The Incredible Adventures of Professor Branestawm


By Norman Hunter, illustrated by W. Heath Robinson (Puffin/Red Fox and others)
ISBNs: PSS33 (1969 Puffin edition)              978-1-86230-736-0 (Red Fox 2008)

In a year packed with anniversaries pertinent to comics and related fantasy entertainments, I’d be remiss if I didn’t note the particular delights of this worthy British institution, originally illustrated by a veritable giant of world cartooning and recently the freshly revived star of BBC television.

The venerably traditional illustrated novel used to be a happily inescapable staple of bedtime for generations in this country and this particular example is particularly memorable, not simply because it’s a timeless masterpiece of purely English wit and surreal invention, but also because most editions are blessed with a wealth of stunning pictures by an absolute master of absurdist cartooning and wry, dry wit.

Norman George Lorimer Hunter was born on November 23rd 1899 in Sydenham; a decade after that part of Kent was absorbed by the ever-expanding County of London. He started work as an advertising copywriter before moving into book writing with Simplified Conjuring for All: A collection of new tricks needing no special skill or apparatus for their performance with suitable patter; Advertising Through the Press: A guide to press publicity and New and Easy Magic: A further series of novel magical experiments needing no special skill or apparatus for their performance with suitable patter. They were all published between 1923 and 1925.

Hunter was working as a stage magician in Bournemouth during the early 1930s when he first began concocting the genially explosive exploits of the absolute archetypical absent-minded boffin for radio broadcasts. These tales were read by the inimitable Ajax – to whom the first volume is dedicated – as part of the BBC Home Service’s Children’s Hour.

In 1933 The Incredible Adventures of Professor Branestawm was published in hardback, including 76 enthrallingly intricate illustrations by W. Heath Robinson to great success, prompting the sequel Professor Branestawm’s Treasure Hunt (illustrated by James Arnold & George Worsley Adamson) four years later.

During WWII Hunter moved back to London and in 1949 emigrated to South Africa where he worked outside the fiction biz until his retirement. Following the release of Thames Television’s Professor Branestawm TV series (which adapted many of the short stories from the original books in the summer of 1969) Hunter returned to Britain in 1970, and resumed writing: another 11 Branestawn tomes between 1970-1983, plus a selection of supplemental books including Dictionary (1973): Professor Branestawm’s Compendium of Conundrums, Riddles, Puzzles, Brain Twiddlers and Dotty Descriptions (1975); Professor Branestawm’s Do-it-yourself Handbook (1976) and many magic-related volumes.

Norman Hunter died in 1995.

William Heath Robinson was born on May 31st 1872 into something of an artistic dynasty. His father Thomas was chief staff artist for Penny Illustrated Paper. His older brothers Thomas and Charles were also renowned illustrators of note.

After schooling William tried unsuccessfully to become a watercolour landscape-artist before returning to the family trade and, in 1902, produced the fairy story ‘Uncle Lubin’ before contributing regularly to The Tatler, Bystander, Sketch, Strand and London Opinion. During this period, he developed the humorous whimsy and a penchant for eccentric, archaic-looking mechanical devices that made him a household name.

During the Great War William uniquely avoided the Jingoistic stance and fervour of his fellow artists, preferring instead to satirise the absurdity of conflict itself with volumes of cartoons such as The Saintly Hun.

Then, after a 20-year career of phenomenal success and creativity in cartooning, illustration and particularly advertising, he found himself forced to do it again in World War Two.

He died on13th September 1944.

Perhaps inspired by the Branestawm commission, Heath Robinson’s 1934 collection Absurdities hilariously describes the frail resilience of the human condition in the Machine Age and particularly how the English deal with it all. They are also some of his funniest strips and panels. Much too little of his charming and detailed illustrative wit is in print today, a situation that cries out for Arts Council Funding or Lottery money, perhaps more than any other injustice in the sadly neglected field of cartooning and Popular Arts.

The first inspirational Professor Branestawm storybook introduces the dotty, big-domed, scatty savant as a ramshackle cove with five pairs of spectacles – which he generally wears all at once – gadding about with his clothes held together by safety pins …as the constant explosions he creates blow his buttons off.

The wise buffoon spends most of his days thinking high thoughts and devising odd devices in his “Inventory” whilst his mundane requirements are taken care of by dotty, devoted, frequently frightened or flustered housekeeper Mrs. Flittersnoop. Branestawm’s best chum is the gruff Colonel Dedshott of the Catapult Cavaliers, although said old soldier seldom knows what the big thinker is babbling on is about…

The over-educated inspirationalist and his motley crew first appeared in ‘The Professor Invents a Machine’ which featured the debut of an arcane device that moves so quickly that Branestawm and Dedshott are carried a week into the past and accidentally undo a revolution in Squiglatania, upsetting everybody on both sides of the argument.

In ‘The Wild Waste-Paper’ Mrs. Flittersnoop’s incessant tidying up causes a spill of the Professor’s new Elixir of Vitality: with the consequent enlargement and animation of a basket full of furiously angry bills, clingy postcards and discarded envelopes, whilst in ‘The Professor Borrows a Book’ the absent-minded mentor mislays a reference tome and has to borrow another copy from the local library.

