Friday 7 January 2011

Spoor of the Gibbon: Biggles

Gibbons are masters of camouflage and unless you're up close they're difficult to spot. This is hardly surprising since they take great care to disguise themselves and, indeed, in many cases may not even realise their own true nature. One thing they cannot disguise are the odoriferous nuggets they leave behind and by this spoor we shall track them, the better to hunt them down like the vermin they are(1). Sometimes the spoor is subtle but sometimes it is such a steaming pile of celluloid that even the most generous must break down and say - 'Truly this was a piece of shit.'

Biggles: Adventures in Time is just such a turd.

A summery of the source material can be found at Wikipedia and a casual glance reveals that it offers the putative adaptor a wide range of options. You can have straight up war films (in both World Wars no less) or Indiana Jones style adventures between the wars or post war detective dramas.

Rumour has it that the original writing team were aiming for Indiana Jones -- a film series that was proving staggeringly successful at the time.

There was just one last question before the film could be made, the same question faced by all films with a British hero -- how to shoehorn an American character into the plot.

Not really a problem in this case: Americans are plausibly all over the place in this historical period and especially prominent in the later stages of both world wars; they can be old friends or the other half a mismatched buddy team thrown together by fate or the War Office, they could be the love interest or they could be a combination of all of these things. They chose none of these options instead they plumped for a time travel story instead.

I've tried to summarising the plot several times now but the pain is too much if you want to know the details then check the wiki page. You can see the appeal it allows them to drop an American 'ordinary Joe' (from the modern day no less) into the Biggles story. There we can contrast his lovable modern American irreverence and 'can do' attitude with the stiffest of stiff upper lips of the Great War. And to be honest with a bit of effort you could make that work, unfortunately Biggles: Adventures with Gibbons doesn't.

But Ben, I here you cry, what does this have to do with gibbon spotting. It's very simple: the single most distinctive characteristic of the gibbon is their inability to understand story or to differentiate good story material from bad story material. They have a 'tin ear'(2) for story.

What makes the bloody awful 'time twins' plot so bloody, bloody awful is that it shows no understanding of how stories work. Unlike it's direct inspiration 'Back to the Future' the time travel aspect of Biggles has no bearing on the plot whatsoever it's merely a macguffin to get our Ordinary Joe back to the Western Front, the time jumps are arbitrary and unrelated to the dastardly German's secret weapon plot which has the result of sucking all the tension out of both plots.

Now I know, from watching the film, that the actual screen writers were not total incompetents and therefore the problem lies with a gibbon -- probably a producer. When you consider the amount of money, effort and talent that goes into even a modestly budgeted film it becomes clear why gibbons are a menace and must be driven out of the industry before it is too late.

Gibbons: just say no.

(1) Can I make it clear that I'm not talking about real gibbons here.
(2) You can learn how to read stories but it takes a lot of practice that's why most writers have alot of embarrassing crap hidden away in their lower drawers. It's like playing a piano -- you have to practice.


Uncivil Serpent said...

I grew up reading my father's old Biggles books (by William Johns), and was very excited at the prospect of a Biggles movie.

My dad even saw some of the filming (a couple of scenes were shot near London Bridge City - which he was working on at the time). Aparently some kids in slightly punky attire came up to see Neil Dickson dressed in flying gear waiting for the shoot to commence. One kid asked him who he was - to which Dickinson replied "I'm Biggles!", without missing a beat the kid retorted "You're a wally."

Despite this I was very keen to see the moive and easily persuaded my dad to take my brother and I to go and see it - though in hindsight I realise this was his intention all along.

Never before and only once since have I been so completely let down and disgusted... by anything, and that is saying something given my past eleven years as a Civil Service Contracted Investigator.

What makes this all the worse is that (a.) it had Peter Cushing in it, (b.) it had a vaugely interesting plot threads buried in it [evil German super weapon using sound energy to turn people into gooey messes / time twins / Back to the Future meets Indiana Jones / Biggles and military aircraft etc], (c.) it had a half decent budget... which all meant that it 'could' have been good - or at the very least watchable.

But as you say - somewhere along the line the Hylobatidae got involved and 'gibboned it up' (is that a correct use of the term?).

What worries me is that some gibbons seem impervious to box office disasters let alone public and industry criticism... one such person (in my flawed opinion) is Uwe Boll. If you ever have the chance to see Alone in the Dark and Alone in the Dark II - don't. These two travesties represent about 4.5 hours of my life I'm not getting back. The crazy thing is that despite Boll's numerous commercial failures (often allowing for tax rebates courtesy of the German Federal Central Tax Office), he still draws in some high profile B listers like Christian Slater, and Lance Henriksen... who assist in his destruction of once cherished video game storylines.

Fiona Pymont said...

Another big problem with gibbons is that they seem to take the findings of focus groups far too seriously.

This entire Biggles saga reminds me rather uncomfortably of the time when scriptwriter David Isaacs made a visit to our MA course at Salford University to discuss his experiences bringing his comedy series 'Lunch Monkeys' to the small screen.

According to David, the lunch monkeys in his original series of scripts were meant to be people in their twenties and thirties who had actually graduated from higher education, but now found themselves stuck in lower level, meaningless jobs.

However, the BBC gibbons insisted that these characters be changed to school-leavers, because the results of all the focus groups showed that the main target audience for BBC3 was teenagers and people in their early twenties.

Apparently, members of this age-group are completely incapable of identifying with characters outside their own narrow cohort.

David was then presented with a list of 'suitable' jokes, which they suggested he try shoehorning into the next drafts of his scripts somehow.

Nigel Havers was persuaded to play the boss of the company that the lunch monkeys work for, on the grounds that more potential viewers would be likely to tune in if the lead role had been assigned to a famous actor.

But according to the reasoning of the gibbons, none of the lunch monkey-u-likes would know who he was.

So maybe they hope the MILFs and GILFs (sorry!) of the young target audience will be indulging in a bit of fangirl squee in the background ...