Norman Hunter wrote some of the funniest children's stories published between the two World Wars. His first and best book, The Incredible Adventures of Professor Branestawm, appeared in 1933, based on stories originally written for the BBC's Children's Hour. These were read aloud by Ajax, one of the programme's special uncles, and proved very popular. Once in print, these stories then had the extra, inestimable advantage of 76 accompanying drawings by W. Heath Robinson.

Rarely can author and illustrator have been so perfectly matched. Professor Branestawm's various inventions (trouser elevator; burglar- catching machine; pancake-making equipment) were lovingly recreated by the artist on the page, with occasional arrows indicating anticipated movement. The professor himself, with his dome-shaped bald head, looked like a benign version of Franz Schubert in a frock-coat. His companion, the blimpish Colonel Dedshott of the Catapult Cavaliers, was "a very brave gentleman who never missed a train, an enemy, or any opportunity of getting into danger". Like another eminent pair of middle-aged adventure-seekers, Baker Street branch, they too were looked after by a cockney housekeeper, this time with a taste for malapropisms. But it was Mrs Flittersnoop's insistence on an ultimate return to common sense that helped see the professor's more dangerous escapades back to their eventual happy ending.

Hunter himself worked throughout as a copywriter for an advertising agency; his book Advertising Through the Press (1924) was a standard work for its time. He was also a professional conjuror, giving over 200 performances in Maskelyne and Devant's famous magic theatre before the Second World War. This experience of directly entertaining children was put to good use in all his various juvenile fiction, but especially in the Branestawm stories - his finest achievement.

The professor was famous for his five pairs of glasses, including one pair for seeking out the others when he mislaid them, as he always did. This was typical of Hunter's brand of uncomplicated fun. He was also fascinated by verbal humour. The professor's own style of speech is sometimes so convoluted it is difficult to be certain what he is getting at. But regular intervals of slapstick and a tight narrative format ensured that young readers ended up fully enjoying themselves as yet another disastrous adventure unfolded before them.

Absent-minded professors have existed before in children's fiction. But Branestawm was particularly endearing, his clothes held together with safety-pins where his buttons had fallen off, and his enthusiasm for new experiments undimmed by constant experience of failure. Like his contemporary in children's literature, Hugh Lofting's Dr Dolittle, here was an unworldly scholar who refused to conform to adult expectations. Such characters were understandably popular with children who identified with their undaunted ability for dreaming up new impossible adventures. The world they lived in also had its attractions, where grown-ups could behave like juveniles without getting a serious scolding, and where there was usually just enough ready cash for everyone to act as they wanted without ever having to do uncongenial work.

From 1949 to 1970 Hunter was in South Africa, during which time he wrote no fiction. On returning to Britain the books started flowing again, with Professor Branestawm's Perilous Pudding appearing in 1980 when its author was aged 81. He was also in demand as a speaker for children, generous with his time and always ready to throw in some conjuring as well. Today his books can sometimes seem a little dated, with their strained comic spelling and occasional lapses of taste. At one point Branestawm unconcernedly blows up large numbers of foreign soldiers with his new deadly bombs just for the experience. This lack of feeling for remote human life en masse uneasily anticipates the attitudes of Mussolini's pilots in the Abyssinian campaign two years after Branestawm made his first appearance.

But at his best Branestawm is still one of the immortals of children's literature, only happy when he is inventing, and so absent-minded that he pours his teapot into the bath instead of a cup. His author once claimed that the professor was in many ways based upon himself. Certainly between them they combined to give generations of young readers great pleasure at a time when consistently amusing stories for the young were often hard to find.

Nicholas Tucker

Norman George Lorimer Hunter, writer and conjuror: born 23 November 1899; Senior Copywriter, S.H. Benson Ltd 1938-49; Chief Copywriter, P. N. Barrett & Co 1949-59; Chief Copywriter, Central Advertising 1959-70; married 1923 Sylvia Rangel (deceased; three children); died 23 February 1995.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: HR and Payroll Manager

£35000 - £38000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This dynamic outsourced contact...

Recruitment Genius: Production & Quality Control Assistant

£19000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An excellent opportunity for a ...

Ashdown Group: Group HR Advisor - Kettering - £32,000

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Group HR Advisor with an established...

Guru Careers: HR Manager / HR Generalist

£40 - 50k (DOE) + Bonus: Guru Careers: We are seeking a HR Manager / HR Genera...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

The masterminds behind the election

How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

Machine Gun America

The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

The ethics of pet food

Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
How Tansy Davies turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

How a composer turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

Tansy Davies makes her operatic debut with a work about the attack on the Twin Towers. Despite the topic, she says it is a life-affirming piece
11 best bedside tables

11 best bedside tables

It could be the first thing you see in the morning, so make it work for you. We find night stands, tables and cabinets to wake up to
Italy vs England player ratings: Did Andros Townsend's goal see him beat Harry Kane and Wayne Rooney to top marks?

Italy vs England player ratings

Did Townsend's goal see him beat Kane and Rooney to top marks?
Danny Higginbotham: An underdog's tale of making the most of it

An underdog's tale of making the most of it

Danny Higginbotham on being let go by Manchester United, annoying Gordon Strachan, utilising his talents to the full at Stoke and plunging into the world of analysis
Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police

Steve Bunce: Inside Boxing

Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police
No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat