|As an eight year old, this was the sort of thing that held my rapt attention - DC comics and Ray Walston as My Favourite Martian. Life was much simpler then.|
|Once I got to about ten, I discovered Marvel Comics, the Monkees and, a little later, Emma Peel.|
At home, it wasn't much better. I didn't get walloped by my mum unless I had done something pretty bad. But she, too, had a real problem with me reading comics. Any time I managed to amass a small "collection" she'd decide I was spending too much time reading them and unceremoniously dump them in the rubbish chute at the end of the balcony on our block of flats. It didn't matter that these comics might be Beezer or Topper, Batman or Green Lantern, or even a clutch of Alan Class or Miller black and white reprints ... into the rubbish they'd go with alarming regularity.
My mum's gone now, and I never did get the chance to ask her why she had such a problem with my comics. It may have been something to do with the great "horror comics" witchhunt of the 1950s, which reached even the shores of Britain, driven by the nonsensical ravings of Dr Frederic Wertham. I recall that in the 1960s, folks who didn't know anything about the medium would regularly refer to even the superhero books of Marvel and DC as "horror comics".
All of this contributed to the general feeling that comics were only for dumb people at best, or some kind of pernicious influence on society at worst. Then 20th Century-Fox and DC Comics joined forces to make things far, far worse ...
"HOLY DUMBED-DOWN CRAP, BATMAN!"As 1965 rolled over into 1966, I was feeling a bit better about the comics I was reading. I genuinely felt, even then, that Marvel Comics were making a real effort to improve the quality of writing in their books. I had been very well aware that DC Comics had aimed their material firmly at the 8-10 year old market. But it definitely seemed like Marvel were for older kids. And of course if ever I detected a sneer while I was looking at a Marvel book, I'd very often try to make some kind of defence by telling the sneerer that the stories in Marvel comics were really cool and loads of college kids read them. I would have been reading the story arc that ran from FF41 to FF43 ... where Ben Grimm is transformed back into The Thing to help defeat Doctor Doom at the end of FF40 and spends the next three issues getting all bitter and twisted, then joining The Frightful Four. Great drama, great storytelling, even now. But of course, you couldn't tell that to a non comics-reader in 1966.
So you can imagine my excitement when I heard that there was going to be a Batman tv series. On television. Right here in the UK. This, at last, was the chance to show the sneerers just how wrong they'd been.
As the days counted down to the show's debut, the anticipation mounted ... and when the great day came, I settled down in front of the tv - black and white in those days - and watched mesmerised as the opening teaser unfolded showing us the Gotham City World's fair and a trick exploding cake containing a riddle - "Why is an orange like a bell?" Then there's a scene at Police HQ with Commissioner Gordon and his staff daunted by the prospect of taking on ... The Riddler. So far, so good.
But it's when Gordon decides to summon Batman that things start to unravel. We switch to Wayne Manor allowing Bruce to explain to a charity committee how his parents were murdered by "dastardly villains" (uh-oh), then he's summoned to the Bat-Phone by Alfred. On the way he picks up Dick Grayson, who's clutching a toy plane, though he looks about 25. When Bruce suggests a "spot of fishing" Dick exclaims theatrically "Holy Barracuda!", then recovers and calmly delivers his next line, "Sure, Bruce. Why not? Sounds swell." Again, uh-oh. Bruce is brought up to speed via the Bat-Phone by Gordon and the pair dash to the Bat-Poles via which they descend to the Batcave - and the opening credits rolled, a crudely animated Batman and Robin, kind of in the style of the older Sheldon Moldoff artwork.
|I wasn't keen on the animated titles when I first saw them. I'd been used to first Dick Sprang's then later Carmine Infantino's smooth drafting and the figures of Batman and Robin here seemed very sloppy by comparison.|
|Why was Batman so scrawny? Why was his bat-emblem so far down his torso? Why did Robin look 25? Why did the entire cast behave so foolishly? Could Commissioner Gordon really have been that stupid?|
But other than The Riddler, where Gorshin's over-the-top performance actually worked, everyone else seemed to be acting a bit ... well, odd. The other supporting players were all pretty deadpan in the ridiculous situations (though Irish viewers might have had a legitimate complaint against Chief O'Hara), Adam West's Batman seemed a bit dim and Burt Ward's Robin behaved like he had Tourette's.
