After last year’s grim reaping of CelebrityLand – and by the end enough had died to fill a pastiche of the Sgt Pepper album cover – I’d hoped 2017 was going to be kinder. But it could well turn out to be crueller if the trend for taking childhood favourites continues. Mary Tyler Moore was my first crush. John Noakes was the big brother I never had. Now – Bam! Kapow! Urkkk! – Adam West has died. The original Batman was my original hero.
I never got into the comics which begat the 1960s TV series and I didn’t like the movies which followed. In the middle was this Pop Art wonder which, every week, thrust Batman and his sidekick Robin into the middle of a city-in-peril situation and, often, the middle of a baroquely fiendish torture contraption which would have walls closing in on them, literally, or beds of nails or baskets of snakes.
With these deaths, and that of Robert Vaughn from The Man from U.N.C.L.E. last year, prolonged nostalgic reverie has been interrupted by the same thought every time: “Bloody hell, I didn’t half watch a lot of TV when I was a boy.” My next thought has been: “I must remember to cut back on the kids’ viewing, chop right through it with the giant circular saw which almost did for Batman.”
For them that would doubtless be torture. Although they wouldn’t actually be strapped down, as Batman so often was, during telly-free breakfast or the half-hour before bed, the effect would be more or less the same. But help is at hand for my kids and all the other gogglesprogs. Their own superhero is racing to the rescue and she’s called Lauren Child.
The new Children’s Laureate, who writes and draws the much-loved Charlie and Lola books, has had some fascinating things to say since taking up her post. She’s been critical of parents who “micro-manage or direct” their children’s lives, either willingly or through peer-pressure.
Some mothers compete over the hecticness of their offspring’s schedules, waving around their iPhones in Costa Coffee and flicking the kids’ diary function like it’s the greatest modern boon, when some of us already know that peak technology was reached with the Mobile Bat-Computer in the boot of the Batmobile and the car’s Emergency Bat-Turn Lever which, with the aid of small parachutes, enabled it to flip round 180 degrees. Other mums and dads, will nevertheless feel, according to Child, that “you aren’t a good parent if you are not signing up your child to all sorts of activities or taking them to galleries”.
Without their parents overseeing them all the time, children should have the “freedom to discover” and “be allowed to be creative”, she says. And here’s the really interesting bit: Child doesn’t think TV is the enemy of books. Telly inspired her. The little plays she dreamed up as a girl, the interest in dialogue, came from the goggle-box.
Re-running my old Batmans now – they finally became available on DVD a few years ago – it seems unlikely that anyone would have missed the dialogue, the gags, the alliteration, the puns, the exclamation marks, the riddles and all the zippy, zappy grooviness of the words.
Of course the thrills, the car chases, the fights, the gadgets and the dayglo colours probably appealed to a nine-year-old first, but the scripts must have made an impression because I’ve always known that the man who made them go with a “Sock!” and a “Wham!” was Lorenzo Semple Jr. and so I must have searched for the screenwriter’s name in the titles.
Possibly I did this after occasional lines would make my father laugh. One of them – never forgotten – was Batman’s quip when the erotic-dancing arm-candy of the bad guys fell into a vat of something horrible: “What a way to go-go.” This was validation for my favourite show and, it seems now, conclusive proof that my youth wasn’t entirely misspent.
Child believes that for children to be creative they need to have less going on in their heads and their lives, not more. “The pressure on parents to keep filling their children with information and experiences is too much,” she says. “I always tell children that I spend an awful lot of time staring out of the window. I mean that literally and metaphorically because that staring into space can be very rewarding: you begin to see things.”
I can imagine myself, at the height of the Batman obsession, allowing attention to drift from the teacher’s dreary sermon to focus on the wall outside. How had the Dynamic Duo managed to haul themselves up the sides of Gotham City’s skyscrapers? (Answer: film of them holding on to a Bat-rope and walking normally was simply turned onto its side).
“Being bored is how you create things,” adds Child. I was certainly bored between episodes of Batman. Rather, I thought I was going to explode with the suspense. Batman was being dangled over a pit of ravenous tigers while, in another part of town, Robin was being swallowed up by quick-drying cement.
“Tune in tomorrow!” the announcer would gasp. “Same Bat-time, same Bat-channel!” But today’s don’t have to put up with such rudimentary special-effects and wouldn’t put up with the wait. Being part of the instant-gratification generation means there will always be someone capable of illegally accessing the denouement.
So RIP Adam West. I feel sorry for the children who missed him but if they keep looking out the window for long enough they might eventually be able to make out the Bat-sign.