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|Written by Chris Gould|
|Monday, 24 January 2011 00:00|
"Are these guys for real?"
These were the words uttered by millions as they first witnessed two caped crusaders in eye-wateringly tight pants, one of whom inexplicably had eyebrows carved into his purple bat cowl. It seemed like the biggest jest in television history -- and to an extent it was -- but underneath camp frivolity, the Batman TV show had some hard-hitting messages, many of which still ring true today.
Forty-five years ago, in January 1966, William Dozier and his team screened a version of Batman which completely dispensed with the character's past. The action hero created by Bob Kane had lived out a rather dark existence in DC comic books since the late 1930s and had appeared equally dark in his only previous appearances on screen in 1943 and 1949. Dozier believed that for a TV show to appeal to kids a softer, more colourful Batman was needed -- hence the luminous costumes of heroes, villains and backgrounds. Indeed, according to one of the show's production team members, "white was absolutely banned on set." Add in some classic dead-pan humour for the adults, and Dozier had created a show that greatly enhanced the ABC network's standing.
Much of the show's comedy was derived from the exaggerated dividing lines it drew between Good and Evil. Batman forever upheld the law, studied hard, espoused the virtues of education to Robin, and put other people first. As Bruce Wayne, he also spent large amounts of his millionaire fortune on good causes and tried to help criminals reform -- even if they had tried to kill him. He was joined in his crusade against evil by the impeccably honest Police Commissioner Gordon and Chief O'Hara, two men who would not even fiddle with an expense claim. The villains, on the other hand, despite being vastly more cuddly and playful than their comic book counterparts, were portrayed as unspeakably selfish and evil -- only ever thinking about crime.
Nevertheless, such crime would never pay so long as Batman and Robin were present. Every week, the dynamic duo would be placed in some ridiculous trap only to escape in equally ridiculous circumstances and capture their tormentors (usually via crazy fight scenes punctuated by atonal trumpet sounds and huge words splattered across the screen). When asked by Robin why they enjoyed so much good fortune in escaping death, Batman simply replied that, "It's because our hearts are pure." In Batman's idealistic world, good people deserved luck, and bad people didn't, which is why he and Robin lived amid the riches of stately Wayne Manor while their criminal adversaries made do with abandoned warehouses and henchman whom they couldn't afford to feed.
Batman's finest humour lay in the double episode which sees the Penguin run for mayor of Gotham City. The episode, aired during the 1966 US midterm elections, represents a concerted yet side-splittingly funny attack on the electoral system, beginning with Penguin's speech at his campaign headquarters. Amid hoards of cheerleaders and placards, Penguin declares that the voters of Gotham City want a campaign with: "Plenty of girls and bands and slogans and lots of HOOPLA! But remember, NO POLITICS. Issues confuse people!"
The only politician depicted on the show, Mayor Linseed, fully agrees with this analysis, but Batman -- forever true to idealism -- dissents. The Mayor implores Batman to run against the Penguin as the only candidate who stands a chance at winning, and Batman assents. When urged by the impatient Robin to make his campaign posters bigger, Batman calmly replies: "I'm convinced that the American electorate is too mature to be taken in by cheap vaudeville trickery." He then eyes the camera to deliver a stark message to America's real-life voters: "If our national leaders were elected on the basis of tricky slogans, brass bands, and pretty girls, our country would be in a terrible mess, wouldn't it?"
Batman's subsequent attempts to conduct a 100% clean election campaign are simply hilarious. He first refuses an offer to kiss a baby, and thus the photo opportunity, because "it's an unsanitary habit, you see." The Penguin promptly appears, kisses the babies with trademark cigarette (complete with holder) still in his mouth, and earns the electoral support of the parents. "Politics is wonderful!" he enthuses. "I can use all of my lowest, slurpiest [sic] tricks, but now they're legal!"
Another scene sees Batman duped into addressing a rally at the Grand Order of Occidental Nighthawks, a fake organization which carries the acronym GOON -- the very name which Penguin's henchmen bear on their tight-fitting black shirts. The GOONs fight and capture Batman and Robin before attempting to drop them, at customary tortoise-like pace, into an acid bath. After the dynamic duo's inevitable escape, Batman comically informs Robin that he will not report the incident because the Electoral Fair Practices Committee would accuse him of smear tactics. So careful is he not to sling mud that he refuses to publicize an attempt on his life by a rival candidate!
The show continues with the Penguin deploying various dirty electoral tricks to hijack a TV debate and steal credit for stopping a fake robbery, but despite all the opinion polls and TV coverage favouring Penguin, Batman urges his team to trust the voters and is duly elected with a sound majority. There is still time for a swipe at the pollsters who called it so wrong, the men in question admitting that their sample consisted of "homeless people, two sword swallowers, and a female wrestler."
Under the guise of straightforward crime fighting, no show was better placed than Batman to tackle new phenomena in a changing America. New villains were created especially for issues of the day. National Reading Week, for example, saw the debut of the Bookworm, an unusually deep character who failed in his writing career through lack of imagination but who could plot all manner of crimes based on the huge number of books he had read. Similarly, the rise of flower power was marked by arch criminal Louis the Lilac, who planned to rule the hippies and con people into buying expensive perfumes. Women's Lib, of course, was embodied by a number of villainesses but most famously by ultra-confident Bat Girl, who joined proceedings in the third season.
Alas, the pressures of producing and filming material absurdly quickly contributed to a drop in both the quality of the writing and the social commentary, which ultimately led to the show's cancellation in March 1968. Nevertheless, Batman left our screens having produced many laughs and a genuine sense of optimism that the world could be a better place, especially in the hands of a gentle cowled crusader whose moral standards were so outrageously high.
Tags: adam west, all the way pengy, babies are unsanitary, batman, clean campaign, jest, politics, tight pants, tv