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Western Approaches: Episode One

It was 1964 and I was mostly contented being me but when I wanted to be someone else, I wanted to be George Harrison, Muhammad Ali, Robin Hood or Flint McCullough. Mostly I wanted to be Flint McCullough.

There are many things I cannot remember. Like not being able to read, or sleeping in a cot or not wanting to look at clouds. (And realise that these things did not make me unique). I can remember a sitting room without a telly and the day the first one arrived: carried in and installed by men who had Mullard valves in small blue cardboard boxes and smelled of strong drink. I watched my first westerns on that television. The paradox remains that I cannot remember my life before I became aware of westerns. They feel as much a part of me as my elder brothers and sister, my mum and dad, my sense of taste and smell. It seems they’ve always been around.

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Robert Horton as Flint McCullough. My first western hero.

I can’t be sure whether film or tv series first introduced me to cowboys and big country and guns and waistcoats. When I began this post my memory was blank but writing things down has a way of tracing a path back into the past and now my money’s on Wagon Train.

There is an inherent ability to distinguish the reality of life from the reality of film and books. It must be something like a second mirror stage as we become aware of what belongs directly to us and what belongs to the other. There is  a different gap between my life and that of the news stories of the day. There were thus three worlds: the one I lived in, the one I watched which was true and the one created by actors and writers. We inhabited them all depending on who was watching. If my mother was there, we were more likely to be in the world of fiction. With my father facts would predominate.

Those actual events still resonate: the soviets putting a man into space, a thing called the Profumo affair, moors murders, the great train robbery, the start of Dr Who and, over-riding all of this, the assassination of John Kennedy a couple of weeks before my fourth birthday. I can probably answer more general knowledge questions on these events and other happenings of 1963 and 64 than I can on events of 2015. By age five I had greater expertise of current popular music than now. But none of this took on the importance of westerns. I greatly admired John Lennon and Paul McCartney but I wanted to be Robert Horton.

Wagon Train was the first programme I’d come in specially to watch from playing in the garden or on the street. We’d try to replay it outside but beyond one of us having the Ward Bond role, raising our hand and calling out “Wagons Ho! Let ‘em roll!”  it was a difficult thing to replicate in play. The gunfights were a favourite. Toy guns were plentiful in the sixties – sometimes with exploding caps- and shoot-outs would soon leave everybody dead until the ‘count to seven rule’ prevented our games from becoming 60 second Hamlets, with bodies scattering the stage. Reincarnation was an essential feature of play. On days out in the country we’d seek out rocks where the baddies would hold out and the good guys could track them down and shoot them dead. Often as many as twenty times over.

The-Lone-Ranger-and-Tonto-007I lost track of Wagon Train after a while as the Lone Ranger and Champion the Wonder Horse took over as favourites: I was now at school and these were what my friends watched. When I came back to Wagon Train, Major Adams and Flint McCullough had gone and it didn’t seem the same. The Monroes briefly held my attention but The Virginian was the big one. It wasn’t universally popular in our household but if the television was on on a Friday evening then James Drury and Doug McClure would be on the chosen channel. I was never a huge fan of the title character. My allegiance would sometimes be to the amiable Trampas and sometimes to Judge Garth. One of the very few authority figures I identified with in childhood…or later. My real love were the huge exteriors, the cattle drives, the enormous skies of Wyoming. I wanted to go there. I still do.

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I was slower to come to Bonanza, Rawhide and the High Chaparral but once in the saddle, remained loyal. I’d read Children on the Oregon Trail by An Rutgers Van der Loeff and several of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books. I was aware that extreme hardship was a part of life in the west. It often got lost when the books made it to the screen. When Michael Landon defected from Bonanza to the Prairie I went with him. I never liked the adaptations of the Ingalls Wilder books but watched them all the same. The struggles of the frontier families were softened to a short actor pretending to weird an axe or drive a plough.  Charles Ingalls was always Little Joe Cartwright in disguise.

More to my liking was the well-cast Alias Smith and Jones. This was one of the great  double acts on the telly and introduced character driven storylines that were heavy on humour. Owing more than somewhat to Paul Newman and Robert Redford, Pete Duel and Ben Murphy played the handsome and reformatory ex-outlaws Hannibal Hayes and Kid Curry. I was expert in western folk-lore. I knew my James brothers from my Youngers, Kit Carson from Wild Bill, Wyatt and Virgil and Billy the Kid. But I had never heard of Hayes and Curry despite the voice-over (Roger Davis) telling us at the beginning of each episode that they were “the two most wanted outlaws in the history of the west”. I was intrigued.  When Duel tragically shot himself (in circumstances that remain mysterious), Universal insisted that production go ahead. Filming of scenes not involving Duel resumed within twelve hours of the actor’s death and by the following day Roger Davis (the erstwhile narrator) was fitted out in costumes to take over the part of Hannibal Hayes. He was good but it was too much to ask of an audience who had lost a personal favourite. The programme ended soon afterwards.

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Western films had much higher production values and carried the major stars. TV had the advantage that we stayed with the same characters week in week out. Some actors could make the cross over. Even as a child I could tell that Lee J Cobb held the screen in a more authoritative manner than Drury or McClure. Films had real trains and The Virginian had large hunks of painted plywood being pulled slowly out of shot while the sound-effects team supplied the verisimilitude. The serials would hold my attention for up to 90 minutes and leave me looking forward to picking up the adventures the following week, the feature films would take me somewhere deeper; stir something more than a love of story. Both suited me just fine.

At school I was diligent in studying Roman life and exploring the world of the Pharaohs. In tests I came half-way up the class. If we’d been tested on the western I’d have been half-way to Oxford. My love of the genre was kindled early and the fire still burns. In the fifties and sixties westerns dominated both film and tv. I didn’t know it at the time but I was tuning into the epic. Here on the plains, in the mountains and deserts of the west were being enacted the continuation of stories told by Homer and Virgil (two names, by coincidence, that are not uncommon among western characters). Here were the Greek myths with guns and stetsons. Where good and evil battled with good and evil. Where men and women played out their destinies against a landscape too huge to contemplate and events far bigger than themselves and only understood in part. The story of the west is one heck of a story and provided a canvas to carve out myths on an epic scale.

Jorge Luis Borges wrote in 1967 “I think nowadays, while literary men seem to have neglected their epic duties, the epic has been saved for us, strangely enough, by the westerns…has been saved for the world by of all places, Hollywood.”

John Ford put it more simply in The man Who Shot Liberty Valance,  “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

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And that, in my own small way, is what I am going to attempt in this blog.