I pick them up on occasions.
RH - Do you collect first editions? Do you get first editions in dust jackets?
MP - I get that edition with the sort of green and yellow cover.
RH - Yeah, is that the 'flying jacket' one?
MP - Yes.
RH - Yes, the flying jacket ones, they're reprints.
RH - Have you read any other Captain W. E. Johns? Did you ever read Gimlet or Worrals?
MP - I read a bit of Gimlet but wasn't quite so gripped by Gimlet. Worrals, of course, that was about girls. I wasn't interested in that. But no, it was the Biggles books and Biggles stories and funnily enough, knowing I was going to talk to you, I just got one down last night. I always remember it as one of my favourites called "Biggles in the Baltic".
RH - Yes. A great one
MP - It is pretty good. I just read a bit again, and I could see there was something about the size of the book and the way he wrote, you could easy get through them, that was the thing. They weren't difficult books to read - at all - and he got you into the story. And of course, I really love travelling and even then, the lure of foreign countries, was great.
RH - Was that one of the only ways for you to travel? By reading the books?
MP - Well, exactly, I certainly couldn't do it any other way, I was stuck in Sheffield really. The furthest I got was to Leeds or Nottingham - on a good day, so yes, you could go to the Gobi or the Baltic or where ever Biggles took you. So the location was quite important for me.
RH - So how many do you think you read? Out of 101 effectively?
MP - Well, twenty I should think. I mean, the thing was, I don't know how many there would be in print in 1957 say. How many would you say?
RH - About 55 to 60.
MP - About 55? Well, I think I probably would have read, I'd certainly have read twenty. Maybe more. I then went on because I had certain sort of stages in my reading life that I remember, all the school stories, Francis Durbridge, then 'Just William'. Marvellous books, I loved those, then Biggles. Then I went on more to, Enid Blyton stuff after Biggles. I was about 13 - 14. Then I went on more to Sherlock Holmes. Then I got a thing about ghost stories. By the time I was 16, I was reading Hemmingway. Biggles had gone past. So I think probably, to be absolutely correct I read 20, maybe 30.
RH - I'm surprise you only read that number bearing in mind when you spoof them, you spoof them so, so well. "Biggles Goes to See Bruce Springstein" and things like that. Did you write them by yourself or did you write them with Terry Jones?
You can see Michael reading "Biggles Goes to See Bruce Springstein" here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BD-LDqtN1qA
MP - No, I wrote most of them myself. I was the one who seemed to have got the Biggles idiom and they were very affectionate parodies. Very affectionate. But I always loved certain things that he did, the stiff upper lip and the description of the technical part of an engine. So it's all sort of "copper and spanworth 423 with a double decker triple thing" and all that - I loved all that! And of course the idea of these people all stuck in a plane, sort of together. There had kind of been a lot of hype about Springstein. And I wanted to do something that was funny and showing my sort of appreciation for the man and his music. And then I thought of doing Biggles. Of course I'd done Biggles for Python, I remember and we'd did 'Biggles Combs His Hair'.
RH - (Produces original artwork of Biggles by Leslie Stead that was spoofed for Monty Python framed with the relevant page of the Monty Python book).
This is something I wanted to give you.
MP - Wow. That's magnificent!
RH - The centre painting is an original painting by Leslie Stead taken from an illustration from 'Biggles Sweeps the Desert'. He repainted it for a 1950's card game.
Do you know who did the spoof picture? Did Terry Gilliam draw that?
MP - No, it wasn't Terry Gilliam, I don't know who did it.
RH - Whoever did it has used this original image, haven't they? I've got it all framed up and I would like to give that to you that if I may.
MP - Oh, that's fantastic! That's brilliant.
MP - People tend to associate me with Biggles. Partly, I suppose because of the Python things but I have been asked on two or three occasions to play Biggles in films. I did an audio book sometime (Biggles Flies North). So there is a connection and an association. And of course, he was very English.
RH - Do you think there is a future in perhaps a Biggles film? Or do you think the characters - are in the past now?
MP - Was there a film?
RH - There was a film in 1986 which wasn't true to the books.
MP - I think that is what I probably said no to. I think you'd have to do it very, very carefully. I mean, it's easy to see there being a film which would be a bit of a send up but I think that would be missing the point. That would work for about four minutes but beyond that, you've got to do a film of 90 minutes. I'm not all together certain there should be a film, sometimes books are books and they work very well. Do people buy them still?
