The stories of Professor Branestawm are the creation of a performer who preferred to write. They began on BBC radio, then transferred to a series of books, which eventually became a TV series. The author wrote other, less commercially successful but equally amusing books and also a dictionary with alternative definitions for 'all those words that seem to have better meanings than the ones usually given to them'. Does all this remind you of anyone?
Professor Branestawm is the invention of the English writer, Norman Hunter, born 1899 in London. This was, as he put it, 'a few years after the other Normans got there'. Despite being born at the very end of Queen Victoria's reign, throughout his life he remained very much a traditional Victorian in his manner: energetic and hard working, inventive yet old-fashioned.
He didn't enjoy his time at the Beckenham County School, preferring to daydream about the theatre. World War I broke out in 1914, so when he left school he served in the volunteer London Irish Rifles. After the war he learned to type and found work as an advertising copywriter. He claimed that what he wrote was so alluring that people found themselves buying unlikely things they didn't want just because the advertisement was so good.
By the 1930s Hunter was living in Bournemouth and working as a successful stage magician. Very much someone with an eye for the visual appeal of things, he was a great showman. (Later in life, he became engrossed in building a scale model of London's Drury Lane Theatre and putting on performances of operas for himself and anyone else who cared to watch.)
Also in the 1930s, Hunter wrote a series of stories for children, which were broadcast on BBC radio. These concerned the adventures of a somewhat eccentric inventor called Professor Branestawm. The time and word limits of a radio programme and the need for a clear story line with firmly stated characters suited Hunter's talents as a writer. However, the radio was not enough to show his love of theatrical visual humour and the use of comic spelling.
The first Professor Branestawm book, The Incredible Adventures of Professor Branestawm, was published in 1933. It was illustrated by W Heath Robinson (1872-1944), whose already published cartoons showing crazy inventions may well have been the inspiration behind some of the stories of the absent-minded professor. In this first book the Professor invents a time machine, makes all the waste paper in his house come to life and builds a burglar-catcher that accidentally traps its inventor. Later books include inventing non-shine invisible glass, paint-on carpet, and machines for bowling cricket balls, peeling potatoes, making pancakes, stroking cats, and finding lost property. It is best to draw a veil over what happened the day the Professor discovered that the Great Pagwell Bank had trespassed on his territory and had the cheek to invent a money-paying-out-machine.
When the Theatre of Magic in Bournemouth was bombed, Hunter returned to London, and by the end of the war he was living on a motor yacht on the Thames. From 1949 until 1970 he lived and worked in South Africa and wrote no fiction. After 20 years working in South Africa he retired to London and began writing again. Thames TV in Teddington had already made the Professor's original adventures into an eight-part TV series shown in 1969, and for the next ten years Hunter began to write more books about him. The last book, Professor Branestawm's Perilous Pudding, was published in 1980 when its author was 81.
One of these later books, Professor Branestawm's Dictionary, had the Professor moving away from inventing actual contraptions and into creative writing. More specifically, writing a dictionary (or 'fictionary') of 'all those words that seem to have better meanings than the ones usually given to them', giving full rein to his creator's love of inventiveness with words. For example:
- Abominable - a piece of explosive swallowed by a male cow
- Explain - eggs cooked without any trimmings
- Footnote1 - the writing on the side of sports shoes
- Metronome - a pixie living on the Paris underground railway
- Pungent - a comedian who makes a play on words
Hunter also wrote other, less popular stories for children. Furthermore, his guides, The Wizard Book of Magic and Norman Hunter's Book of Magic, revealed some of the secrets of conjuring tricks.
He died in 1995 and a piper from his old regiment played at his funeral.
Originally the Professor Branestawm stories were aimed at 9 to 12-year-old children, 'particularly boys', but their popularity grew much wider than this. Hunter made no secret of who the Professor was based on. Instead of a statement that the character was not based on any person, living or dead, he quite openly admitted, 'Professor Branestawm jolly well represents me'.
After being out of print for many years, some of the early stories have been republished. Well-thumbed library copies can still be borrowed. Secondhand copies of the first book with the Heath Robinson illustrations are still around, although not particularly valuable unless they are first editions.
