Wednesday, November 09, 2011


Wholly Unavailable On DVD Batman!

Of all many incarnations of Batman, one of the best-known, best-loved, but most impossible to buy is the camp mid-’60s TV series starring Adam West and Burt Ward. While the spin-off movie’s available on DVD, you can’t buy any of the 120 episodes of the series itself (legal tangles? Embarrassment? Who knows). So if you ever want to get hold of it, right now’s the time to start. ITV4 is showing the whole lot daily, two episodes at a time, at 4ish in the afternoon and again at 10ish the next morning, from today. And some of it’s pretty good…

In the way of mostly-repeat TV stations, ITV4 finished showing the lot this morning with the rather fabulous penultimate episode and a slightly inadequate finale, so without any particular fanfare they’ve wound straight back to the beginning this afternoon. Last time they started the series, though, I was paying attention and have to admit that I’ve watched almost the full set, from the inspired to the drably repetitive. And to get you in the mood, their trailer makes me laugh.

The Dark Knight Re-Runs!

Now, I’m not a massive Batman fan, much less expert, though the character’s always been intriguing – from Adam West’s deadpan do-gooder to the near-psychotic, neo-fascist vigilante of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns (well, at least he knows he’s a fascist; Superman just thinks he’s God). If you want detailed facts about comics and graphic novels, try Wikipedia and its references; if you want in-depth analysis, ask the brilliant Andrew Hickey (or, as my beloved suggests, try both at Hickeypedia! He’s auditioning to be the new Bat-Announcer). But this was one of the two Batman series I loved as a boy in late ’70s repeats, and though almost every iteration of Batman since then has been trying to get away from it and back to dark psychology, I still have a soft spot for it, and mainly, of course, the performances. Well, some of the performances…

Batman – The TV Series

Batman ran from 1966 to 1968 as an amazingly camp Pop Art comedy, and though it was so expensive that it was rapidly cancelled when it stopped being a hit, it was such a hit that it was remembered for decades, and spoofed in its turn (from The Avengers’ genius postmodern The Winged Avenger to The High Life’s Dunk, though Jon Pertwee’s Doctor inexplicably lacked the big exclamation billboards for his fight scenes).

Its incredibly formulaic nature was surely behind both its memorability and people getting tired of it: a teaser scene with helpless Commissioner Gordon ringing the Batphone, butler Alfred answering at Stately Wayne Manor and our heroes diving for the Batpoles; that horribly irresistible theme tune; the Caped Crusaders zooming to Police Headquarters from the Batmobile’s hidden entrance and instantly working out the clues that had stumped Gordon and improbably dense Oirish-utterancing Chief O’Hara; tracking the villains to their lair (usually a very large space with very big props and not much detail, getting increasingly Expressionist – or cheap – as the series went on); indulging in a fist-fight thrillingly punctuated by musical stings and impact-words only to be overcome by trickery and finish the episode hanging above the giant meat grinder, at which point the hysterical Bat-Announcer would tell us that “The worst is yet to come!” and to tune in again,
“Same Bat-Time! Same Bat-Channel!”
The second episode would follow much the same format, only starting with Batman brilliantly escaping certain doom (usually with the aid of a suspiciously relevant Grinder-Neutralising-Bat-Pellet from his Utility Belt) and closing with a fist-fight that isn’t overcome by trickery and a return to Stately Wayne Manor by the unfrocked Bruce and Dick to explain to Aunt Harriet exactly where they’ve been. Occasional triple-episode stories and the third season’s single episodes (closing not in an explicit “Next Time…” trailer but with one contained in the narrative, such as ‘Well, the Penguin will no doubt serve many years in gaol and the citizens of Gotham are safe once more… But look out of the window! Isn’t that the Joker crossing the street with a giant inflatable marmoset?’) followed much the same pattern at only varying length.

And, yes, when you put it like that, it could be said to lack diversity. But two things save it. A lot of it is very funny, aided by many of the lines, Alan Napier’s endearing Alfred (it’s always better when he suddenly gets a bigger role, not least impersonating Batman), and particularly Adam West, whose utter deadpan playing of the utter nonsense he gets to say is… Utterly sublime. He remains amazingly watchable. And while his grey bodystocking was much mocked, these days I find the benippled rubber queens of the later movies far more difficult to take seriously: comic-book costumes always look so much more stylish in comic books.

