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.
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.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies