The Genuine Article
A Dark and Scary Place
During the decade of freedom, optimism and promiscuity many television serials emerged in Britain that were to quickly attain the cult status which would ensure their continued popularity over the years following; Doctor Who, the Gerry Anderson Supermarionation shows and a wealth of ATV produced programmes immediately spring to mind. However, across the Atlantic in America so many serials came and went that very few left their mark on TV history; The Man From U.N.C.L.E., The Outer Limits, the Irwin Allen creations, and perhaps The Flintstones were exceptions (The Beverly Hillbillies, the number one show of the time failed to achieve prolonged fandom backing, despite a recent movie revival). Only Star Trek captured the hearts and imaginations more than Batman, although unlike the Caped Crusader, Star Trek was constantly revitalised with new animated and live-action serials, several movies, and hundreds of books, merchandising and spin-offs. Aside from the on-going comics, only in the last thirty years has the totally different Dark Knight aspect of the character been immortalised on the big screen, appeared as an award-winning animated series and an excellent Dirk Maggs Audio Movie for BBC Radio.
Batman was produced by William Dozier who had formally worked for Paramount and RKO before turning to the medium of television. At CBS he produced such gems as The Twilight Zone and Rawhide, and at Columbia, Bewitched amongst others. In 1964 he formed his own company in conjunction with 20th Century Fox Television, called Greenway Productions. The ABC network were originally interested in acquiring Superman, but soon dropped the idea due mainly to the recent fifties TV run staring George Reeves. Instead they purchased the rights to Batman. Having no notion what format to utilise for the forthcoming series, they placed it in the hands of Dozier.
Dozier had conducted his homework on comic book superheroes and their generally unsuccessful transition to live-action, and concluded that the only sensible way to proceed was to parody the entire concept. Rather than reduce it to slapstick comedy, he promoted the ridiculousness of the situation, delivering tongue-in-cheek speech but sincerely. This juxtaposed ideally with the larger than life characterisation and colourful costumes and sets, so special to the sixties pop culture. Dozier also created a TV version of The Green Hornet played by Van Williams, with martial arts expert Bruce Lee as Kato. Adapted from the radio serialisations of the thirties and forties, it ran for twenty-six episodes between September 1966 and March 1967. They even teamed-up with a reluctant Batman in the season two story, 'A Piece of the Action' / 'Batman's Satisfaction'.
When Adam West was offered the title role he was initially hesitant. After the flexibility shown by his earlier semi-successful serious acting parts (The Outer Limits, Bonanza, Maverick, 77 Sunset Strip, Bewitched), he felt Batman might be an unwise career move. Invited along for a discussion, he perused sections of the pilot script and was impressed by what he saw. Realising the possible dangers, West nevertheless liked the fresh and humorous approach to family orientated viewing. The character was spirited and related to a wide audience in the style of Basil Rathbone's Sherlock Holmes.
West purposefully disregarded previous hero characterisations, wishing to create an original and alive representation of the myth. When donning the costume it felt perfect to him in the context of the show's culture, although it would later prove troublesome, causing perspiring and chaffing of the skin. Supposedly nobody ridiculed it and he never felt self-conscious. Similarly the Batcave set proved popular, leaping out at him like a three-dimensional comic book frame. The latest actor to portray the Batman did not test for the part, but was required to screen test alongside accompanying characters; one such person was his co-star Burt Ward, whose own enthusiasm lent Robin, the Boy Wonder exaggerated zestful exuberance.
Burt Ward, by his own admission, entered the world of show business through the back door. He was sent to an agent by a producer at Twentieth Century Fox after Ward, then in Real Estate, sold the man a house. The agent reluctantly took him on as a favour to Saul David, the producer, although the youth possessed no acting education or experience. The twenty year-old Ward was dispatched to audition for a new series being filmed at Fox Studios, and arrived with no inkling of the relevant role. Nevertheless, he secured the part of the fifteen year-old Robin over one thousand other hopefuls. He researched by reading the comics, adding as much depth as possible; however, he discovered this approach to be fundamentally redundant.
Executive Producer William Dozier required a young and energetic individual and quickly discovered that in Ward's own personality, so that the newcomer was instructed to simply be himself, rather than act out something he was not. Screen tests were conducted with Adam West and other cast members, during which time he exhibited his athletic prowess by displaying certain black belt karate skills. Ward failed to forge an acting career after Batman; firstly he was firmly typecast, and secondly he possessed no relevant background education as a launching pad. Instead, he went on to become a successful showbusiness promoter.
Adam West and Burt Ward were believed to have enjoyed the greatest co-star relationship of any TV pairing. They regularly played tennis together and West was Ward's best-man at his first marriage. As in any relationship, working or otherwise, there were setbacks. Ward complained of showmanship from West, who would speak extremely slowly to gain more camera time, and turn sideways obscuring Ward from the shot. In retaliation Ward would sometimes duck under Batman's cape and pop up in front of the camera. After all, they were often supposed to be equal two-man shots.