The other thing that saves the series is, of course, the villains, who supply almost all of its variety. There’s an almost total absence of character development: the third and final series introduces Batgirl, who’s at times a brilliant feminist move and at times, er, not, especially when listening to her special signature tune:
“Are you a chick who fell in from Outer Space?
“Or are you real, with a tender warm embrace?
“Yeah, whose baby are you, Batgirl, Batgirl?”
Somebody shoot them. But, as far as progress goes, that’s it. Ironically, the very first story stretches the format as far as it ever goes – hilariously for a series crammed with deadpan exposition, there’s no introduction nor concessions to anyone who’s never heard of Batman (save a brief mention by Bruce Wayne of his dead parents), and it dives straight in with everything established even down to Chief O’Hara’s endlessly repeatable:
“What idiots we are! Now, why couldn’t we have worked that out?”
The main business of this opening episode, Hey Diddle Riddle (concluded in Smack in the Middle, with most of the titles being inadequately punning rhyming couplets), is not a crime or heist of the sort that drives most of them, but a plot against Batman himself such as you’d have expected to find much later in the series: the Riddler tricks our hero into an unjustified attack; this Batman is so utterly square and law-abiding it hurts; these two elements crash together in a putative court case that Bruce Wayne will feel compelled to attend and blow his secret identity, lampshading the impossibility of uptight, upright vigilantism so that the subject need never come up again. “How I’ve waited for this,” the Riddler even gloats implausibly, knowing the audience will be as familiar with Batman as he is. And the episode goes straight to the nearest the series will get to a ‘bad’ Batman, as his drink is spiked and he dances the Batusi with naughty Jill St John before staggering towards the Batmobile and being prevented from driving after poor, kidnapped Robin by police officers who pronounce him “In no condition to drive” and don’t mention the Bat-Signal beaming from the roof of City Hall – “In his shape? Kinder not to tell him.” Even the Superman movies waited until Superman III, but by going as far as this on the first time out, the Batman series is telling us that it’s never going to go any further.

Who To Catch?

Frank Gorshin’s the Riddler gets the series off to a terrific start with his puzzles, manic giggle and eel-like physicality, and all the others pretty much have to match up to him. Many don’t. So if you’re only tuning in for random episodes, his are among the ones to look out for – he comes back several times in the first season, then briefly in the third (substituted once in between by The Addams Family’s John Astin; great Gomez, lousy Riddler).

Now, I’ve read very few Batman comics or graphic novels, and I know which villain obviously stood out in those – but in this TV series, the Batvillain’s crown goes to someone else. For me, you just can’t beat Burgess Meredith as the Penguin. Charm, humour, viciousness, that fabulously imitable squawk, his brilliant schemes to sail just within the law (The Penguin Goes Straight / Not Yet, He Ain’t)… Penguin is far and away the best Batvillain of the ’60s series. And though sometimes, as always, his material’s not up to it – his sudden murderous grudge against Batgirl leaves a nasty taste in the mouth – the story that strikes me as a particular favourite is the second season’s political parody Hizzonner the Penguin / Dizzoner the Penguin, in which he runs for Mayor. Not only did this clearly inspire the second of the ’80s / ’90s Batman movies (however much they tried to get away from the TV series, they kept coming back to it: Penguin for Mayor in Batman Returns; the Batman-Theme-themed Batdance in Batman; the sheer campery of two blatant gay couples with opposing fetishes of Batman Forever… You can keep Batman and Robin in the ’90s, though), but Penguin’s political chicanery is mercilessly funny, and he’s a much better campaigner than Mayor Linseed, Governor Stonefellow or relentlessly stiff Batman, to say nothing of poor Harry Goldwinner down at 2%. And that’s without the inspired mudslinging – ask yourself: who do you always see Penguin pictured with? Our fine, upstanding police officers. And Batman? Always with criminals! The multiple telephone offers in the tag scene always make me laugh, too. You might also look out for Penguin’s splendidly ridiculous extended intrigue involving a fake film, Batman’s kiss-in with Carolyn Jones’ Marsha, Queen of Diamonds (not to mention her ludicrous witch mother) and a tank made out of solid gold.

No-one tops Burgess Meredith; Frank Gorshin’s brilliant; but there are at least two strong runners-up. Victor Buono as King Tut is a huge performance in every sense, a mild-mannered Professor of Egyptology at Yale who becomes a megalomaniac Pharaoh every time he’s hit on the head, and deserves a special award as the only Batvillain to twice discover Batman’s secret identity (the scene in Commissioner Gordon’s office after the first time, when no-one believes Tut as he rolls his eyes and postmodernly says all the things the viewers do about how obvious it is, is priceless). The other is Catwoman, unquestionably the strongest of many strong female opponents, though slightly hampered by being the most prominent recasting among the Batvillains: mostly Julie Newmar; Lee Meriwether in the movie; Eartha Kitt at the end. All are fabulous, but Julie Newmar seems both genuinely dangerous and the most feline – well, excluding Eartha Kitt’s irresistible purr – with a compelling capriciousness and an erotic charge with Adam West that racist ’60s sponsors were not going to allow with Eartha Kitt (despite Batman slipping in a few under-the-Bat-Radar mentions to Robin of how attractive she is, in her absence).