The remainder of the first Batman adventure concerned the Riddler's attempts to do ... something, it's not entirely clear what, to Batman. First there's a lawsuit for wrongful arrest which is kind of forgotten amidst the sound and the fury. Then Riddler kidnaps Robin - either to substitute his disguised henchwoman Molly (Jill St John) or to lure Batman into a trap. When the Riddler's plan is finally revealed - to steal a priceless jewel-encrusted mammoth from the Moldavian pavillion at the Gotham World's Fair - all that remains is for the big brawl with comic-book sound effects superimposed and the 45-minute tale is pretty much done.
It wasn't just that there were sound effects superimposed on the screen, they were stupid sound effects.
What on earth possessed the tv people to create this travesty of show, I had no idea. At least not back then. But as I dug around, researching the origins of the series for this blog entry, it all started to make a kind of sense.
SECRET ORIGINS OF A TV SERIESI had been used to the earlier silly Batman tales that I'd read in the Batman Annuals. They had seemed a bit daft at the time, even to me, with Batman battling aliens and imps from other dimensions and becoming Scottish-Batman and Zebra-Batman ...
The Silver Age Batman Annuals were a good source of earlier stories, and though I didn't go out of my way, they were usually a diverting read when I couldn't get comics I liked better, like Flash and Green Lantern.
Schwartz's version of Batman returned to the character's detective roots, pitting him against more realistic threats and situations.
In the early 1960s, CBS and Ed Graham Productions had struck a deal with DC Comics to produce an adaptation of Batman for television. Actor Mike Henry - who would later play Tarzan in three movies in the late Sixties - was to be the lead and the show would have been a straightforward adventure series in the same style as the old syndicated Adventures of Superman.
Former American footballer Mike Henry would have made a more rugged Batman than Adam West.
They sub-contracted production to 20th Century-Fox who in turn hired William Dozier to produce the show. Dozier had never read the comics and would have been too old during the 1940s to be a comic reader anyway, so it's hard to think of a less-qualified person to put in charge of a comic book adaptation, something Dozier readily admitted. "When they first proposed the series to me, I reacted with complete horror," recalled Dozier. "They somehow had the instinctive feeling at the network that a series based on a comic book character might somehow be a success. I could understand why they wanted to do a program for children, but I couldn’t see anything in it to interest me."
After reading some of the comics, Dozier was at a loss to know what to do with the character until he hit on the idea of doing the show as a spoof. "Suddenly," he recalled, "I hit upon this tongue-in-cheek idea — the so-called 'camp' approach. This seems obvious now, and when I began to see the show in these terms, it began to amuse me. In fact, it began to interest me so much that I found I could enjoy it. Then I felt that older adults could enjoy it, and I found it easy to work on. This was the concept from the beginning and we never shot a foot of film with any other style."
The idea of doing the stories as two-parters with a cliff-hanger at the end of the first episode would very likely have come from Udoff, who'd seen those old Batman serials at the Playboy club. The melodramatic voice-over narration was provided by William Dozier himself, which just gave me something else to hate.
Two screen tests were filmed - one with Adam West and Burt Ward and another with Lyle Wagner (later Wonder Woman's love interest Steve Trevor in the Linda Carter tv show) and Peter Deyell.
At this stage, the producers were clearly following Batman's old look, before Schwartz and Infantino got to work, which might partly explain the dopey storylines and camp approach.
BUT NOW ... BACK TO REGULARLY SCHEDULED PROGRAMMINGThe next "Special Guest Villain" after the Riddler was The Penguin, in a benchmark eccentric performance from veteran Hollywood character actor Burgess Meredith. The plot had the Penguin unable to think of a new caper and showed his attempts to trick Batman into unwittingly planning the crime for him. Though credited to Lorenzo Semple Jr, the teleplay was actually an uncredited adaptation of Ed Herron's Penguin story from Batman 169 (Feb 1965).
|The comic book story "Partners in Plunder" wasn't long enough to fill the full running time of the two-part tv show format, so Semple had to add a sub-plot with glamorous movie star Dawn Robbins (Leslie Parrish).|
|The two source comics for the "Joker is Wild" adventure and, from the show, The Joker (Cesar Romero) shows off his own Utility Belt to his slightly dim-witted assistant Queenie (Nancy Kovack).|
|We couldn't see it at the time, but when the show was repeated in HD recently on ITV4, it was pretty obvious that all was not quite right with The Joker's clown makeup.|
But in the end Romero was glad he did it. "I had enormous fun playing the Joker on Batman. I ended up doing something like 20 episodes of the show. There was certainly nothing hard about that assignment! Even the makeup sessions weren't too bad. It took about an hour-and-a-half to put the full makeup on, including the green wig. I didn't mind it at all."
