It wasn't what Ralph Waldo Emerson had in mind when he wrote, "And fired the shot heard round the world" in his Concord Hymn to honour the first engagement of the American War of Independence. Nevertheless, it was the shot heard by hundreds of millions of people in 1980, when the diabolical Machiavel in a Stetson, JR Ewing, was gunned down.
It was that year's news event. It may also have been the year of an Olympic boycott, the elections of Ronald Reagan and Robert Mugabe and a strike at a Polish shipyard in Gdansk, but the attempted assassination (murder is far too pedestrian a term) of a pantomime TV villain captured the zeitgeist. Now, more than 30 years later, Dallas is back. A new pilot is to be filmed and aired later this year.
I remember watching the first episode to be broadcast on British TV. I must admit to being slightly perplexed by the rolling split screen titles and the sub-disco soundtrack, but by 1980 I was in no doubt as to the show's significance. I was at boarding school and I remember getting into a very heated argument with a rather sententious contemporary who argued that the outcome of a television cliffhanger should not make the BBC TV news headlines. I was of course equally vehement in my opinion that it should – when young one feels such things so passionately. I think history proved me right: my mental video library can still retrieve and replay the news footage of the programme tapes arriving under armed guard at Heathrow's Old Terminal 2 and the only other television news event of that year which has resisted erasure from my visual memory is the storming of the Iranian Embassy.
Dallas was the thoroughly American riposte to what Upstairs Downstairs had been in Britain during the 1970s, a long running family saga firmly and recognisably anchored in the national stereotype: cue big-hatted villain in cowboy country and imperturbable butler in Belgravia respectively.
Of the two, Dallas is by far the more the significant; echoing the dynastic sweep of the 1956 film Giant, but always hammed up for extra dramatic tension and running for a very dynastic 13 years, the final episode airing in 1991. For plot twists and dramatic devices, the show's writers plundering the forms of Jacobean revenge tragedy (Cliff Barnes perennially plotting the overthrow of J R Ewing); the magic realist tradition of Latin America (an entire season of the show took place in a dream); and Dickens: in the final episode of the last series, a Scrooge-like JR is shown, in a dream sequence of course, how the lives of others might have evolved had he never been.
This was epic, confident American television, so unlike the forensic introspective mood of Mad Men with its glacial pace and fetishistic attention to period detail. Here were characters without much nuance or psychological development; but it was diverting, propelled by eternal emotions: greed, lust, hatred, jealousy.
And yet, it spoke eloquently of a time in US history. Launched in the afterglow of the bicentennial, at a time when memories of Watergate and Vietnam were beginning to fade, the show became a national totem: not for nothing is J R's hat in the Smithsonian. It was prescient too: prefiguring the Greed is Good message of Wall Street by a decade. But in a way it portrayed a more honest world, a world in which fortunes were derived from tangible assets such as oil and cattle rather than abstract financial instruments.
Today, the more recondite areas of high finance discredited, oil remains as important as ever. But the revival of Dallas testifies to the enduring and powerful appeal of nostalgia in troubled times; a retreat into familiar territory, mirrored on this side of the Atlantic with the return of Upstairs Downstairs over Christmas.Reuse content