FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological, sociological*
The best BATMAN episodes in terms of mythic discourse are those in which the heroes, despite playing their adventure-tropes “straight,” encounter ironic versions of real-world cultural constructs. “Death in Slow Motion” lampoons Old Hollywood, while “Penguin is a Girl’s Best Friend” takes on both contemporary Hollywood and the American military. For whatever reason, “The Londinium Larcenies” is the only third-season episode that succeeds in blending action with absurdity.
The production team behind “Larcenies” makes skillful use of limited sets and props to convey the illusion that the Gotham heroes have picked up and moved to a crazy-mirror version of modern London, called “Londinium”—the only time, indeed, when the show’s action takes place outside Gotham City. Writers Elkan Allen and Charles Hoffman provide a fine cross-section of typical English locales—a smoky pub full of “footpads,” a simulacrum of London Bridge, and “venerable Ireland Yard.” (The latter is the set of Commissioner Gordon’s office given some minor revisions and explained by the notion that police commissioners’ offices around the world are all pretty much the same.) At the same time, these icons of Merrie Old England are counterpointed by images of “mod London,” exemplified by the fashions of what the show calls “Barnaby Street.” More importantly, the three villains are also divided along the lines of age and youth. The effect is that Allan and Hoffman’s script succeeds in depicting the British sea-change in culture than any Bat-episode was able to accomplish re: American cultural changes.
Batman and Robin are summoned to Londinum to investigate a rash of big-ticket crimes, but naturally, they’re not the only ones who make the trip. The Duo travel under the identities of Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson, along with Alfred, while Commissioner Gordon and daughter Barbara take the same ocean liner. Gordon’s ostensible reason is to be Gotham’s liaison, though he ends up doing almost nothing, while Barbara’s motive is implicitly to change into Batgirl and render aid to the Duo. Bruce Wayne also arranges for the Batmobile to be shipped to the ersatz England, and he, Dick and Alfred even whp up a junior-league version of the Batcave as a base of operations. (Later in the episode, Aunt Harriet also journeys to Londinium for no good reason. Since this was just one of actress Madge Blake’s two appearances in the third season, possibly the producers were just shoehorning her in whenever it proved convenient, given her ailing status.)
The British villains don’t sport outrageous costumes, though they do have a small arsenal of weird weapons. One such device, the Pipe of Fog, allows its master to make concealing fogbanks more impenetrable than the real ones in Old Blighty—and thus two of the villains, Lord Marmaduke Ffogg (Rudy Vallee) and his sister Lady Penelope Peasoup (Glynis Johns) are free to plunder the vaults of other aristocratic scions without anyone suspecting their ilicit activities. Batman seems to figure out Lord Ffogg’s guilt right away, though the Londinium Commissioner refuses to believe ill of any peers of the realm. The script never gives any reason for these representatives of the British class-system to pursue a career in crime, though one bit of circumstantial evidence suggests that maybe they’re stealing from their richer cousins because Ffogg Manor has fallen on hard times. In general, rich aristocrats don’t have to host finishing schools in their homes, as Ffogg and Peasoup do, even though their institution doubles as a school for crime. But it’s Ffogg’s daughter Lady Prudence (Lyn Peters), the villainous representative of Young Mod England, who runs the school, consisting of herself and four trainees in the art of shoplifting. (Thanks to these young ladies, Robin gets more favorable feminine attention here than he does in all the other episodes combined.)
Ffogg and Peasoup (wonder what happened to the man who gave her that surname?) present a united front against the colonial crimefighters. Yet Prudence has some vague aspirations of undermining her father and aunt, since she confesses to Robin right away that she runs a school for crime. However, the script never clarifies her endgame, though one might guess it has something to do with making sure her own hands stay clean while her father and aunt do time for their criminal activities.
Ffogg himself is not much more consistent. Once he realizes he’s under suspicion by the crusaders, he sends his liveried thugs to ambush (and presumably kill) the heroes. With the providential aid of Batgirl, the heroes fight off the thugs. Later, though, Batman is overpowered by Ffogg’s goons after a raucous pub-brawl, and Ffogg is content to annihilate Batman’s memory and let him wander off instead of killing him. (Alfred restores the crimefighter’s memory with the usual miraculous Bat-gadget.) Peasoup uses her girl students to abduct Robin (who’s too much the gentleman to fight girls) and then puts him a death-trap, to be cut in half by a winch in Tower Bridge. Even Prudence, despite her intent to play both ends against the middle, can’t resist getting in on all the scrumptious villainy. Robin, having survived the death-trap, makes his way back to Ffogg Manor and promptly stumbles into the hive of an African “death bee” that resides on the grounds. Prudence, something of a “queen bee in training” herself, takes avid pleasure in the sight of Robin with a deadly bee squatting on his hand, preparing to sting him—not to mention the aftermath, when he’s been stung and is supposedly awaiting extinction. (Naturally, he has an “African death bee antidote pill” and so escapes death.)
There’s a lot of other cheerful tomfoolery throughout this three-parter, including a dungeon, poison gas pellets that don’t work right, Alfred jogging and Batman performing the Indian rope trick. To be sure, most of the humor falls into the clever-zany category rather than into the bailiwick of true camp. That said, “Larcenies” would be the last time an episode successfully displayed a wealth of imaginative situations characteristic of the comic books from which they drew.