Yet, Romero famously refused to shave his moustache and the crew had to plaster white greasepaint over it to hide it best they could. Back in the low-resolution days of 1966 and black and white television, I honestly didn't notice. It was only later when the shows were aired in colour did it become obvious that the Joker had face fungus under the clown makeup.
There followed a largely unmemorable run of villains for the next several adventures, though the big-name Hollywood stars queued up to take on the Guest Villain roles: Mr Freeze (George Sanders, with a really strange German accent), Zelda the Great (Ann Baxter), the return of the Riddler, The Mad Hatter (David Wayne), the return of The Joker, False Face (Malachi Throne) ... then something really interesting happened.
The producers cast actress and dancer Julie Newmar as the long-defuct Batman foe Catwoman. The character hadn't appeared in the comics for decades, but clearly someone thought it would be a good idea for Batman to face a glamourous villainess.
Newmar told the story of how she got the part: "I had lived in New York at the time on Beekman Place. I remember it was a weekend, Friday or Saturday, and my brother had come down from Harvard with five or six of his friends, and we were all sitting around the sofa, just chatting away, when the phone rang. I got up and answered it, and it was this agent or someone in Hollywood, who said, 'Miss Newmar, would you like to play Catwoman on the Batman series? They are casting it out here.' I was insulted because he said, 'It starts Monday.' I said, 'What is this?' That's how television is done: they never know what they are doing until yesterday. Well, my brother leaped off the sofa. I mean he physically levitated and said, 'Batman! That's the favorite show at Harvard. We all quit our classes and quit our studies and run into the TV room and watch this show.' I said, 'They want me to play Catwoman.' He said, 'Do it!' So, I said, 'Okay, I'll do it'."
At 5'11", the striking figure of Julie Newmar was already known to American audiences after she had played the robot Rhoda in the 1964 show My Living Doll and had also appeared in guest spots on top-rated tv series like Route 66, Twilight Zone, Beverly Hillbillies and most appropriately as Stupifyin' Jones in the movie version of Li'l Abner (1959).
|The astonishing Julie Newmar as Stupifyin' Jones in Li'l Abner (1959), then as Rhoda the robot in 1964's My Living Doll, and finally, her first screen seconds as Batman's arch-nemesis and love interest, Catwoman.|
|Here's some completely gratuitous portraits of Julie Newmar as Batman's purr-fect nemesis, Catwoman. Maybe you can figure out what endeared her to the predominately pre-teen male audience of the tv series, I certainly can't.|
|Lee Meriwether made a credible Catwoman in the theatrically released feature film, but Eartha Kitt (despite the eminently suitable surname) made Catwoman just a bit too - I don't know - "mumsy" ...|
The rest of Season One was played fairly safe, with A-list Batman villains Penguin, Joker and Riddler on baddie-duties. Only King Tut and Roddy McDowell's Bookworm offered weak foes as first series drew to a close.
Many Hollywood stars lined up to make cameo appearances in the show, including:
- Jerry Lewis (The Bookworm Turns)
- Sammy Davis Jr (The Clock King's Crazy Crimes)
- Ted Cassidy as Addam's Family's Lurch (The Penguin's Nest)
- Andy Devine (The Duo is Slumming)
- Phyllis Diller (The Minstrel's Shakedown)
- George Raft (The Black Widow Strikes Again)
- Edward G. Robinson (Batman's Satisfaction)
- Linda Harrison, a cheerleader in The Joker Goes to School (and more famously, Nova in Planet of the Apes)
- Sherry Jackson, the Riddler's moll in Death in Slow Motion (and Andrea in the Star Trek episode What Are Little Girls Made Of?)
- Deanna Lund, the Riddler's Moll in Batman's Anniversary (and a featured role in Land of the Giants)
- Lee Meriwether, King Tut's kidnap victim in King Tut's Coup (plus a featured role in The Time Tunnel and of course, Catwoman in the Batman feature film)
- Angelique Pettyjohn a model in A Piece of the Action (and more famously, Shahna in the Star Trek episode Gamesters of Triskelion)
- Jill St John, the Riddler's moll in Hi Diddle Riddle (and roles in Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and Burke's Law, as well as Tiffany Case in Diamonds are Forever, 1971)
- Grace Lee Whitney, King Tut's moll in King Tut's Coup (and of course, Yeoman Rand in Star Trek)
|Fanboy heaven - Lee Meriwether and Grace Lee Whitney, all tied up with a big satin bow, in the King Tut episode Batman's Waterloo, from the second season.|
The next episode opening with an unlikely, deus ex machina-style escape. Batman hunts the villain to their secret lair, often gaining access by climbing up the outside of the building on bat-ropes. Then, there's another bat-fight, ending with the crooks in batcuffs.
