dubiously true stories and cartoons

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Batman's Autograph

The Tivoli cinema stood in the centre of town, tucked away in a v-shaped block that also played host to Yates’s Wine Lodge. Mum had taken me to see Summer Holiday there a couple of years earlier. She was a big fan of Cliff Richard, much preferring his bland wholesome style of rock’n’roll to the hip-swinging pelvic gyrations of  a certain Mr Presley and therefore she was, despite her protests to the contrary, a bit of a square on the quiet.
            The entrance to the cinema was hidden inside a covered shopping precinct within the block. Dimly lit and stinking of piss, it was the first stop for all the drunks that spewed out of the Wine Lodge in the early hours of the morning.
            I was twelve when I saw Batman – The Movie at the Tivoli on a cold Saturday afternoon in the January of 1967. The seats were uncomfortable, the heating was non-existent and the place was a dump, but it was closer to where I lived and cheaper than the Odeon. 
            When I was seven, Granddad gave me a small collection of Detective Comics that he’d been given by a friend of his where he worked. His friend had told him that his own son had left home and had grown out of them. And so that evening instead of the usual dirty old sweet, granddad gave me something altogether more exciting; he introduced me to Batman.
            I can still remember the first time I handled those comics – the feel and smell of the pulp paper on which they were produced, the brightly coloured artwork within their shiny covers, the brilliantly drawn panels of fast-moving action and the excitingly dynamic storylines. It must have seemed such a small thing for to him to do at the time, handing over a few unwanted second-hand comics to his grandson, but that one tiny, unsentimental act would set me off on a path that would turn me into a life-long lover (and collector) of comics. Even now, I can’t understand anyone growing out of something so wonderful.
            In 1966 Batman arrived onto the TV screens of Britain, and every Saturday and Sunday evening the youth of the nation would be transfixed, watching Adam West and Burt Ward playing the Caped Crusader and his young sidekick Robin.
Before Adam West took on the dual role of Bruce Wayne/Batman, Lewis Wilson and Robert Lowery were the first two actors to play the Caped Crusader in the Saturday morning movie serials Batman (1943) and Batman and Robin (1949). I remember watching these in the Odeon in Blackpool in throughout 1966 – they had been re-released to cash-in on Adam West’s incarnation.
I loved the TV series – it was campy and fun and the Batman comics at the time began to reflect the crazy air of the show. It worked primarily because Adam West, a gifted comic actor with a great sense of timing, played the whole thing straight and the jokes were pitched in such a way that adult audiences got them, whilst their children saw only the excitement, especially in the ZAP! POW! WHAM! OOF! fight scenes. There’s a great line in the first episode of the series. Batman and Robin dressed in their lurid costumes are walking through a groovy 1960s nightclub in their search for the Riddler’s lair. The barman asks Batman if he would like him to turn the lights on. “No,” replies Batman, “We don’t want to draw attention to ourselves.”
            Saturday night’s episode would end on a cliffhanger, with our two heroes caught in some fiendishly devious deathtrap, while the villains would all inexplicably leave them to their respective fates, from which they would then perform an unbelievably amazing escape at the start of Sunday night’s episode.
            The movie was released on the 16th December 1966 and with a bigger budget, it was able to feature the Bat-Boat and Bat-Copter, both of which appeared in a memorably hilarious scene featuring the Bat-Ladder, a rubber shark and a spray can of Bat-Shark repellent that the Caped Crusader just happened to be carrying in his utility belt. Audiences knew instinctively that Batman was climbing down the Bat-Ladder and not just some run-of-the-mill, bog standard ordinary ladder because attached to the bottom rung was a printed sign that read Bat-Ladder. As if all that wasn’t enough for Bat-fans around the world, the movie contained all four of the major villains from the series; Caesar Romero as The Joker, Burgess Meredith as The Penguin, Frank Gorshin as The Riddler and Lee Merriwether (replacing Julie Newmar) as Catwoman.
            I was in Bat-Heaven!
            In the June of 1967 an advertisement appeared in the Fylde Gazette announcing the arrival of Batman and Robin in Britain. Along with the Batmobile, Adam West and Burt Ward had arrived on our shores to promote the second series of Batman.
            Granddad pointed out the advert and my pupils dilated rapidly when I read that they would be signing autographs in Lewis’ Department Store in the town centre that very weekend. I immediately showed the advert to my mother, who told me that there was no way on earth she was going to traipse all the way into town when she didn’t need to do any shopping. She could see the desperation on my face and still she refused to take me, even after I had repeatedly asked her.
            Grandma and Granddad were both busy that weekend so there was no one who could take me. “I’ll go on my own, then,” I said defiantly.
            “You will not go on your own, Stephen!”
            That was her final word on the matter and I knew she was serious because she had called me Stephen – in italics.
            Batman and Robin were there for just one day and during the days leading up to the event my selfish mother dug her heels in and flatly ignored all my increasingly pathetic pleading.
            There was no one to accompany me into town and so there was nothing else for it; I had to defy my mother and go on my own without telling anyone.
            What could possibly go wrong?
            Lewis’s Department Store was hot and muggy and a crowd of people were clamouring and shoving their way forward, trying to get a glimpse of the Caped Crusader. I was rake thin, and so able to scramble between the legs of the awe inspired crowd and reach the front with no problem. I was dumbstruck when I reached my exalted position and when I held out my hand Adam West shook it and pressed a small scrap of paper into my sweaty palm. I carefully unfolded the white square and gazed in adoration at the autograph.
