Monday 20 July 2015

Batman, season one (1966)

I was never a great fan of the Batman TV series. On the other hand I can see why people liked it so much. I can appreciate its virtues. And revisiting it now I have to say has turned out to be fairly enjoyable.

Batman pushed the edge of the high camp envelope about as far as it could be pushed. In fact it pushed it even further than that. It was also the first TV series based on a comic book that really went all out to capture the comic book flavour. It makes not the slightest concession whatsoever to realism.

I do like the mock-serious mock-heroic way Adam West and Burt Ward play the Dynamic Duo. I was also amused to note the number of jokes that would certainly have flown over the heads of younger viewers. I remembered this series as being basically pure parody but I’d forgotten the way the audience (or at least the older and more sophisticated members of the audience) were invited to share in the jokes.

There are some truly inspired visual moments - the use of umbrellas in the first Penguin story is very clever and very witty.

The first outing for The Penguin, the double episode Fine Feathered Finks/The Penguin's a Jinx, has an exceptionally clever (and ambitious) premise - The Penguin will feed false clues to Batman and those false clues will lead Batman unwittingly to plan The Penguin’s next big heist for him. It’s not just a clever idea - writer Lorenzo Semple Jr. develops it rather well. In fact several early episodes see the villains using Batman’s own reputation against him, with The Riddler suing him for false arrest in Hi Diddle Riddle/Smack in the Middle and The Joker discrediting Batman in The Joker Is Wild/Batman Is Riled, and rubbing it in by inventing his own utility belt - at this very early stage the series was already starting to parody itself.

Of course the show’s biggest strength is the incredibly high calibre of the actors appearing as Special Guest Villains. Frank Gorshin as The Riddler, Cesar Romero as The Joker, George Sanders as Mr Freeze and of course Burgess Meredith as The Penguin. That’s an era in which no modern adaptation can match this series - you just don’t get character actors of that quality today. No-one will ever equal Burgess Meredith’s performance as The Penguin.

Adam West and Burt Ward obviously “got” the series right from the start and their performances strike just the right note. What’s more surprising (and pleasing) is that the other cast regulars like Neil Hamilton (Commissioner Gordon) pitched their performances in exactly the same mock-serious way. Adam West strongly believed that it was essential not to go too far over-the-top. It’s not surprising that guest stars of the calibre of Burgess Meredith and George Sanders also understood the kinds of performances that were needed.

The costumes capture the comic book feel perfectly. They’re fun but they still manage to be at least vaguely menacing and most importantly they suit the characters. The combination of The Penguin’s costume and his quacking noises might seem too over-the-top but it works. The Riddler and The Joker are both quite creepy.

The copious use of Dutch angles might have become irritating but actually it helps with the comic-book feel.

The gadgets are naturally a lot of fun. The Batmobile manages to look outlandish but without looking merely silly. The gadgets have clearly all been given a great deal of thought. The Batcave is still a pretty impressive secret headquarters, especially the giant atomic motor.

Of course the problem with the gadgets was that they made production of the series very expensive. That was fine during the first season. The show was an instant hit and the network was happy. Unfortunately that ratings success was not sustained. The series was perhaps just a little too quirky for the late 60s. Being aimed mainly at a young audience probably didn’t help - such an audience loses interest quickly and wants to move on to the next big thing. Other series from this era that were in their own ways just as quirky (such as The Avengers and The Wild Wild West) had the advantage of appealing to a slightly older, and possibly more loyal, audience. After two and a half seasons the ABC network pulled the plug on Batman.

It’s amusing to see the biting way the series makes fun of progressive prison reformers. That’s about as close as this show gets to social comment but it’s surprising to see any social comment at all.

Batman looks very good on DVD - the colours are pleasingly vivid which is of course a must for a series such as this.

I have to confess that my knowledge of the Batman comics is almost entirely non-existent. I have however seen the 1949 movie serial Batman and Robin which has a very different feel from the TV series and is worth a look.

The Batman TV series has turned out to be a good deal more fun (and a good deal wittier) than I’d remembered. Recommended.

1 comment:

  1. I don't think they paid Frank Gorshin nearly enough. He went all-out, managing to be flamboyant and scary at the same time.