To me the enormous success of the first season of Batman was completely inexplicable. How could anything so stupid be watched by adults and - even worse - children? Surely kids should have known when they were being patronised, shouldn't they? Everything about it was wrong. The cardinal sin was that it mocked the source material. That would never happen today. Well, almost never. DC Comics certainly allowed Joel Schumacher to channel the idiocy of the 1966 tv show for his two execrable Batman movie entries, Batman Forever (1995) - we should have been warned by the especially dumb title - and Batman and Robin (1997). But then, DC don't exactly have a sterling track record when it comes to movie versions of their properties.
Still, I must have been in the minority, because the repetitive style of the the show kept audiences engaged for the first series ... so much so that ITV screened the second series immediately afterwards, beginning in September 1966.
|Second season villainy - The Archer (Art Carney), The Minstrel (Van Johnson), Ma Parker (Shelley Winters) and The Clock King (Walter Slezak).|
|More second season villainy - Egghead (Vincent Price), Chandell (Liberace), Mr Freeze (Otto Preminger, this time) and Siren (Joan Collins).|
We didn't get the third series of Batman - where Aunt Harriet was replaced with Yvonne Craig's Batgirl - in the UK until much later. Around 1974, I believe. By which time I had long left such things behind me. I don't have a 12 year old's perspective on that version, only having seen it recently via repeats on satellite tv.
The other big change Dozier made was changing the show from two half-hour episodes a week to a single half-hour episode. Lost in the translation were the cliff-hanger endings and in came super-villain team-ups. None of this made much difference to the viewing figures and, with ABC concerned about falling ratings and the high cost of production, the show was ignominiously cancelled after the 26 episodes of the third season had aired.
|Here's some gorgeous 50mm slides I found: Adam West, Yvonne Craig on set with director Sam Strangis; I can't identify the actress with West here, but I'll figure it out eventually; and a great shot of West and Ward as Wayne and Grayson.|
BATMANIA IN THE SIXTIESThe most visible consequence of the show's initial popularity was that suddenly the shops and the airwaves were crammed with anything and everything you could put "Bat" in front of. Every television chat show was competing to get Bat-guests to improve their ratings. Toy manufacturers big and small scrambled to license and produce as much Bat-paraphernalia as they could and whether you liked the show or not, you were suddenly up to your ears in Bat-guano.
|The actors were very popular guests on chat shows. Here Yvonne Craig turns up on The Merv Griffith Show in 1967 in her Batgirl costume. Merv looks a little non-plussed here, doesn't he?|
|The Batman movie was just a longer version of the tv show with a budget of a million-plus dollars, so they could afford more villains, along with a Bat-boat and a Bat-copter. It was still rubbish, though.|
The media also went bat-crazy and it seemed as though every magazine was cover-featuring Batman - Life had a multi-page article and with exclusive on-set pictures, MAD featured the show on more than one cover, as did TV Guide, Pageant, Screen Stories, Teen Life and many more.
|The Bat-Laffs card series featured photos from the Batman feature film. The Catwoman cards were very highly collectible.|
|Before the Batman movie came out, there were three sets of painted Batman cards for us to collect. Here's examples of the Red Bat and the Black Bat sets - I don't have any of the Blue Bat set - all art by Norman Saunders.|
|These Batman and Robin figures were cheaply made, probably cast from existing moulds adapted for the purpose. I found this pic on Nigel Brown's blog, Superstuff in the Bronze Age - well worth a visit.|
|Corgi 267: My second favourite toy growing up - I still loved my James Bond Aston Martin more. But this vehicle is a true 1960s icon, designed by George Barris and based on a Lincoln concept car, the Futura.|
Then there was the road safety ad for British television. It was May 1967, and while Adam West was visiting the UK to promote the tv show, he was contacted by the British government's Central Office of Information to appear in a road safety ad, highlighting the dangers of crossing the road without looking to UK children.
|Most sources say this photo was snapped in Kensington, but I happen to know the Crawley family lived in Kennington, a completely different part of London. But we all agree it was 1967.|
BATMAN - THE FALLOUTFor me, the worst effect of the Batman tv show was how it infected everyone's view of comics for the next thirty years or so. I can't think of a time when tv or print media have reported on a comics-related story where they didn't start with, "Wham! Pow! Crash!" Even if they were reporting on Love and Rockets or The Walking Dead. Certainly everyone who has never read a comic - and this includes most tv and newpaper journalists - seems to be of the opinion that the Batman show was a fair representation of the tone and reading level of all comics. And for that, I can never forgive it.