            I thought, Wow!
            Nothing else. 
            Just Wow!
            Then I was pushed and jostled back by the enthusiastic crowd.
            But the pushing and jostling didn't stop and an unexpected dig of someone's elbow in the small of my back sent me crashing to the floor. I slid along its polished surface until my head hit the side of a wooden shop display and I felt a sharp stab of pain in my neck. At first I thought nothing of it, but then I heard a woman's voice screaming hysterically. “Oh My God!” the woman screamed hysterically, “He's bleeding!
            I instinctively brought my hand up to where the pain was. As I did this I felt something warm running over my fingers and down into the sleeve of my shirt. When I pulled my hand away it was covered in blood. Now I’m not good with blood, especially my own, and I tend to go into shock until someone qualified reassures me that I’m going to be all right and so therefore my head started to swim, a sudden dizziness overcame me and then I passed out.
            The next thing I knew I was on a stretcher being jogged up and down by a couple of blue-suited ambulance-men. We were in the basement car park of the store, heading for a waiting ambulance. Through watery vision I could see the Batmobile standing silently over on the far side of the dimly lit car park.
            "What do you think of that, then, kid?" one of the ambulance-men asked. "How would you like to go to the hospital in that?"
            Bugger the Batmobile, I thought, what's mum going to do when she finds out about this?
            With the siren wailing, the ambulance sped through the busy streets until it reached the ugly sprawling mass of red bricks and concrete that was Victoria Hospital. The vehicle screeched to a halt and the doors flew open. Strapped to a stretcher trolley, I was hurtled down long corridors and round sharp, blind corners, faster than a speeding bullet.
            In an examination room a white-coated, kindly-faced doctor poked, prodded and scrutinised me. I was surrounded by space age looking equipment that appeared to have been borrowed from the set of Star Trek.
            "Stitches," I heard the doctor say, softly. "Have you informed the parents?"
            "The mother’s on her way."
            "Now then, son," the doctor said, turning to me, "you're going to need a few stitches, and because you're twelve you're old enough to have them put in without a general anaesthetic."
            All the moisture in my mouth suddenly evaporated and a wave of self-pity swept over me. I looked at the doctor with a mixture of terror and confusion in my eyes.
            "Now, don't be alarmed. You're a big lad now. We're going to give you a local anaesthetic. That just deadens the area where you've been hurt. Trust me, you won’t feel a thing. We can give you a general anaesthetic that will knock you out if you like, but it’s not advisable. Anyway, only sissies and girls have general anaesthetic. You don't want all your friends at school thinking you're a sissy, do you?"
            Yes! Yes! I thought. I do! I do! I do want them to think I'm a sissy!
            "Honestly, the stitches won’t hurt. You'll just feel a tingling sensation at first and after that you won’t feel a thing."
            He lied. There may not have been any physical pain – but psychologically it was agony. At that moment I didn't see the kindly-faced, soft spoken doctor. I saw a maniac and all I could think of as the needle wove its way in and out of my skin was: You fucking liar. You fucking fucking liar!
            Mum arrived a few minutes after I’d been sewn up and found me looking sorry for myself in the recovery room. My obvious discomfort had no effect on her mood whatsoever because she had traipsed all the way into town without needing to go shopping – and she was furious.
            "What did I say to you?" she thundered.
            I had to think of something fast and it had to be plausible. "Err . . . I came into town with . . . err . . . Pete Webster and his mum and . . . err . . . we got separated  . . .err . . . and err . . .I fell over and . . . err . . . cut my neck open."
            The doctor gave me a scornful look, but he didn't say anything.
            "Serves you bloody right, then," Mum said, as she grabbed hold of my ear and dragged me out of the recovery room.
            When we got home we had jam sandwiches for tea and, as I stuffed one into my mouth, I reached forward and pressed the large bakelite button on the television and waited for the old black and white, tube driven monster to warm up.    
            I was just in time. It was a new adventure. A new story. A different villain, and I remember thinking, just before the doorbell rang, I hope The Joker's in it this week.
            As the sound and picture merged and the fuzziness disappeared, and the familiar Na-Na-Na-Na-Na-Na-Na-Na  Na-Na-Na-Na-Na-Na-Na-Na signature tune began to fill the room, I heard my mother call to me from the hallway. “Stephen!” she yelled, “me and Mrs Webster would like a word with you about what happened this afternoon!”
          Did my mother ground me for the rest of my natural life? Did more lies save me when Mrs Webster told my mother what really happened that afternoon? Could this be a ghastly end for me?
            Tune in tomorrow – same Bat-time, same Bat-channel!

I was devastated when I heard the news that Adam West, the Caped Crusader himself, had died. The 1966 series of Batman was, and still is, one of my favourite TV shows. On my birthday last year I treated myself to the complete remastered series on Blu-Ray and have watched it frequently since then. Adam West was a master of comic timing who reached a new generation of fans with his hilarious Mayor Adam West in Family Guy, not forgetting the animated film Return of the Caped Crusaders, where he was reunited with Burt Ward and Julie Newmar. He will return again soon in his final performance as the Caped Crusader in Batman vs Two-Face, which will also feature William Shatner as Harvey Dent. This post is a remastered version of a previous post from about four years ago and will serve, hopefully as a tribute to the cultural icon and absolute legend, Adam West.
            For a generation of kids who grew up in the 1960s he will always be their Batman.
            May his Bat-Signal shine on forever.