Na-na na-na na-na na-na – Batman!
The enduring appeal and impact of the Batman television series makes you think that it bestrode 1960s TV like a colossus, so it comes as something of a shock to find that it ran for only three seasons (albeit still a hefty 120 episodes) before being cancelled due to poor ratings. But the chances are that even now, nearly 50 years later, it’s the TV series that most people (of a certain age at least) will default to if they try and recall the definitive screen versions of the Batmobile, Batcave and Bat-theme.
For years, the 1966-68 show has been a glaring omission from the ranks of home entertainment releases. In fact many people had given up on the show ever seeing the light of day on DVD/Blu-ray, thanks to the complex legal wranglings over who exactly owned the rights. DC Comics’ Bob Kane created the original character, but DC has since been taken over by Warner Bros.; however, the TV show was created by 20th Century Fox in collaboration with the independent Greenway Productions and aired on the ABC network. Add in some further issues about payment for uncredited cameos by some then-big name stars and you have the sort of mess that courts can take decades to resolve, if ever.
But to everyone’s surprise the situation has finally been sorted out and the entire series is out on disc just in time for Christmas. And it’s just as silly as you remember, a camp pastiche of the highest (or perhaps lowest) order, dazzling in primary colours and looking for all the world like a prime piece of 60s pop art. Of course, any resemblance to reality in the show was always entirely accidental.
I confess, as a kid growing up I had a love/hate relationship with the Batman TV show. On the one hand the never-ending cycle of reruns was the only live-action superhero programme on air (whereas the Saturday morning cartoons were for very young audiences indeed): as a superhero comic book addict this was something I couldn’t resist watching, but at the same time I hated how they spoofed and ridiculed a character I liked very much on the printed page. The end result is a cross between the Airplane! and a particularly undemanding children’s show. This was years before DC reclaimed Batman and made him progressively darker, a renaissance spurred in the comic books by the likes of Frank Miller and on screen by Tim Burton and more recently by the Christopher Nolan films and the Gotham prequel which between them have thankfully expunged the comedy lampoonings of the original TV show. (Let’s not even talk about Joel Schumacher’s disastrous attempt to meld both approaches in Batman Forever and Batman and Robin, awful failures that came close to killing off the franchise altogether in the 1990s.)
Knowing that the character is now in good hands and on firm footing, and with a serious coating of nostalgia retrospectively applied to the TV version, it’s possible to enjoy the series without getting too worked up about its absurd excesses. There’s also something to be said about watching it as an adult, since many of the cleverer touches tend to go over the head of younger viewers who were and still are dazzled by the ‘Pow!’, ‘Bam!’, “Boom!’ captions spinning around during loosely-staged but impressive fight sequences. For example, there’s a nice touch early in the first episode where six or seven policeman are anxiously pacing around Commissioner Gordon’s office, all at different angles so that they meet up in the centre and trip over each other in the background. Of course, having used such a successful sight gag once, the show isn’t afraid to keep using it to the point of exhaustion every week thereafter.
The stories have just enough of an well-conceived criminal plot to keep things interesting, while Batman’s ability to outthink the fiendish felons by making the wildest leaps of intuition is also oddly satisfying. And Adam West’s performance in the title role is certainly one of a kind: it’s been mocked down the years much as William Shatner’s idiosyncratic playing of the contemporaneous Captain Kirk in Star Trek has been, but you kind of have to give West credit for playing it utterly straight despite the lunacy going on all around him. Credit too to Burt Ward putting so much energy into playing a naive but eternally enthusiastic Robin: what really stands out is the chemistry and comedy timing between the pair which is really rather impressive given that this was very much factory production line TV churning out two episodes a week with no time to spare.
