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Gavin Greig [userpic]

If you can fly a Sopwith Camel...

August 4th, 2004 (11:23 pm)
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...you can fly anything! Or so Captain James Bigglesworth informs us as he teaches himself to fly a helicopter, having fallen forward through a hole in time into the 1980s.

Yes, I've been watching one of the films that time forgot (or rather wished it had), variously known as Biggles: Adventures in Time, or just plain Biggles.

I first saw this as a rented video some years ago at the residence of scottymcleod. By an extraordinary coincidence, unless I am much mistaken, that very house near the outskirts of St. Andrews is now the residence of meepfrog, who must therefore be the Time Twin of scottymcleod, Janice or the inimitable Mr. Lowther.

Having firmly grounded the idea of the Time Twin in scientific fact in this way, I feel no embarrassment whatsoever - well, not much, anyway - in admitting that, complete pants thought this movie may be, I quite like it.

However, since it tanked utterly at the box office way back in the halcyon days of 1986, perhaps a re-examination of its merits is in order.

I was rather surprised when I found that it was out on DVD. I had kind of assumed it was not going to appear in the new format, but it has, and what's more, although it's not an immaculate remaster or anything, there is a reasonable selection of extras on the disc. I'll come back to those.

The main reason for buying this DVD is quite simple. If you're a fan of Captain W.E. Johns' character Biggles, then this is likely to be your only chance to see him on the screen. I don't know whether the 1960 Granada TV series still exists somewhere in the archives, but even if it does, I would think the chances of us getting to see it are slim.

Not to be overlooked, however, is that this movie contains the last film role of a much-loved and missed actor who died ten years ago on the 11th of August - Peter Cushing, who appears as Biggles' commanding officer, Colonel Raymond. Along with the standard filmographies for the lead actors, the DVD includes a very readable potted biography of Peter Cushing, written by Kim Newman.

The key faux pas in this movie could almost be said to be "the usual one" - the film-makers felt it necessary to make the film relevant to modern audiences. They did this by introducing the aforementioned temporal jiggery-pokery, so that the film switches back and forth between the mid-1980s and the Western Front in 1917. Keen to develop a sympathetic modern character whom the audience could relate to, they picked an American advertising executive in convenience foods. Have you spotted any potential mistakes yet?

Lightning strikes (literally) and Jim Ferguson arrives in no-man's land in 1917, just in time to pull James Bigglesworth out of a crashed plane. For the rest of the movie Jim stumbles between 1917 and the 1980s as and when Biggles lands in trouble. For Biggles, there is one visit to 1980s London when Jim is the one in trouble. This is conveniently explained by the elderly Colonel Raymond, who lives in a secret apartment in Tower Bridge, saying that the two are Time Twins. Well, obviously. Between them, they destroy the secret German sound weapon that's threatening the outcome of World War I.

What a turkey, eh? But still I've gone out of my way to buy the DVD, so what positive things does it have going for it?

Despite going for dumb and un-funny laughs in a number of places, they do have the sense to play Biggles and his three companions (Algie, Bertie and a rather premature Ginger) straight. They're deadly serious about what they do, even if they're not always serious about how they do it. By and large, the actors look the part, and Neil Dickson as Biggles is astonishing - in these cynical days, it's hard to believe that a jaw could be so square without the aid of prosthetics or digital enhancement, but plainly Biggles is the part that Mr. Dickson was born to play. Finally, the resolution may be ridiculous (it is), anachronistic (of course), completely implausible (naturally) and technically unsound (well, duh!), but it is at least sort of original. You can admire the audacity even as you cringe.

I believe it is qualities such as these that usually qualify a production to be referred to as a "camp classic". I fear it may be true. Back to the extras...

I've already mentioned the filmographies and the biography of Peter Cushing. You will not be surprised to hear that trailers and promotional spots for the film also feature. However, no review of Biggles: Adventures in Time would be complete without mention of the music, and it seems no DVD of Biggles: Adventures in Time would be complete without a music video. If you've seen the movie yourself you may remember that the music is - how can I put this tactfully? - inappropriate. Dogfights over the fields of France are accompanied by cheerfully dire pop ditties with an early Eighties feel. To refer to it as "disco" would, I feel, be inaccurate, but if so it is a common inaccuracy to be found in other reviews on the web. You may draw your own conclusions.

Anyway, one of the featured tunes gets the music video treatment, and fine period footage it is. A band of electric minstrels in flying leathers boogie in front of footage from the film, and a brace of BV bimbettes carol the chorus as Peter Cushing bimbles through the background. In a stunning tour de force worthy of one our great stars of the screen, he masters walking both from left to right, and from right to left. Finally he announces to camera as the track ends, with a more or less straight face, "I'm a restless kind of guy". Awesome. If that's the word I'm looking for.

Wisely, both track and artists go unidentified on the DVD menus. However, a scan of the film's credits prompted a second viewing of the video for confirmation of identity. Oh yes. Oh yes indeed. The perpetrators are John Deacon and The Immortals. And yes, it is that John Deacon!

Reportage from cutting edge arts programs (Saturday Superstore and Blue Peter) also help to round out the features list, but save the best for last.

It's cruel to laugh at computer games of yesteryear, but it must have been funny even in 1986. There is a TV ad for Mirrorsoft's Biggles game. Shots from the film are intercut with the game-play. You can imagine what it's like. Actually, no, maybe you can't. Although the film is frequently listed as a being a comedy, this is the funniest thing on the disc.

It's a bad film, but it's a good bad film, and well worth a fiver. Watch out for the World War II Spitfire that features prominently on the DVD sleeve. You won't see it in the movie, but think how much mileage you can get out of the disc while trying.

Comments

Posted by: Alice Dryden (huskyteer)
Posted at: August 5th, 2004 08:35 am (UTC)
Dogfight [by the_gneech]

Oh, well, maybe I should give the film another go. And good grief, I remember the Spectrum game!

Posted by: Nik Whitehead (sharikkamur)
Posted at: August 6th, 2004 12:37 pm (UTC)

Actually I rather enjoyed the film too. It wasn't quite the turkey everyone claimed it to be, in my opinion.

But then, my taste is in my mouth, as someone once told me.

Nik

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