Friday, 8 March 2013


I have a review in this week's Times Literary Supplement of a fine new book about the American photographer Maynard L. Parker. His Kodachrome images of stylish mid-century interiors appeared in 'shelter magazines', and most influentially in House Beautiful, edited by Elizabeth Gordon and used by her as a bully pulpit to promote an American alternative to the austerity of international modernism.

Here's a paragraph from the TLS review (which I extract as a preamble to what follows):

[A] useful starting point for newcomers is the Stephens residence at 1164 Morning Glory Circle, Westport, Connecticut. This was the fictional address of the mortal advertising executive Darren Stephens and his sorceress wife Samantha in the popular 1960s television show Bewitched. Their open-plan house featured the kind of decor approved by the editor of House Beautiful - bare brick fireplaces, acres of pale unpatterned carpets, large lamps, hefty glass-topped tables, low-backed sofas, splashy abstract artworks and shelves of fat books and pre-Columbian knick knacks, with lots of textures and colours and casually square good taste. Their world, supernatural mayhem aside, seemed stable and secure and contented.

Remember Bewitched? It was one of a string of imported American sit coms with a suburban setting and a supernatural slant. I Dream of Jeannie was another, in which a Chuck Yeager-style astronaut (played, I suddenly remember, by the late Larry Hagman) had his own glamorous djinn (Barbara Eden, in a sexy candy-coloured harem outfit). Mix-ups ensued, with (as we used to say) "hilarious results".

There's an undertow of occult mayhem in Cold War American television sitcoms - spectral allies and adversaries, sudden transformations and anarchic inversions, with time frozen, accelerated and even reversed. We mortals were at the sharp end of random spiritual antics, our destinies prone to arbitrary unseen interventions. It's almost as if . . .  but enough already. I need hardly add that I had a teenage crush on the glamorous Elizabeth Montgomery, who played Samantha Stephens - a fine comic actress who perfected the rarely-seen triple-take when at odds with her gormless spouse Darren, played by Dick York.

I also recall Sam's eccentric relations - her snapdragon mother Endora (played by Agnes Moorhead, a long way from Citizen Kane), her groovy mini-skirted dark-haired cousin (played in split-screen by Montgomery) and above all her outrageously camp uncle Arthur who had a wonderfully sardonic nasal whine. He was played by Paul Lynde (1926-82) who clearly relished the role and delivered every line with a rich cackle, a roll of the eyes and the threat of supernatural anarchy. 

He and the epicene Dr Zachary Smith (of Lost in Space fame) were my generation's earliest exposure to theatrical camp acting (although neither of them appeared to be acting so much as simply being themselves, only more so.) Smith, played with feline ambiguity by the excellent Jonathan Harris, was a dazzlingly elaborate monster - vain, cowardly, and amoral. He constantly aspired to better things, European things - fine wines, haute cuisine, the life of the mind - and had a wonderfully antagonistic relationship with the butch, barrel-chested robot ("Danger! Danger!") and a freckle-faced boy named Will, a Sissy Spacek lookalike.

I suppose Dr Smith and Sam's uncle Arthur had their British counterparts in Charles Hawtrey and Kenneth Williams in the hard-to-admire Carry On film series, the real difference being the regular weekly exposure of the two Americans to younger, tea-time audiences.

Was camp witchcraft a creative response to Cold War paranoia? Susan Sontag doesn't say anything about this in her celebrated essay. The academics contributing to the Maynard L. Parker book are united in seeing the once-desirable suburban ranch houses he photographed, and in which the Stephens lived so eventfully, as essentially flawed - not aesthetically but as models for living.

Attractive to parents with young families who could afford them, they soon became suffocatingly isolated environments for housewives and teenagers, and today seem to represent everything that's wrong with the American Dream. The end of the Cold War and its associated anxieties rendered these plush retreats unappealing, but the entirely fictional Stephens' residence is still my dream home.

No comments:

Post a Comment