Others to look out for include Joan Collins’ Siren, much of whose episodes appear to have been left on the cutting-room floor, and Vincent Price’s delightful, mercurial Egghead, as well as the lead villain from the penultimate episode, the eponymous The Entrancing Dr Cassandra. Ida Lupino’s Cassandra Spellcraft has a brilliant alchemical scheme to mount a mass escape from the “Arch Criminals Only” wing of Gotham State Penitentiary (warning: may not contain real Batvillains). The extras pretending to be the big villains and trying to avoid us seeing their faces are a scream, especially the one who really gets into playing Victor Buono. It’s a far more appropriate finale than the rather limp actual last episode of mind-reading at a health spa, despite that story’s guest villain Zsa Zsa Gabor. You get the feeling she’d have been better-employed as a “Batclimb” cameo in the previous year, sticking her head out of her hotel window to see the Dynamic Duo scaling the wall as the likes of Lurch, Sammy Davis, Jr. and Edward G. Robinson had done.

Who To Leave In the Care of Liberal Warden Crichton of Gotham State Penitentiary?

Cesar Romero as the Joker. Now, I know he’s the iconic Batvillain, and some of his episodes are very entertaining (if others are frightful), and Cesar Romero isn’t that bad, but… He’s just never good enough. The few Batman comics I’ve read – or Heath Ledger on film, or Mark Hamill in the more prestigious animated series – capture a seriously deranged, compelling match for Batman; this isn’t it. I mentioned two Batman series I loved as a boy, and the other reunited Adam West and Burt Ward in the animated The New Adventures of Batman (usually paired with the equally exciting Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle). A hasty viewing of a few YouTube clips tell me I should leave the series to my cheating memory (though I have to admit I’d still like to get hold of Tarzan), but its Joker firmly grabbed my attention as a cackling spectre in vivid white and green and with unnaturally pointed features. A, ah, mature man with a rather full face upon which – unforgivably, when I was a boy and still spotted it a mile off – he’s applied an acre of make-up to inadequately conceal his moustache, scampering around with nothing of the threat of Penguin or Catwoman… No. Heretical, I know, but simply not up to the job.

One particular low point for Cesar Romero’s Joker sticks in my mind (and throat) because it perfectly illustrates something the series tried several times and each time got toe-curlingly wrong – ’60s youth culture. Surf’s Up! Joker’s Under! features the Joker’s attempt to become surfing champion of Gotham City and so control all the young people. Words fail me (and effects fail them), though there’s a little fun to be had with Joker talking into his hotdog and Batman straight-facedly inviting him into the locker room. But it’s terrible, and though my learned friend Andrew will (as with everything in this article) know better, wasn’t it a little late to be trying to cash in on the Beach Boys? Milton Berle’s Louie the Lilac, too, was an OK performance and had a memorably grisly end (…or is it?), but another middle-aged (to be generous) man attempting to become the pin-up for Gotham’s youth, this time to dominate the flower people, was a major misjudgement. The only remotely plausible counterculture idol is Catwoman rabble-rousing the student population in Catwoman Goes to College (but absolutely not when she kit-naps the voices of a popular beat combo and has a kitty apprentice who sings, played by the producer’s niece in hope of a pop career. Oh, dear me, no). You can’t help thinking that, while studio executives wanted to cash in on the youth happening, they both misunderstood and feared it, always portraying rebellious or even remotely unconventional young people as wannabe patsies to some evil but more intelligent adult in repeated and wearisome exposés of the frightening commie truth behind hippies. See also Star Trek’s The Way to Eden, in which the young space hippies (communists) are manipulated by an evil intellectual (communist) and wind up dying (after rightly being warned off by the clean-cut, caring military) on the planet they imagine to be Eden because, subtly, the grass is acid (and fruits are deadly) – or, embarrassingly, the UK’s very own Carry On Camping, in which the team inexplicably stop cocking a snook at authority and become the grumpy old establishment killing off anyone’s fun. At least at the same time Doctor Who’s The Krotons may have said that student rebellion doesn’t work, but that they had much to rebel against, and the Doctor saves the day by dropping acid.