But where the series still really shines to this day is in its line-up of villains, especially the main iconic foursome of oft-returning rogues. It was 20 years before Jack Nicholson brought a dramatic dark side to the Joker and nearly 40 before Heath Ledger upped the ante in The Dark Knight, but even so Cesar Romero gives a quite extraordinary performance of the character which is still hard to beat. Julie Newmar is surprisingly sultry and sexy as Catwoman given that this is a PG-rated children’s show, and the fabulous Burgess Meredith does well to inject some steel into the role of the Penguin that was still little more than a name and an umbrella at this point, a long way from the dark Gothic tragic figure that Burton made him in Batman Returns and which in turn strongly influences Robin Lord Taylor’s portrayal of Oswald Cobblepot in Gotham.
Finally there’s Frank Gorshin as the Riddler, and for my money his portrayal of the character has never been equalled on screen. It helps that the character is in any case so wildly over-the-top that he fits the kitsch 60s series like a glove, but there’s also something to the way Gorshin plays the role – his physicality and a deeper sense of darkness to the character – that bridges old and modern franchises really exceptionally well.
Added to the core four you also have a slew of big names coming in as guest villains: George Sanders, Anne Baxter, Victor Buono, Roddy McDowall, Van Johnson, Shelly Winters, Vincent Price, Liberace, Otto Preiminger, Michael Rennie, Tallulah Bankhead, Eli Wallach, Joan Collins, Milton Berle, Cliff Robertson, Howard Duff, Zsa Zsa Gabor and Rudy Vallee to name but a few, with Eartha Kitt later taking over the role of Catwoman. Even if you’re just a fan of some of the biggest Hollywood stars of the 20th century, the boxset of Batman will be a rare treat.
And when I say rare, I mean it. Despite being nominally released in the UK on DVD and Blu-ray on November 10, it seems that it is impossible to get from UK online retailers. A limited edition Blu-ray boxset was briefly available from Amazon but has since either been withdrawn or sold out; in any case, it was £200 and contained bonus extras such as trading cards, booklets and a replica Batmobile along with the more standard featurettes on the discs. There’s no trace of the ‘ordinary’ boxsets on either DVD or Blu-ray from the usual online outlets though. However, HMV did have a small amount of stock of the basic DVD boxset for just under £60, and it also appears that the 120 episodes can be bought for that price from the iTunes store – although the page for it is suspiciously bare of any any information other than a pack shot, price and ‘buy now’ button.
I was fortunate in being lent one of the 18 discs from the remastered DVD set, and was surprised by how simply enjoyable it all is. The things that wound me up about the show at the time are still there, it’s just that I don’t seem to mind all that much. In fact it’s a welcome antidote to the modern breed of superhero films and TV shows that take everything far too seriously and never seem to have nearly enough fun (the new The Flash being an honourable exception, and S.H.I.E.L.D too when it’s having a good day.) Given that there’s so much choice for superhero fare out there these days, the fact that one is just outrageously kitsch and camp is no longer the problem that it once was when it was a monopoly of such output. The golden glow of nostalgia helps a bit, too.
What’s particularly noteworthy about the DVD I got to sample was the spectacular image quality: honestly, this is one of the finest bits of remastering/restoration I think I’ve ever seen for a TV show. The colours blast off the screen, everything is pin sharp, and there’s not a trace of dirt, scratches or other damage to the prints at least on the episodes that I saw. Only in some sequences where a piece of stock footage or used, or where effects have been added by passing the film through an optical printer several times, does the quality even momentarily dip (just as it would have done for the original broadcast version, of course). Really this is quite superb, and I can only imagine what it would look like on high resolution on Blu-ray That said, the DVD is quite good enough for anyone but the most massively demanding avid fan.
The standard DVD boxset comes with three hours of extras on the discs, with Adam West a big contributor. There’s also a 32-page printed episode guide. Not contained in the set is the 1966 movie spin-off starring West, Ward, Romero, Meredith, Newmar and Gorshin which – thanks to not being caught up in the same legal wrangles – has been out on DVD and Blu-ray for several years already, making it the best sampler for anyone unsure if they want to fork out for the inevitably much more expensive complete series boxset.
That said, for 120 episodes of wonderfully remastered television, this is a very good buy for those so inclined and with their Christmas gift money to hand. If you can find it, that is.