A house full of books is the worst place to lose one, and when the second one goes AWOL Branestawm must borrow a third or pay the fine on the second. By the time he’s finished the potty Prof has checked out fourteen copies and is killing himself covertly transporting it from library to library…

When his stuff-stuffed house is raided by Burglars!’ the shocked and horrified thinker concocts the ultimate security system. It is the perfect device to defend an Englishman’s Castle – unless he’s the type who regularly forgets his keys or that he has built and installed an anti-burglar machine…

After losing a day because he hasn’t noticed his chronometer had stopped, the Professor devises a new sort of timepiece that never needs winding and becomes something of a business success. Even the local horologist (look it up) wants one.

Sadly, the meandering mentalist forgets to add a what-not to stop them all striking more than twelve and as the beastly things inexorably add one peal every hour soon there are more dings than can fit in any fifty-nine minutes. ‘The Screaming Clocks’ quickly become most unwelcome and eventually an actually menace to life and limb…

Branestawm often thought so hard that he ceased all motion. Whilst visiting The Fair at Pagwell Green’ Mrs. Flittersnoop and Colonel Dedshott mistake a waxwork of the famously brilliant bumbler for the real thing and bring “him” home to finish his pondering in private. Conversely, the carnival waxworks owner alternatively believes he has come into possession of a wax statue which has learned to talk…

‘The Professor Sends an Invitation’ sees the savant ask Dedshott to tea yet forget to include the laboriously scripted card. By means most arcane and convoluted, the doughty old warrior receives an ink-smudged blotter in an addressed envelope and mobilises to solve a baffling cipher. Of course, his first port-of-call must be his clever scientific friend – who had subsequently forgotten all about upcoming culinary events…

‘The Professor Studies Spring Cleaning’ finds Branestawm applying his prodigious intellect and inventive acumen to the seasonal tradition that so vexes Mrs. Flittersnoop and inevitably perfecting a way to make an arduous labour far worse. He thus constructs a house-engine that empties and cleans itself. Sadly, it can’t differentiate between sofa, couch, cupboard or housekeeper…

‘The Too-Many Professors’ appear when the affable artificer invents a solution which brought pictures to life. Flittersnoop is guardedly impressed when illustrations of apples and chocolates become edibly real but utterly aghast when a 3-dimensional cat and elephant commence crashing about in the parlour.

So it’s pretty inevitable that the foul-smelling concoction be spilled all over the photograph albums…

In a case of creativity feeding on itself, ‘The Professor Does a Broadcast’ relates how the brilliant old duffer is invited to give a lecture on the Wireless (no, not about radio, but for it…). Unaccustomed as he is to public speaking, the tongue-tied boffin has Dedshott rehearse and drill him until he can recite the whole speech in eleven minutes. Unfortunately, the scheduled programme is supposed to last half an hour…

A grand Fancy Dress Ball results in two eccentric pillars of Pagwell Society wittily masquerading as each other. Naturally ‘Colonel Branestawm and Professor Dedshott’ are a great success but when the Countess of Pagwell’s pearls are pinched whilst the old duffers change back to their regular attire nobody notices the difference or believes them…

‘The Professor Moves House’ relates how the inventor is forced to rent larger premises because he has filled up the old one with his contraptions. However, Branestawm’s attempts to rationalise the Moving Men’s work patterns prove that even he doesn’t know everything…

At least the disastrous ‘Pancake Day at Great Pagwell’ rescues his reputation when his magnificent automatic Pancake-Making Machine furiously feeds a multitude of friends and civic dignitaries. The Mayor likes it so much he purchases the chaotic contraption to lay all the municipality’s pavements…

This gloriously enchanting initial outing ends with ‘Professor Branestawm’s Holiday’ as the old brain-bonce finally acquiesces to his housekeeper’s urgent urgings and indulges in a vacation at the seaside. Keen on swotting up on all things jellyfish, the silly savant sets off but forgets to check in at his boarding house, resulting in a desperate missing-persons search by Dedshott, Flittersnoop and the authorities.

Things are further complicated by a Pierrot Show which boasts the best Professor Branestawn impersonator in Britain: so good in fact that even the delinquent dodderer’s best friends can’t tell the difference…

With the actual performer locked up in a sanatorium claiming he isn’t a Professor, it’s a lucky thing the one-and-only wandering wise man is unable to discern the difference between a lecture hall and a seaside show-tent…

As I’ve already mentioned, these astonishingly accessible yarns were originally written for radio and thus abound with rhythmic cadences and onomatopoeic sound effects that just scream to be enjoyed out loud. Augmented by some of Heath-Robinson’s most memorable character caricatures and insane implements, this eternally fresh children’s classic offers some of the earliest and most enduring example of spiffing techno-babble and fantabulous faux-physics – not to mention impressive iterations of the divine Pathetic Fallacy in all its outrageous glory – and no child should have to grow up without visiting and revisiting the immortal, improbable Pagwell Pioneer.

In 2008 a 75th Anniversary edition of The Incredible Adventures of Professor Branestawm was released by Red Fox but you’re just a likely to find this uproarious ubiquitous marvel in libraries, second-hand shops or even jumble sales, so by all means do…
© 1933 Norman Hunter. All rights reserved.