Batman premiered on US television in January 1966 (there were two versions of the pilot; one with an introductory voice-over by Dozier, and one without) as a short-notice mid-season replacement, a staggering eight months before its scheduled launch date of September 1966. A previous experimental test screening proved extremely disappointing, and even ABC supposedly hated the format, but being financially committed to the project they were obliged to launch a huge promotional campaign. A second screening of the two-part pilot was sensationally well received by the media, and from this point on Batman never looked back.
For those individuals conveniently visiting Metropolis over the past thirty years, the premise is as follows: Batman and Robin are in reality millionaire Bruce Wayne and his youthful ward Dick Grayson. When an urgent call is received via the Batphone (the Commissioner's is a red plastic telephone under a cheese-dome) they rush to the Batpoles (labelled "Bruce" and "Dick" behind the study's sliding bookcase) and descend to the Batcave under stately Wayne Manor, flicking a switch halfway down which miraculously dresses them in their crime fighting attire.
Taking pride of place amongst the crime computers and atomic reactor is the Batmobile (seventeen feet in length and weighing 2.5 tons - once inexplicably described as the ugliest car on TV when it's actually still the best of the Batmobile designs). The security devices, the high-velocity rapid reaction (!), and the emergency turn facility make this the mainstay of the Dynamic Duo's equipment; although the Batcycle, Batboat and Batcopter are never very far away. Clunk-clicking every trip, they speed from a false cave wall to Gotham City Police Headquarters. Here, Commissioner Gordon (Neil Hamilton, a veteran actor with Paramount, who was particularly suited to the role because of his stoic no-nonsense attitude) would announce the latest dastardly crimewave which the police were clearly incapable of coping with. Indeed, Police Chief O'Hara (Stafford Repp), speaking with Irish-American brogue, spent much of the time scratching and shaking his head, and praising Batman on his brilliant deductions. Other central characters included, Alfred (Alan Napier) as Bruce Wayne / Batman's reliable butler, and Aunt Harriet (Madge Blake) as the suitable nosy relation.
Many directors worked on the series, including Robert Butler, Oscar Rudolph, James B. Clark, and Sam Strangis who between them orchestrated the movements of more than half the episodes. Also deserving a mention is the Make-up Artist Ben Nye and the familiar twelve-bar blues structure theme composer Neal Hefti.
First of the zany super-criminals was The Riddler. Frank Gorshin was an actor (The Untouchables, The Naked City) more known for his stand-up joke and impression repertoires. In the pilot story, 'Hey Diddle Riddle' / 'Smack in the Middle', he immediately stamped his typically eccentric characterisation on the programme in the hope that he would be invited back for more. His invented sociopathic giggle became the identifying association. The portrayal won him critical acclaim so that where before he had been a supporting act, after Batman he was headlining.
Soon the stars themselves were scrambling for their own characters; some were from the comic books, many more were not. Joan Collins (The Siren), George Sanders / Otto Preminger / Eli Wallach (Mr Freeze), Anne Baxter (Zelda the Great), Victor Buono (King Tut), Roddy McDowell (The Bookworm), Shelley Winters (Ma Parker), Vincent Price (Egghead), Liberace (Fingers), Michael Rennie (Sandman) - and many more besides. The central quartet, however, was the aforementioned The Riddler (nine episodes, plus two with John Astin when Gorshin was otherwise committed workwise), Catwoman (twelve episodes with Julie Newmar, three with Eartha Kitt), The Joker (Cesar Romero, eighteen episodes), and The Penguin (Burgess Meredith, eighteen episodes). The feature film, Batman The Movie, justifiably allied these principal villains.
Throughout the first two seasons the format remained mostly unchanged. Each story had two parts. In the first the criminal guest star of the week was established and the Dynamic Duo would inadvertently spring a trap, leaving an appropriate cliff-hanger. The second was spent escaping death or confinement, outwitting the crooks and rounding them up. Often the cliff-hangers were the most humorous segments of the show. Lorenzo Semple, Jnr, Story Consultant and writer of many early episodes established the precedent of writing the main characters into a seemingly impossible situation, only to conceive increasingly implausible and sometimes plain convenient ways out. Batman has been roasted on a spit, steamed in a giant cookbook, trapped in an hourglass, glued to a railway track, frozen into blocks of ice, imprisoned in a gas-filled chimney, almost stampeded by cattle, tied to a large catapult, and caught in a spider's web - amongst other near-fatal escapades. A particularly enjoyable example sees Batman and Robin wired to a jackpot machine rigged to electrocute them when three lemons are randomly selected. They are saved when a blackout hits Gotham City.
