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2 October 2014updated 10 Oct 2014 8:37am

Mark Lawson: What the boy Batman tells us about TV prequels

Gotham follows an established formula in applying to fictional CVs the nostalgic-ironic tactics of TV archive series such as Before They Were Famous.

By Mark Lawson

In choosing an adult name for his superhero identity, Batman subliminally encouraged speculation about a younger self, and an American series arriving in Britain this month is a sort of Batboy. Gotham, screened here by Channel 5, depicts the events that made Bruce Wayne grow up to be a secretive millionaire with an English manservant and a high-flying night-life in black rubber.

Gotham becomes the third spin-back from a big movie character in the current TV schedules, joining Bates Motel (Universal Channel), which dramatises the adolescence of the man whose bathroom issues were explored in Hitchcock’s Psycho, and Hannibal (Sky), in which we meet younger versions of the FBI’s Will Graham and Dr Lecter from the works of Thomas Harris.

Gotham follows the other two series in applying to fictional CVs the nostalgic-ironic tactics of TV archive series such as Before They Were Famous. Here are villains such as The Joker and Penguin (before they were infamous) and the character later known as Police Commissioner Gordon is a young cop on the Gotham force, investigating the murder of the parents of a boy called Bruce Wayne.

The obvious attraction of such shows to broadcasters is that, in a digital marketplace crammed with calls on viewers’ attention, they arrive already knowing the backstory (or, strictly, front-story). When the English actor Sean Pertwee introduces himself as Alfred Pennyworth, not only do we immediately know that he is a valet but, in our movie-shaped imaginations, he grows up to become Michael Caine.

But, depressingly, Gotham, Bates Motel and Hannibal have almost identical motivations, seeking to justify the later behaviour of the protagonists – Bruce’s benevolence, the malevolence of Norman and Lecter – through events of their childhood, a Freudian reductionism that is already present in the adult narratives (especially in Harris’s prequel novel, Hannibal Rising), but never as simplistically. The boy Bruce is haunted by his inability to intervene in his parents’ murder but this feels a flimsy psychological explanation for soaring over cities at night dressed as a bat.

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Viewers who are not fanatics of the franchises may also tire of storylines that depend almost entirely for effect on us knowing what comes next. Every moment when the young Bruce looks down from a height or teenage Norman walks past a shower head can feel like those war movies in which the hero is first seen playing with toy soldiers.

The trio of shows can be seen as evidence of the popularity of film franchises as a source of TV drama, although, in the case of Gotham, the traffic between big and small screen is more complicated, Batman having been a brief but much-repeated American TV show in the 1960s.

And, increasingly, the road between TV and cinema is successfully two-way. Whereas, in the past, hit Britcoms such as The Likely Lads or Are You Being Served? would be turned into a flop movie, The Inbetweeners and Mrs Brown’s Boys have become financial, though not critical, hits.

There is also an intriguing subset of TV classics that grew out of films without most viewers even noticing. The 11 seasons and long syndicated afterlife of M*A*S*H grew far beyond its origins in Robert Altman’s cult 1970 film, based on the same books about an army hospital in the Korean war, while The West Wing (NBC, 1999 to 2006) is chiselled on TV’s Mount Rushmore, far overshadowing the 1995 film The American President, with which it shared a screenwriter, Aaron Sorkin, and the same set re-creating the White House.

Gotham, though visually striking, will surely prove, like Bates Motel and Hannibal, to be a B-movie in comparison with the films that made it so attractive to television.

Condescending Wonka: his stage debut

Another intense cultural competition exists between theatre and the internet. Playhouses fear the web, in the way that print media do, as a potential thief of revenue and customers, though some companies have pioneeringly explored streaming as a way of reaching broader audiences, as the Hampstead Theatre in London did with Howard Brenton’s play #aiww.

The Royal Court Theatre is now staging its second recent production that attempts to put online on stage. Following Jen­nifer Haley’s The Nether, in which actors played fictional characters and their avatars on a fantasy site, Tim Price’s Teh Internet Is Serious Business aims to dramatise the virtual world without ever using film or screens.

The web itself is a pit of brightly coloured balls, while code-writing is represented by dance and internet memes such as Condescending Wonka take physical form.

Both plays are eloquent about the political possibilities and the moral risks of digital interaction – but surely people go to the theatre to get away from the internet. Trying to theatricalise screen culture feels like a vicar trying to fill the pews by asking a Satanist to preach.

“Teh Internet Is Serious Business” is at the Royal Court Theatre, London SW1, until 25 October

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