RH - Yes, they are published by Random House - Red Fox. There are probably about 25 in print at the moment.
MP - Really? What's the most popular one?
RH - Probably 'Biggles Flies East' - because it's the one that introduced Von Stalhein. Biggles is undercover pretending to be a German spy and there's a lot of intrigue.
MP - Yes. There's a wonderful book called "Riddle of the Sands" - by Erskine Childers - a very, very good book about getting lost and with a strong sense of location which of course Johns has. And when I talk about him, and I still do talk about Biggles, you know, then I always say, which is probably most unfair, but I was rather disillusioned when I heard that Captain W. E. Johns was sitting in you know, Teddington, not actually in the Baltic or in the Gobi.
RH - The early Biggles books were serialised in 'The Modern Boy'. Have you ever heard of the 'The Modern Boy'?
MP - No.
RH - I've got you one. (RH gives MP an original copy of "The Modern Boy"). This is from 1934 - it's a famous one with a Biggles cover. The Biggles stories were originally serialised in parts as Johns sold them for serialisation rights. Of course in 1939 with the paper shortage caused by the Second World War, these magazine folded. I understand that the big sales of Biggles books didn't really take off until the 50's, in the 30's and 40's, they weren't selling particularly well.
MP - Yes, I suppose the 30's, that's one thing, but the 40's, people weren't buying that many books, just after the war, everything was geared to libraries, I know that. I had one book my father bought me - 'Arabian Nights' - and that was for my 5th birthday in 1948. That was a big thing, big hardback book in my hand with very good illustrations. But Biggles, yes, they probably did buy me a Biggles book for Christmas. So I would have had two or three. And I think those are the ones I've got at home.
RH - So you've still got them after all these years? You haven't parted with them?
MP - No, I'm quite a hoarder. With regard to W. E. Johns, I remember that photo of him, because he was quite a hero to me as he was the writer, of course, and that was quite something. With his pipe. I think if you made a Biggles film now, you would have to do it in a smarter way. You'll probably have to do it about that period. Involving somebody who read Biggles. That was his escape from the world he has. Then it would work. Did W E Johns leave a lot of memoirs?
RH - He wrote a lot of articles for magazines such as 'The Modern Boy' - Things like 'Christmas's I remember' and 'Shot down from 16,000 feet', so there are numerous articles written by him and there is an excellent biography which gathered together all the information from these sort of things. Extremely good.
MP - When was that done?
RH - It was initially published in 1981. It's been revised and it's gone to three or four editions. Johns actually wrote some 169 books. People don't appreciate that it was not just Biggles.
MP - How many Gimlet and how many Worrals?
RH - Ten Gimlet and Eleven Worrals.
MP - Was there a single person on whom Biggles was based?
RH - There is a lot of speculation about that. Because Johns himself was a First World War pilot and he stayed in the RAF afterwards, he knew loads of people associated with aviation. These included people with similar sounding names, you know, Wigglesworth and Bigstone and there is collection of people who Biggles may have been based on - if anything he was based on Johns himself.
MP - The same with Algy and Ginger? Algy was 'The Right Honourable' Algernon?
RH - Algernon Lacey. Yes. Ginger was a character devised - because he's writing for 13/14 year old boys, wasn't he? - and he wanted somebody about that age, for them to identify with ....... just a kind of writing device.
MP - Was it a class thing? To have a slightly more protalitarian figure?
RH - (Laughs) He was a northern lad, wasn't he, yes.
MP - I was reading one of the books just the other day and they are about to refer to Ginger and the man whose talking - some officer - stops himself saying "Ginger".
It's remarkable, sort of thinking about them again.
RH - Well, with one eye on the clock would you be kind enough to sign for me your diaries? (Michael signs and dedicates both hardback volume of his diaries to RH)
PHOTOGRAPHS ARE TAKEN AS RH PRESENTS THE ARTWORK TO MP
RH - Thank you very much for your time.
MP - Thank you, you have awaken my memories of happy days. Thank you, cheers, Roger! Bye-bye!
RH - Bye.
Transcribed and edited by Roger Harris - with grateful thanks to Mr. Michael Palin