The fight scenes with henchmen - superimposed comics-style with exclamations such as Kapow! Wham! and Kerrunch! - were meticulously choreographed to prevent injuries, although filming was not without its catastrophes. West and Ward were regular visitors to the hospital for oxygen treatment after being periodically confronted with the strikingly colourful but acrid smoke. The young and naive Burt Ward became subjected to increasing dangers which made him fear for his safety, and he quickly gained a troublesome reputation when he asked questions about stunts and the directions of explosions. He has more recently stated that it was cheaper for the TV company to use him and pay the hospital costs than incorporate a stunt double. In an early film sequence of the Batmobile emerging from the Batcave, the stunt driver skidded wide at high speed, the passenger door swung open and the unfortunate Robin tumbled out, dislocating a finger. The scene had to be filmed again before Ward was taken to hospital.
In several episodes the Dynamic Duo were seen scaling skyscrapers via the Batrope. With the camera quite obviously turned sideways, a window would open unexpectedly and a short conversation ensue. Sometimes West and Ward were surprised by cameo appearances by individuals such as Sammy Davis, Jnr and Jerry Lewis. The brief discussion on such an occasion would be completely ad-lib. Then they would infrequently "Reverse Bat-climb!"
The humour in Batman was subtly delivered, but struck like a sledgehammer nevertheless. When the Dynamic Duo arrive sleuthing at a glitzy establishment, they are asked if they require seating at the front. Deadpan, the costumed crimefighter replies to the effect of, "No, we don't want to appear conspicuous!" In fact each programme was brimming with such examples. In addition, the energetic Boy Wonder regularly emerged with holy this and holy that: witness, "Holy priceless collection of Etruscan Snoods!" There was a tribute to this in the, frankly, awful Batman Forever movie. Batman, with a deeper inflection to his voice than that of West's Bruce Wayne, would often give the villain of the piece a short lecture on morals that was so tongue-in-cheek it almost made you choke!
The props for the programme looked colourful and impressive, but they were often not what they seemed to be. The computers in the Batcave were dysfunctional; the buttons achieved no immediate purpose, the screen blips and lights etc. being independently created. Similar in style if not content, Batman was filmed right next door to Lost In Space, and they shared many of the same props.
D.C. Comics, publishers of Bob Kane's Batman since the thirties, greatly benefited from the camp TV series, even bringing back Alfred who had been written out. Sales soared, and even its main competitor, Marvel, discovered their retailing figures to be duplicating wildly. Hordes of young people were being reintroduced to the colourful world of superheroes. D.C. drew the line at advertising, however; Ward and West were denied permission to attend promotions in costume, protecting the moral integrity of the character.
When viewing figures began to wan, William Dozier and Producer Howie Horowitz experimented by injecting something new into the formula. Aside from introducing three- and single-part stories, Batgirl was brought into the frame (along with her swivel dressing-table and frilly motorcycle). Played by Yvonne Craig, Batgirl was actually Barbara Gordon, Commissioner Gordon's secretary daughter. Although half her face was visible and her long auburn hair hung from the back of her cowl, the Commissioner was none the wiser. Only Alfred knew her secret identity, and in turn she possessed no knowledge of the butler's connection to Batman and Robin. This ploy proved momentarily successful, but the truth was Batmania had run out of steam.
Batman began its first black and white full season run on ITV in May 1966. In fact many sharp and primary colours were utilised that would translate appropriately on to monochrome film. The Batman phenomenon was huge but correspondingly short-lived. Lost In Space, its most formidable opponent, continued its popularity well past the former's demise. However, recent history has proved some of the most requested cult TV programmes to be those enjoying only a limited exposure (The Prisoner, Fawlty Towers, etc.). Therefore, it was only to be expected that the reruns make a regular reappearance around the world.
In the UK London Weekend Television screened episodes in the mid-seventies, and Channel 4 has completed regular showings with one very recent example. But for the most part Batman has appeared sporadically, usually as an unexpected ratings saver. In late 1987 Night Network caused a flood of complaints by dissecting each episode into three parts. In 1988 TV AM, hosted by Anne Diamond, suffered a blackout caused by a technicians' strike. Batman was used to fill the gap and the viewing audience increased considerably, even though the stories were often edited to make room for more advertisements. Sky TV also completed a run.
The serial ran for three seasons; 120 twenty-five minute episodes in total, plus the movie (available on video). Up until recently it was still being screened in excess of one hundred countries.
The undying beauty of Batman is its appeal to a wide spectrum of viewers; it can be appreciated at different levels by all generations. Youngsters enjoy the bright colours and virtually perpetual action, adolescents begin to appreciate the fact that the campness is purposeful, and the younger middle-aged view the programme in terms of a silly outright comedy.
And the older generations? Like Disney films and Gerry Anderson shows, many criticise it whilst secretly enjoying every minute. Batman grabs you like that. Its eye-catching magnetism means that even if you despise it, you can't help but appreciate its direction. So tune in next time, "Same Bat-time, same Bat-channel."
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