Getting one ’60s movement badly wrong brings me inexorably to Nora Clavicle and the Ladies’ Crime Club, in which Barbara Rush’s Nora Clavicle uses her push for women’s rights to remove all male crime-fighters and replace them with women police – who will spend all their time talking about lipstick and be terrified of her mechanical mice, leaving the city open. No, it wasn’t a horrible dream. Oh, the number of times Doctor Who nearly did the ‘Imagine how frightful it would be if the girlies were in charge?’ story and managed to pull back at the last minute… It seems almost every ’60s series somehow thought ‘The frightening truth behind women’s liberation’ would be hilarious (or terrifying). Even The Avengers succumbed, once. Don’t go there.

Two unimpressive Batvillains it’s easier to forgive are the simply dull Colonel Gumm and his fake stamp factory, even if he is played by Roger C. Carmel; he was probably designed not to take attention from heroic guest stars the Green Hornet and Kato (Bruce Lee!). At least, that’s a halfway plausible excuse. Similarly, with Frank Gorshin having left the series and before they tried (and failed) to recast the Riddler, Maurice Evans starred as the Puzzler (no relation, I’m legally obliged to say). A fine actor whether disturbing as Dr. Zaius in Planet of the Apes, camping it up in Bewitched or not-Winston-Churchill-honestly in my favourite The Man From U.N.C.L.E. film (I wish they’d release that on DVD, too; I don’t have a copy of One of Our Spies is Missing), he’s lost here as producers try to camouflage his Riddler-clone status by rolling dice on their table of villainous attributes and adding to his love of riddles puzzles the bonus character traits of ‘obsession with Shakespeare’ and with, er, ‘airplanes’. Which go together so well.

I won’t forgive Lord Marmaduke Ffogg of the three-part story visibly set in South California The Londinium Larcenies, The Foggiest Notion and Isn’t It Bloody Finished The Bloody Tower. Swinging London? The only swinging to hope for here is at Tyburn, as Dick Van Dyke runs past holding a Batsign reading, ‘See? I wasn’t so bad after all’. Though I’ll grant you that renaming “Fleet Street” as “Bleat Street” raised a momentary and unwilling smile. At least Art Carney’s execrable Archer was an affectation. Even Murder She Wrote in the pea-souper was better than this. With so many British actors on the show, what were they thinking in getting Rudy Vallee to mutilate his accent? Still less in inexplicably casting urbane George Sanders, of one of the most gorgeous voices in the world, as heavily Mittel-European Mr Freeze. No wonder he didn’t come back – Freeze was the only villain recast twice on the TV series, and never worked, whether a misused Sanders, Otto Preminger, or Eli Wallach (who at least looked like he was having fun. Maybe it was the cheque). And I’ve not even sneered at David Wayne, whose Mad Hatter and worse accent turned Batman’s cowl pink.

But I’m telling you the plot. Why not tune in, Bat-Channel ITV4, Bat-Time 4ish in the afternoon or 10ish in the morning on weekdays to enjoy them for yourself, and discover all the other villains I’ve not even mentioned? It’s just a shame it’ll take you three months to record your own home-made equivalent of a DVD box set.

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You can't buy it on DVD because Fox own the rights to the TV show, but Warners own the rights to the name and image of Batman, and the two companies have never been able to come to an agreement about money.
Thank you, that makes sense - by which I mean, obviously, it doesn't make sense in the real world, but it seems familiar TV company behaviour. I hope it wasn't all too dumb.
No, it's a great post.
Incidentally, the Joker surfing episode was a little late for cashing in on the Beach Boys - but by months, rather than years. By November 67, when it aired, the Beach Boys' career was effectively dead, but Good Vibrations had only got to number one in December 66.
In fact, in early 1966 Jan And Dean (a Beach Boys-esque duo who got Brian Wilson's less good songs) had had a pilot for their own TV series. I *believe* that was as part of the development process for what eventually became The Monkees, which was of course the closest comparison to the Batman TV show on US TV.
In fact, Jan And Dean's last album (before Jan was brain-damaged in a car accident) was Jan And Dean Meet Batman, a truly strange early-66 attempt to cash in on the TV show, so there was still quite a bit of overlap between the end of the surf-music fad and the Batman TV show. (You've not lived until you've heard Dean Torrence squeak in an out-of-tune falsetto "Criminals are a superstitious cowardly lot, so my disguise must be able to strike terror into their hearts!")

Really, the end of the surf fad was in June 1967, at the Monterey Pop Festival. The combination of the Beach Boys' no-show, the perceived superiority of the San Francisco bands to the LA ones, and Hendrix's line about "You'll never hear surf music again" ensured that the centre of musical gravity in California moved north from LA to San Francisco, with disastrous results for those of us who like tunes rather than twelve-hour guitar solos.

So we can say the Joker episode was between five and eleven months out of date. Not *too* awful in the slow-moving US TV world of the 60s.
Thank you very much, and thanks for the informative note - I knew you'd have the facts at your fingertips.
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