Heroes & Villains. January 2018.

Dear Rowley,

I’ve never really been one for reliving the television programmes of my childhood on YouTube even though I know this is an obsession for children of the 1970s and 80s. However, the American cult TV show Batman that ran between 1967 and 1968 for three seasons was an obsession of mine when it was rerun in the 70s. Batman fascinates many of my peers because it quite literally vanished. Legal disputes prevented it being sold directly to the viewer until 2014 when it came out as a DVD boxed set of all 120-episodes.

The minute the box set hit the shops, I bought it and devoured it. Over the past fortnight while spending quiet time at home after the burglary at Bloomsbury Towers, I have savoured each episode slowly and with concentration. Batman appeals to gay men (as it did to a gay child) on a visceral level because it is arguably one of the campest TV shows ever made.

As per the DC comic book inspiration, Batman and his young sidekick Robin are denizens of Gotham City and are the superhero alter egos of millionaire Bruce Wayne and his youthful ward Dick Grayson. Bruce and Dick have a Daddy/Twink relationship and live together in Wayne mansion with butler Alfred and Aunt Harriet. It is Bruce’s job to constantly teach Dick a trick or two. Nothing camp about that.

Batman and Robin fight crime wearing a ludicrous wardrobe of satin capes, hoods and hot pants, opaque tights and funny little bootees. Batman has a utility belt that would be more at home in an S&M club and they ride around in an open-top black and red sports car called the Bat Mobile. They also have a Bat Bike with a sidecar for Robin.

The set decoration for Batman is as bright as a Pop Art canvas with all the low-tech gadgetry that one could wish for (Bat Shark Repellant Spray anyone?) and the Bat Cave beneath Wayne Manor accessible by two firemen’s poles concealed behind a sliding bookcase.

Despite being the title character, Batman does not lead the bi-weekly scripts. That honour belongs to a roster of villains played by golden age Hollywood legends such as Cesar Romero (Joker), Burgess Meredith (Penguin), Talulah Bankhead (Black Widow), Shelley Winters (Old Ma Baker), Vincent Price (Egghead) and George Sanders (Mr Freeze).

The stories are invariably the same and voiced by producer William Dozier in a Dick Barton Special Agent urgent fashion. Villain hatches a cunning plan. Commissioner Gordon calls Batman. Villains ensnare Batman and/or Robin and concoct the most ludicrous death for them that makes Midsomer Murders look like Happy Valley by comparison.

Batman and Robin escape and foil the villain but only after a staged fight in which each punch, kick and karate chop is accompanied by an on screen graphic reading POW! ZONK! and BAM! A

Adam West’s Batman and Bruce are a joy because he plays both characters deadpan and without a hint of camp despite being dressed in such a loco costume and being expected to perform slapstick comedy such as nearly jiving to death in a groovy nightclub while Robin waits in the car. Burt Ward’s Robin is all teenage testosterone and exclamation marks such as Holy Depravity Batman!!!

it is the Pop Art sets, the psychedelic 1960s colour palette and the wildly OTT performances of the villains that makes Batman such a gay old time. The villain I always wanted to be in the playground was Catwoman as played by Julie Newmar in the first two series. Catwoman and Batman are drawn to each other and Julie Newmar is a beautiful, lithe brunette who can perform the sinuous cat movements in a sequin belted catsuit with mask, heeled boots, clawed gloves and that gorgeous mane of chestnut hair with tiny little cat ears perched like a tiara on top.

Cesar Romero as Joker is to me more sinister than the late Heath Ledger. His manic laughter, chalk white face and green hair are truly unnerving as are his Jack-in-the-Box movements. The laugh is only matched by Riddler Frank Gorshin’s helium balloon hysteria. Gorshin is as lithe and viscose as Penguin is a fat, chain-smoking toff in top hat with cigarette holder, umbrella and monocle.

The roll call of old Hollywood is so impressive: Eli Wallach also played Mr Freeze, Anne Bater Olga Queen of the Cossacks, Milton Berle Louis the Lilac, Joan Collins the Siren, Ethel Merman as Lola Lasagne, and Carolyn Jones (the original TV Morticia Addams in The Addams Family) Marsha Queen of Diamonds.

The first of the week’s two episodes ended with a cliffhanger to make you come back tomorrow ‘Same Bat Time Same Bat Place’. But the formula began to flag come the end of series two. A film was made in 1966 bringing Catwoman, Riddler, Joker and Penguin together to defeat Batman and it is a campfest as you’d imagine. Series Three moved from Pop Art to a trippy Surrealism addressing contemporary culture such as flower children, mini skirts and hep cat slang.

Series Three was ruined for me by the introduction of Batgirl aka perky librarian Barbara Gordon. It was an attempt to inject the tired formula with some feminine feistiness but only proved to undermine the Dynamic Duo when she saved the day once too often. Batgirl always disappeared after saving said day leaving Batman scratching his chin and wondering who this mystery woman could be? Pretty safe bet when Barbara Gordon always popped-up not two minutes later.

Batman was the biggest TV phenomenon in the mid-1960s and has achieved cult status ever since thanks to repeats and now the box set. To say I still see it with childlike wonder is Batman’s compliment. Holy Regression Therapy!