Although considered children's classics, some of the language now seems quaint and outdated. However, Hunter's inventive and magical turns of phrase shine out from every page. Even minor characters had appropriate names, such as Mr Chintsbitz of the Pagwell Furnishing Stores, Mr Pryce-Rize the supermarket manager, or Doctor Mumpzanmeazle. Of course, the reader knows exactly what he means by:
- 'rattled and squerked'
- 'spluttered... mufflishly'
- 'inventions went a bit bustable'
The books are built around a fairly unchanging formula. In all of the stories Professor Branestawm shows the incurable optimism of an incompetent inventor. He leads a simple life in an English village called Pagwell, a place where it essentially remains the 1930s throughout all the books2. The professor, supported by his friend Colonel Dedshott, makes elaborate plans with excellent intentions. These backfire in every conceivable way, and his long suffering housekeeper is dismayed but still serves tea.
Professor Branestawm, like all great men, had simple tastes. He wore simple trousers with two simple legs.
Whatever needed inventing, Professor Theophilus Branestawm was the man for the job. He was a master of mechanics and a doctor of dynamics. His mind was too busy thinking about extraordinary things to be bothered with ordinary ones. It was teeming with brilliantly simple ideas, which would make him rush off to his inventory. Using whatever materials he could find, he would set about the task of bringing these ideas to reality.
The Professor had a bald head with a high forehead, which was handy as he needed room for all his pairs of spectacles. He always wore at least five pairs at once and usually mislaid some of them. Since each had a special function, he wore them all at the same time in case he needed them. Some were just ones for reading and writing, but others had a specific job, such as the pair of 'look-at-you-over-the-top-of' spectacles and the pair to wear when looking for the others when they were lost. He might also be observed tugging handfuls of spectacles out the many pockets of his safety-pinned white lab coat. These pockets could even contain other items such as half-eaten buns.
Nobody could really understand what he was saying, but everyone knew it was something clever. The Professor had few friends because of this; the exception was Colonel Dedshott.
Colonel Dedshott of the Catapult Cavaliers
... a very brave gentleman who never missed a train, an enemy or an opportunity of getting into trouble.
Colonel Dedshott was the Professor's best friend and ally. He brought an air of military precision into otherwise fairly haphazard events. He always wore his full dress-uniform including a plumed hat, long boots and sword, proudly displaying many jangling medals on his chest. On his belt he carried his trusty catapult and a bag of bullets, just in case. He used a monocle to peer at things closely. His hobbies included gardening.
The Professor's explanations nearly always made his head go round and round as the Colonel understood very little. Even so, he remembered to say 'jolly clever' in all the right places and to take money from his bank account to finance the schemes. When he wasn't striding places in a brisk military manner, he rode a horse. This meant that he was never bothered by parking problems, since there weren't any notices in Pagwell that said 'No horse-parking'.
Mrs Flittersnoop was the Professor's patient and efficient housekeeper who kept neat and tidy order amongst the chaos. Whatever the disasters going on around her, she could be found serving tea, lemonade and cake, or preparing good, sensible sit-down meals.
Mrs Flittersnoop had a very large extended family living in the Pagwell area. She sometimes sought sanctuary from the chaos at the Professor's house by staying with her sister Aggie and her tram driver husband at Lower Pagwell. She also had a fireman friend from Pagwell Fire station.
The idea of a lateral thinking inventor is not just one from books. There are a few real life examples too. One such is the British inventor, Sir Clive Sinclair, who, it has been said, bears a passing resemblance to the illustrations of Professor Branestawm.
In 1985 a game was bought out for the Sinclair Spectrum, called Potty Professor. The idea of the game was to solve a series of six problems using a variety of objects to build a machine. For example: how to flush a toilet using a dog, cat, bucket, watering-can, one ton weight, seesaw, balloon, blowtorch, and tongs. Not all of the objects were needed, but the player had to move the necessary pieces about on the screen, fit them together and then press a button on the keyboard to see if the invention worked or fell apart.
Brunel University has named its systems monitoring package after the characters. An agent called Branestawm on each computer reports any problems back to the consoles named Flittersnoop and Dedshott. You can see the Heath Robinson illustrations here too.