Thursday, 7 April 2016


My obituary of Earl Hamner is up at the Guardian online, you can link to it here. It shoud be in the paper paper soon. The focus of the obit, of course, is The Waltons.  I mentioned that the show appeared just as Fred Silverman was cutting all the country programming that had been so popular, and his instincts, while perhaps not quite perfect (since many of those shows continued to do well in syndicated re-runs) were accurate as far as The Waltons went. The family were the antithesis of the Beverly Hillbillies, but the show's success ran deeper than that. 

America was coming out of the Sixties into a 'me' decade whose lifestyle conflicts presaged the present day even more than the Sixties did. The Waltons may have reminded younger people about the realities of their parents' own childhoods; there was a sense among many in those times that while they may have been rebelling against society, per se, they did not actually hate, or want to be estranged from their families. 

It also had a fairy-tale sort of verisimilitude, because it was Hamner's own life as he idealised it, or as he wanted it to be. If you doubt this, take a look at how much Richard Thomas, as the eldest son John-Boy, resembled the young Hamner.

The isolated world of Walton's Mountain in the Thirties was a surprisingly liberal place, something signalled by Will Geer, blacklisted actor, singer, Communist and activist—who created a garden at the American Shakespeare Theatre in the town next to the one where I grew up. Grandpa, had seeded leadership to his son, played by Ralph Waite, a former social worker and divinity student; who after The Waltons would run for Congress as a Democrat and lose three times. The Waltons preached tolerance, equality, and responsibility—it may have been sentimental but it was easy to feel its heart was in the right place.

The adult leads were fine: Michael Learned was the saintly mother, Ellen Corby brilliant as the crochety grandma. The children were a bit too clean, too glowing, too nice and nowhere near dusty enough for farm children, but you could almost believe in them as country folk. All that is, except for Mary Ellen, the oldest girl; Judy Norton-Taylor, who played her, sounded like she'd walked out of a house in suburban California in 1969.

I also mentioned that Hamner's adaptation of Charlotte's Web was excellent; I watched it any number of times when Nate was little, and it was guaranteed to move me. Hamner was certainly sentimental, but when he was on at least it was a strength. And sentiment often appeals to the cynics among us.

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