But almost as bad was that it was a classic example of the Opportunity Missed. Not only was Dozier's contemptuously spoofy approach what killed the show after just three seasons, but if he hadn't made such a hash of it, maybe we wouldn't have had to wait decades before a movie or tv producer had the courage to try treating comic book characters with any degree of respect.
For some reason, other producers thought that - despite all the evidence - Dozier had got it right and we were subjected in quite rapid order to television shows like Mr Terrific (1967) and Captain Nice (1967), abominations both. Admittedly Captain Nice was created by Buck Henry, who had had a big success with the fondly remembered (though not, I have to say, by me) Get Smart (1965). So it was at least a spoof of superheroes that didn't single out a specific one to ridicule. Mr Terrific was more of a sit-com than a spoof about a secret agent who could fly. I remember seeing at least one episode of one of these at the time while on holiday at my grandparents' house in Glasgow - I think it may have been Mr Terrific, but it's hard to remember, now. I'm pretty sure neither turned up on tv south of the border.
Dozier even imitated himself and produced a single season of The Green Hornet which, if nothing else, at least brought Bruce Lee some degree of attention. Incredibly, for some unknown reason, Dozier approached The Green Hornet much more seriously than he did Batman. I would have loved to know the thinking behind that. I suspect the history of superhoes on the screen might have turned out differently if he'd done Batman seriously and The Green Hornet as a spoof. But I guess we'll never know ...
In the cinema too, the insidious effects of Dozier's dozy decision to go down the camp route with Batman was felt. First there was Modesty Blaise. Released in August 1966, it actually pre-dated Batman the Movie, and by the beginning of 1966 was probably too far along in the production process to be influenced much by Dozier's tv show. But if anything, it was even camper than the Batman tv show. And it was probably more roundly detested by fans of the Modesty Blaise newspaper strip. Like Dozier, I think director Joseph Losey, usually known for his high-brow (some might say, pretentious) projects, just felt embarrassed to be involved in a comic strip movie. So by pitching it as a spoof, he was telling his friends and relatives that he knew it was dumb and was only in it for the paycheque.
|Monica Viti certainly looked the part in the title role of Modesty Blaise, but lacked the steely determination. Terence Stamp though was a bit mis-cast as Willie Garvin.|
Danger: Diabolik (1968), on the other hand, I thought was splendid. This one was directed by the mighty Mario Bava and was based on the phenomenally popular Italian comic book about the exploits of a super-thief called Diabolik. As in France, comic strips in Italy are read by a large adult audience, and Diabolik was firmly aimed at that demographic. Smart and sexy, the comic stories made Diabolik a very sympathetic crook, often pitting him again really nasty criminals in a kind of Robin Hood crusade against true evil. As with Barbarella, the Diabolik movie had terrific production design. John Phillip Law was also the Angel in the Roger Vadim film and Marissa Mel made a fetching Eva Kant. Bava's direction might seem a bit over-the-top (all of Bava's direction was over-the-top) - but it didn't mock the source comic strip.
|Marissa Mel's costumes for the film were quite a bit skimpier than her comic-book counterpart, but I guess that was simply a sign of the times. Diabolik's secret underground lair was completely brilliant and one day I'll have one just like it.|
We wouldn't see a costumed hero on screen being treated seriously until 1978, when Richard Donner directed Superman the Movie. Yet despite Donner's best efforts to depict Superman with respect, the producers fought his approach and when he refused to camp it up for the sequel, they fired Donner and replaced him with spoof-meister Richard Lester.
To the rage of the Salkinds, some shred of dignity remained in Superman II (1980), so to be doubly sure of trampling the franchise into the dirt, they got Lester to make a second sequel, Superman III (1983) and trowelled on the comedy so we ended up with a farce instead of an adventure. Yes, William Dozier has a lot to answer for ...
And the irony of it is that if movies like Marvel's Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy hadn't done so well at the box office, then we probably would never have seen the day when Fox, DC Comics and the various stakeholders in the Batman tv show finally resolved their differences and agreed to release all three seasons on Blu-Ray. It's not something that I would want to spend over £100 on, but there will probably turn out to be a market for it.
As for me, I'm looking forward to getting back to talking about comics material from my childhood that I actually liked ... so join me soon for more Marvel Comics in the Silver Age.
Next: Back to the Bullpen