Batman is fifty-five years old today. It was on 12th January 1966 that ABC in the United States broadcast the first tale of the caped crusader. When the programmes appeared on British television, my father, who was fond of Spoonerisms, used to refer to the lead characters as “Ratman and Bobin.”
Batman caught the mood of the times. Back in the 1960s, television seemed full of heroic figures. There would be police drama series where the coppers were always straight and the crooks were always caught; there would be war films in which the central character would triumph against overwhelming odds and make a Shakespearean-style tribute to his dead comrades at the end; there would be cowboy films in which the good guys wore white; medical dramas where no-one died; science fiction series where aliens always lost.
Hardly a programme, or a film, would pass without the good guys winning and the bad ones getting their comeuppance. Robin Hood was best at extracting victory from impossible situations. (James Bond’s situations were worse, but he would always produce some gadget; that seemed somehow to be cheating).
Growing up on tales of the legendary King Arthur (and the historical King Alfred and Sir Francis Drake) there developed a habit of looking for heroic characters in life. There was a searching for people who would know how to cope in every situation and would know how to extricate the right result from whatever plight it was in which one found oneself. On such a diet of stories Batman and the other super heroes did not seem so improbable.
Of course, there were no heroes who would arrive at speed or swoop in from the sky, there was no-one whose physical strength and intellectual power could transform a situation. There would be no masked stranger who would arrive in a black car with a companion who would fight alongside him.
Perhaps it was part of the spirit of 1960s England that heroes of any sort seemed in short supply. The end of the Empire and the economic decline of the country provided little inspiration for heroic tales. Looking overseas was no more productive, watching television stories from Vietnam, it was hard to even know what a hero might do.
The nearest I came to an encounter with Batman was the Gotham Cafe in Dublin, and its walls were adorned with covers of Rolling Stone magazine rather than pictures of a hero who felled his opponents with “zaps” and “pows.”