Adam West: The best of the belfry
Television’s classic Batman knew the joke worked better without the wink
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Switch off the spotlight, hang up the red telephone, let the commissioner weep. Batman is dead.
As his chartreuse foe, the Riddler, may today have eulogised:
Riddle me this, riddle me that:
Who wore tights to dress as a bat?
Who will drive that absurdly cool car?
Who’s left to dance with Julie Newmar?
Who, indeed. Adam West died last week. He was 88, and he was Batman. The classic Batman television show was a 120-episode series made up of two-episode stories, broken in half like Kit-Kat bars—with a seemingly lethal cliffhanger, with seemingly insurmountable odds—and separated with the promise that the story would return “At the same Bat-time, on the same Bat-channel”. In India in the early 1990s, this 1966 show was a true milestone for satellite television, a mid-afternoon weekday highlight that splashed our schoolboy lives with literal pops of colour.
Batman embraced the daftness of the premise and the colours of the pages, making a bonkers show bright enough to lick. Top actors played fantastical villains: Burgess Meredith was The Penguin, Vincent Price was Egghead, and master film-maker Otto Preminger, for Bat’s sake, played Mr Freeze for a season (the great Eli Wallach took over the part after him). In this whimsical show, the hero got out of every fix because he carried Deus ex machina (God from the machines) with him, in his bumblebee-yellow belt.
This was lunacy by template: the red phone would flash, there would be a cunning plan, Batman would get nearly impaled or nearly beheaded or nearly turned into clam chowder, he would fend off the villain’s puns with comic-book action noises actually displayed on screen—Kapow!—and, at some point, the Caped Crusader and his trusted second, Robin, would rappel up or down the side of a building where a celebrity would stick their head out a window and make casual chit-chat with these crime fighters. Dick Clark, former host of American Bandstand, for example, asked if they were a variety act.
It is the bizarrest visual effect: Two men in superhero outfits walking slowly holding a rope, with the camera turned on its side to convince us they were vertically risking their lives. It didn’t convince me in the 1990s, it surely didn’t convince those in the 1960s, but Batman embraced the implausibility of the character and his world. Here was a Willy Wonka version of Gotham City, with Batman as its cheerful, ever-correct custodian.
Without Adam West, Batman wouldn’t have lasted three episodes. Television channels afraid of the Bat-prefix would have cancelled it mid-cliffhanger. Thirty eight, dashing and strong-jawed, West was Bruce Wayne, who wore the Batsuit and drove the Batmobile and made Batdeclarations, and did it with a surprising amount of subtlety. It is an impossibly hard role, not least because of that preposterous costume—a delicate, high-fashion cowl paired with unflattering blue tights and a purple cape—but, also, because literally everyone else on the show is more outlandish, and hence more fun, than Batman.
West’s answer was to play it straight and cool. “If you have some wit—a sense of irony—it will get you through,” he told Esquire magazine in 2003. “Really, that was what Batman was all about. Irony. A theatre of the absurd that kids could believe in. And as you got older, you realized the humour.” Batman knew all and had every answer, but West played down the omniscience and played up the warmth. His relationship with young Robin—his ward, played by Burt Ward—was that of a guardian, and when he spoke to the boy, unfailingly calling him “old chum”, he did so with a Mr Rogers kind of fondness and affection. As a result, this is the only live-action Batman where Robin is an essential character, and the duo’s dynamic above suspicion.
And then there’s Catwoman. Julie Newmar’s spectacular version of the purring purloiner was head-over-heels for Batman, and their moments together play out genuinely touching and romantic, thanks to West’s measured sincerity. Ward claimed that West spoke slowly because he wanted the camera to be on him twice as long, but whatever the cause, the result was a Batman who appeared authentically wise. Even when telling Catwoman about kissing. “Kissing is one of the most natural things in the world. Some people kiss almost everyday, I’m told.”
In the early 1970s, before the late Roger Moore took on the James Bond tuxedo, West declined the role because he felt Bond should always be British. Moore played Bond with a knowing wink, showing us he was in on the joke; West’s Batman knew the joke worked better winklessly.
West liked to think of himself as “The Bright Knight”, and it is often noted that so long—and so groovy—was his shadow that every Batman after him, every comic, every film, is invariably a reaction to (and against) his Batdancing superhero. Yet while other screen Batmen were more grounded and more sombre and more flawed, West exemplified the one idea that makes the character magical, the thought that lets us leave life and leisure in his hands. Batman knows best.
Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. It appears weekly on Livemint.com and fortnightly in print.