Dead or alive?

Westerns - William Cook mourns the decline of TV's American cowboys

Have you noticed how children never play at being cowboys any more? Of course, it's no surprise that 21st-century kids have found far better ways of having fun than by aping the violent antics of a bunch of 19th-century American ne'er-do-wells. Yet, fortunately for their 20th-century parents, three new videos, featuring TV classics such as The Virginian and Alias Smith And Jones, should provide a menopausal memento of a lost age when cowboys still ruled the small-screen range.

Today's children are growing up in a multimedia world, but if you were unlucky enough to be a child when Wild Harold Wilson or Edward "the Kid" Heath was Marshal, your only technological lifeline was television. In those bad old days before video, we were at the mercy of the TV schedule, and peak-time telly was in thrall to the tough-loving moral allegories of America's Wild West. I doubt many Americans lapped up our Victorian costume dramas with anything like the same devotion, but the fiercest passions are rarely reciprocated, and if any show wore a ten-gallon hat and a gun belt, we couldn't get enough of it.

When I was a kid, cowboys seemed to be on the telly all the time. We copied their every shoot-'em-up with an arsenal of replica firearms that might have made even the National Rifle Association shudder. It didn't matter that the last classic cowboy had hung up his Stetson a century ago. Back in the Seventies, a family holiday in America was something most folk could only dream of, so the Wild West, where the sun shone and there was enough prairie for everyone (well, everyone apart from the people who lived there in the first place) was the perfect fantasy for our spartan yet optimistic era. It wasn't just escapism. The High Chaparral broke new ground by giving the Red Indians (or Native Americans, as we were later taught to call them) an even break, while Branded, a series about a soldier wrongly convicted of cowardice, doubled as a metaphor for McCarthyite persecution. But the genre's greatest legacy was its huge posse of rising stars.

The gold rush began in 1955, when the radio series Gunsmoke migrated to telly, quickly becoming America's most popular programme. Its writers included Sam Peckinpah, who also created TV's The Westerner. Peckinpah wasn't the only famous film director who directed TV westerns. Robert Altman directed TV's Bonanza; the producer of Charlie's Angels, Aaron Spelling, wrote for Wagon Train, a show so popular over here that Harold Wilson reputedly wanted to contest the 1959 general election on a day when it wasn't on TV, in case it kept the Labour vote at home. Wilson's Wild West wisdom didn't do Hugh Gaitskell much good: Harold Macmillan's Tories were returned with an increased majority.

There was a similar glut of talent in front of the TV cameras. These credits read like a prophetic Hollywood who's who. Clint Eastwood played bit parts in Wagon Train, before finding his feet as the fresh-faced star of Rawhide, where he was spotted by Sergio Leone, and cast in the spaghetti westerns that made his name. Steve McQueen became a star as a bounty hunter in Wanted: Dead or Alive. Tales of Wells Fargo featured an early appearance by Jack Nicholson. The Men from Shiloh featured Stewart Granger and the Six Million Dollar Man Lee Majors, plus a theme tune by Ennio Morricone, who composed the scores for The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, and Once Upon a Time in the West.

Robert Redford was a guest star in The Virginian, and his partnership with Paul Newman in the movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was echoed in another of TV's best-loved westerns. In 1971, Pete Duel and Ben Murphy almost matched the friendly knockabout of Newman and Redford, in Alias Smith and Jones, a feel-good romp about two lovable rogues trying to stick to the straight and narrow. Yet, later that year, Duel shot himself, after watching the show in his Hollywood home; and when Gunsmoke trotted off into the sunset in 1975, still in the top 30 after 20 years in the saddle, TV was shorn of its last traditional western. By the late Seventies, trigger-happy viewers were reduced to watching that homesteading soap, Little House on the Prairie.

The decline of the TV cowboys mirrored the demise of their real-life ancestors. Like their televisual counterparts, the proper cowboys only prospered for a few decades. After the United States annexed Texas, in 1845, Texan ranchers started driving cattle overland, as far afield as California, and after the end of the civil war, in 1865, they forged fresh trails, up into Missouri, Kansas, Colorado and Nebraska. The cowboy career plan was pretty simple: sign on as a hired hand; spend several months driving thousands of cattle thousands of miles, from range to railhead; spend all your wages during several drunken days; repeat ad infinitum. However, even home on the range, there was no such thing as a job for life. The remorseless westward spread of farms and railroads, with their associated innovations such as barbed wire and refrigeration, forced both cows and cowboys ever further west, and the savage winter of 1885 almost finished them off altogether.

It's easy to see why this brief transition between America's past and present became such a popular template for a young nation still hungry for legends to call its own. These make-believe cowboys bore only scant resemblance to their factual forebears, but the most potent myths always transform reportage into saga. America farmed the Wild West for elemental epics, and used the flickering screen to teach the world this fictional version of its evolution. America's mythic history found its apotheosis in 1980, when Ronald Reagan was elected president; but back home in humdrum Britain, we loved America's TV cowboys for a very different reason. Not because they were everything we thought we were, but because they were everything we knew we weren't.

Yet maybe the real reason why we adore small-screen westerns is that their deepest roots aren't in American folk tales, but in far older British fables such as Robin Hood. After all, wasn't Robin's favourite foe some sort of sheriff? Indeed, the only reason why TV cowboys such as Smith and Jones wouldn't have felt perfectly at home in Sherwood Forest was that, when they robbed the rich, they kept the money for themselves.

The Virginian, The Men from Shiloh and Alias Smith and Jones are available in video and music shops, price £10.99 each or £20 for a set of all three