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Throwback Thursday: The Irony and Oddity of Adam West’s Batman

At the end of last year all the episodes of the ’60s Batman TV show were packaged together on Blu-ray and DVD for the first time. Alongside the original 120 episodes, there’s also three hours of special features. How special they are is a matter of opinion. José Barbosa offers his.

It’s either comforting or dispiriting to realise that the world of 50 years ago was just as susceptible to short-lived media fads as we are in this wondrous future of tweeting dogs and the iPotty. By all accounts the denizens of the late ’60s went looney tunes for the Batman TV series starring Adam West as Bruce Wayne/Batman and Burt Ward as Dick Grayson/Robin.

Looking back it’s not hard to see why: it remains one of the most successful attempts to replicate the feeling of a cartoon in live action. The result is one of the oddest and funniest TV shows ever made.

A large part of the success of the show is Adam West’s portrayal of the crimefighter as a ponderous and overly serious social philosopher, who at times appears to be in danger of getting lost inside his own head. Imagine Jamie Whyte in tights with the speech patterns of John Banks and that’s not far from how West plays Batman. In fact the whole show, complete with bright primary colours and dutch angles, can seem like an ACT campaign video.

So, if you like Adam West you’ll bloody love the special features in this box set because he looms large over the proceedings. There’s a half hour documentary “Hanging With Batman” about West’s career which mostly revolves around him sitting around a swimming pool reading the paper or staring wistfully out a window.

The tone is reverential and unquestioning: “When I got on set in costume everyone was in awe and I knew it was going to work.” Really? Awe from a costume made with blue dye and dancer tights? It does however get more interesting and even sad as it examines his career post-Batman. Typecasting was almost inevitable, says West, but he was stubborn enough to think he could fight his way out of it. He couldn’t, but he still had to put food on his family’s table. The doco hints at a history with alcoholism and there’s genuinely depressing footage of him appearing on a crappy ’70s wrestling show in a poorly made Batman suit.

Also on the extras disc is an excruciating panel discussion filmed in what appears to be the Los Angeles equivalent of a Cobb ‘n Co. West spends 45 minutes responding to bromides of the ‘did you ever think it would be such a big hit?”-type from director Kevin Smith, comics artist Jim Lee and an overly enthusiastic Batman collector. It’s rounded out with actor Phil Morris who rescues proceedings somewhat through reasonably insightful questions and his recollections of visiting the Batman set when he was eight.

Next there’s a short documentary about middle aged men who have amassed huge Batman memorabilia collections which will make you want want to spend US$80,000 on a complete 1966 Batmobile replica.

It’s followed by a “making of” featurette which is a quite singular example of the genre, because it mostly avoids investigating how they made the show. Movie producer Michael Uslan notes helpfully that in the show Batman was the hero. Someone else draws a long bow and suggests the hotline to Batman was symbolic of the Washington hotline to Moscow and was a comment on the cold war.

Even more mystifying is a 12 minute montage of actors from several other WB TV shows reminiscing vaguely about the Batman show. Sample dialogue: “I gotta admit I wasn’t alive in the 60s.”

West was clever enough to see the show for what it was and in doing so he basically taught an entire generation about the uses of irony and parody; for this alone he deserves the recognition afforded him here. However, the Batman show didn’t spring fully formed from his brain alone. It’s partly because just about everyone who worked in a senior position on Batman is dead, but there’s hardly any mention of anyone else who worked on the show.

The producer (and “same bat-time, same bat-channel” narrator) William Dozier pops up once in file footage for fifteen seconds. There’s a brief archive clip from an interview with the post-production supervisor James Blakeley talking about how they made the onomatopoeia optical effects during the fight scenes. Julie Newmar appears briefly commenting on how hot the Catwoman suit made her look.

Burt Ward is limited to what feels like a few minutes of interview time. His endlessly peppy performance contributed to the show’s enduring appeal. To not see more from him, and particularly William Dozier, who decided the show should be written to work on multiple levels, seems like a major oversight.

It’s a puzzling state of affairs, especially when others have made much more interesting attempts. What we have here wouldn’t even fill a pouch on the bat utility belt.

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