Sorry, you need to enable JavaScript to visit this website.

The lighter side of Batman

The original television series is 50 years old, and back then its hero didn’t need to be dark to be super

Peter Hoskin | January 12th 2016

Fifty years ago today, on January 12th 1966, Americans gathered around their television sets. It was Lyndon B. Johnson’s third State of the Union address, and the first ever to be broadcast in colour. Could the message possibly match the cathode-ray cheerfulness of the medium? Sadly not, as it turned out. The president explained his policy on Vietnam in a sad staccato: “We will stay until aggression has stopped.” The speech was one of war and regret.

Still, the television schedules weren’t a total loss. There was another first that day: the premiere of a series on the ABC network that, like LBJ’s broadcast, was shot in colour. Except this wasn’t the colour of Washington, DC, but of comic books and crime capers and the groovy 1960s. This was the start of “Batman”, starring the strong-jawed Adam West. His war was on the miscreants of Gotham City. He had no regrets.

That first episode began as the series meant to go on. The prime minister of the fictional republic of Moldavia is attending a “friendship luncheon” in sunny Gotham when a great cake is brought in on a tray. As he goes to cut it, the cake explodes – the only injuries are to the PM’s suit and his national pride – which sends a note flying into the air. “Why is an orange like a bell?” it reads. This is clearly the doing of the Riddler.

Naturally, the cops need the help of Batman and Robin (Burt Ward) to crack this one, so they dial them up on the police department’s very own Batphone. What follows is a madcap mystery. The pair face legal action; Batman dances his dance, the Batusi, at the What a Way to Go-Go Club after his drink gets spiked by one of the Riddler’s clan; and Robin ends up having a scalpel waved in his face by the Riddler himself. A voiceover intones: “Is this the ghastly end of our dynamic duo?” Find out tomorrow.

And millions did. Despite the fact that most households would have watched it on undersized black-and-white television sets, “Batman” was an immediate and immense success. Kids thrilled at the simple, cliff-hanging plots. Their parents had the delights of some wry comedy and attractive actors in tight costumes. And ABC could count its cash: $75m of merchandise was produced during that first year alone.

Now that the Batman movies give us a darker, more complicated version of the character, it is easy to scoff at this Sixties Batmania. But it is wrong to. Batman was popular because it was good. That’s why so many of its components have stuck in our collective memory. Neal Hefti’s der-der-duh-duh-duh-duh-der-der theme tune is a pop masterpiece. The Batmobile, converted by George Barris from a 1950s Lincoln Futura concept car, with the profile of a descending bat and a cockpit for each of our dynamic duo, has left its tyre tracks across millions of teenage dreams. The fluorescent pows! and bams! that fill the screen every time Batman socks another goon, recalling the written sound effects of comic books, are as much a signifier of their time as the Beatles and Warhol.

What “Batman” demonstrated is that Batman himself can do almost anything. In this respect, it wasn’t a betrayal of the comic books, as those who take their cue from the 1980s work of Frank Miller, preferring their Dark Knight to be moody, sometimes insist. Even that first episode was adapted from a story called “The Remarkable Ruse of the Riddler” in issue 171 of the comic. This Batman was an all-dancing, all-prancing punchline, but his key characteristics remained. He was still dedicated, as he should be, to ending crime. And he was counteracted by one of the finest rogues’ galleries ever created. Frank Gorshin set an early and unsurpassable watermark as a particularly demented Riddler, but there was also Julie Newmar’s sinuous Catwoman, Burgess Meredith’s cantankerous Penguin, and even Cesar Romero’s Joker, with his moustache still visible beneath his white face paint.

Thankfully, even as Batman dours up for the forthcoming film “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice”, released worldwide in March, there seem to be some executives who remember all of this. The show was remastered and given a splendid Blu-ray release in 2014, whilst DC Comics has just capped off “Batman ’66”, a comics series telling new stories from that Sixties universe. There is even talk of West and Ward reprising their roles to voice an animated movie this year.

The show itself ended after three series in 1968, a victim of over-familiarity. There were only so many cliff hangers that could be hung on viewers, only so many times the Batphone could ring. But this Batman wouldn’t have minded at all. As he put it in one episode, “I’d rather die than beg for such a small favour as my life.”

Readers' comments

Sign in or Create your account to join the discussion.