Have you ever wondered how British humor can be so consistently different from American humor? After all, the two countries share a language and much culture. Re-reading the Bagthorpe Saga by Helen Cresswell, I suspect the difference may persist because the training starts very young in dry, witty, ridiculous British humor.
The Bagthorpe Saga started in 1977 with Ordinary Jack. It continued for over 20 years with ten books chronicling the bizarre, but highly entertaining Bagthorpes, including Bagthorpes Abroad (1984) and Bagthorpes Haunted (1985). It was made into a T.V. series in 1981, which is looking dated now, but the books are still hilariously funny.
Eponymous Jack is certainly ordinary, far too ordinary to live in his overwhelming and extraordinary extended family. His three siblings are “genii” with multiple talents they call Strings to their Bows. His prima donna father writes scripts for the BBC while his mother writes an Agony Aunt column for her Problem people. His only ally is his mongrel dog, Zero, although he sometimes collaborates with his foppish Uncle Parker. Capricious and stubborn Grandma, Selectively Deaf Grandpa, along with precocious and out-of-control cousin Daisy round out the family. Other characters, like the put-upon cleaning lady Mrs. Fosdyke come in and out of the stories. Helen Cresswell managed to take the mickey out of over-scheduled children and helicopter parents before the terms were invented, because Ordinary Jack is the hero and the rest of the Bagthorpes are obnoxiously pretentious.
The humor is both dry and slapstick and relies a lot on wordplay. These books manage to be laugh aloud hilarious and also make comments about human nature.
I was surprised to discover that my library owned this older British series at all, and I was delighted to discover that we own three of the series on CD. I was even more delighted with Clive Mantle’s dry delivery. His sonorous and grave voice was a wonderful foil to the books’ over-the-top humor. In fact, I often thought he sounded like a commentator for a BBC nature documentary—ponderous, serious and reverberating.
Try Ordinary Jack or any of the Bagthorpe Saga for a quick and light read that may make you laugh out loud. Although it is a children’s series, I recommend it for fans of the absurd British wit of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy or Monty Python.
Check the WRL catalog for Ordinary Jack in book form.
Check the WRL catalog for Bagthorpes Unlimited in book form.
Check the WRL catalog for Ordinary Jack in CD form.
Check the WRL catalog for Bagthorpes Unlimited in CD form.