WHEN YOU enter Southfork – the home of the fictional Ewing family on the recently revived US drama Dallas – you are immediately greeted by a framed poster.
Underneath a picture of the entire cast draped in towels as though they have just emerged from the shower, the caption reads: “They’re back, and no, you’re not dreaming!”
The poster announced the return two years ago of the show after a break of 21 years. It’s a tongue-in-cheek reference to the fact that, in order to boost ratings, the producers brought back the apparently deceased Bobby Ewing (played by Patrick Duffy) in 1986 after a year away by “explaining” that everything which had happened after he had gone for a shower had been a dream of wife Pam (Victoria Principal).
This ludicrous premise – gleefully accepted by the show’s legions of devoted fans – sums up the enduring appeal of Dallas, which during its first 14-season run was the world’s most popular drama.
Yes, the show, an everyday tale of Texan oil billionaires, contains more high drama than the entire works of Shakespeare, but it never, ever takes itself too seriously. This may also be the reason why – several decades after it first became a global TV phenomenon and “Who shot JR?” was the question that seemingly gripped the entire planet – Dallas remains so fondly regarded. The fact that in oil baron JR Ewing (Larry Hagman) it featured the most compellingly Machiavellian character since Machiavelli himself also contributed hugely to the show’s success.
The Scotsman has been invited to the Dallas set at Southfork, known locally as “the second most famous white house in the US”. Everywhere you turn there is a reminder of a stand-out moment from the history of TV. The bedroom where JR was shot has been left untouched as a crime scene, complete with a bloodstain and a police chalk outline of his body on the floor.
Meanwhile, outside the back door lies JR’s gravestone, which bears the image of a stetson hat and the legend: “The only deal he ever lost.”
These sites are etched into the global popular consciousness and underline that, 36 years after it first aired, Dallas remains as vital a part of US popular culture as The Simpsons or Bruce Springsteen.
That’s not to say that the actors – who happily mingle with us on set (at one point, Duffy tries to tiptoe past us, before revealing: “Actor needing restroom!”) – did not harbour doubts about reopening the gates of Southfork after so long.
Josh Henderson, who plays JR’s son John Ross Ewing III, speaks for all the cast when he declares that, “Bringing Dallas back in 2012 was a very big deal. Obviously, the fans would be sceptical. The original show was so well known that it would be tough to please them. If it was not done right, they would say, ‘It should never have been brought back’. I’m from Dallas, so I was particularly keen not to screw it up.”
Henderson, who has also starred in Desperate Housewives and 90210, adds: “The writing is so good because it stays with the vibe that made the original show so strong. Having the original cast members also gives it legitimacy. The fans can say, ‘This is the same Dallas, just 21 years later’.”
The return was particularly effective because when Dallas came back in 2012, JR showed that the intervening 21 years had made him even more magnificently manipulative than ever. The critics loved it, with the Wall Street Journal observing that the show’s, “picture of bottomless malice and greed, against the backdrop of glorious green pastures and big skies, is hard to resist. It’s a reminder, like JR himself, of the reasons the first Dallas lasted all those years.”
The cast are clearly delighted to be reunited. Gray, who looks at least a decade younger than her 73 years, recalls that, “Two years before we started, Larry, Patrick and I received a call saying, ‘Would you be interested in bringing Dallas back?’
“We called each other and were so excited that after such a long hiatus we’d be able to work together again. Our friendship started 36 years ago, and during our 21 years off, we’d remained close. So we were beyond thrilled to be invited. We thought, ‘We love these characters. It’ll be like the Three Musketeers!’”
The comeback has even survived the loss of its biggest star. In November 2012, Hagman died following complications from acute myeloid leukemia. Duffy and Gray were at his bedside when he passed away. Hagman’s death was adroitly written into the script. Still pulling the strings from beyond the grave, the terminally ill JR commissioned his own private investigator to kill him and, in so doing, succeeded in getting his arch enemy Cliff Barnes (Ken Kercheval) framed for the murder.
Hagman, too, carries on having an influence on Dallas. The cast say he is still with them in spirit. His name continues to be listed first on the call-sheet. On the set of Ewing Global’s open-plan office, 65-year-old Duffy gestures to the grand oil painting of JR on the wall opposite. “I shot a scene yesterday where that guy still got a close-up!” he laughs.
Gray believes Hagman would have been “very proud” of the way the cast has carried on. “A lot of people ask, ‘How do you continue without Larry?’ But I know he’d have said, ‘Goddam, get back in the studio and shoot it. Make a hell of a show!’”
So just why, after all these years, does Dallas remain such a pull?
Gray reckons it is because the show possesses the priceless quality of unpredictability – you never know what the characters will do next. “You always have to stay tuned. As actors, we think we know the characters. Then we read the script and think, ‘Oh my God, they’re doing that? How did they think of that devious thing?’ It’s about the twists and turns experienced by these people who all have their demons.
“Dallas has always been a show you talk about the next day – in the old days by the water-cooler, and now on Twitter. For instance, people always ask, ‘Should Sue Ellen continue to drink?’ She keeps going back and forth. But that’s what we all do. We’re all dysfunctional. That makes for really good TV. You think you know these characters, and then they surprise and disappoint you. That keeps us excited.”
Julie Gonzalo, 32, who plays Pamela, the daughter of the Ewings’ eternal nemesis Cliff Barnes, agrees that Dallas works because, “It’s such spicy drama. We all have issues with our families – these people just show it on a grander scale. That’s the beauty of it. You watch them back-stab each other and think, ‘I wish I could do that!’
“It’s so exotic. People wish they could be part of that family where they slap and deceive each other and then sit down and have dinner together as though nothing has happened. Then after dinner, they go straight back to killing each other!”
So we continue to be drawn to Dallas. Its colourful, larger-than-life portrayal of families remains as addictive now as it was when it first burst onto our screens 36 years ago.
Henderson muses that, “A woman who watched Dallas 20 years ago will now watch it with her daughter and granddaughter. Dallas crosses boundaries and languages because viewers like to escape. People want to laugh and cry and be entertained by the ridiculous problems that are afflicting the Ewings. You can watch that and forget about all the problems in your own life.”
Now as then, there is clearly nowhere better to escape to than Dallas.
• Dallas returns to Channel 5 on Thursday at 10pm.