Christmas Flu with The Waltons by John A. A. Logan
I should have known my fate was sealed when the bloke on the bus beside me commenced to cough all the way into town.
Those microbes then took a few days to work their evil magic on me, until it was time for the helter skelter ride through tunnel darknesses which can sometimes accompany germ infestation.
Sometimes a flu/cold is like enforced meditation in a cell; Christmas cold/flu has that added frisson of feeling you are in the cell while others are enjoying unusual freedoms.
Each night these new inner demons had the upper hand, but I knew if I could get through to 6am, a bright spot would emerge to start the day – The Waltons, on Freeview Channel 61, the “True Entertainment” channel.
I hadn’t seen The Waltons on tv since the 1980s, but by then I would have become jaded by seeing too much of them, so it would have been the 1970s when the programme had initially held me transfixed in some odd sway.
So, last flu-filled Christmas I watched again, to see if the thing still mesmerised, or would it be yet another case of a thing wearing that Old Emperor’s New Clothes, and disappointing…
I think I was fortunate, catching the Season 1 episodes, day after day, at 6am.
The actors had no idea how this new drama they had signed up to was going to be received in 1972, so there was a purity and inwardness in their motions often (perhaps like Jack Kerouac’s “poor, pure, and inward” mantra).
A pilot TV film for The Waltons had been released in 1971, though, entitled The Homecoming, and that must have gone well enough, but there still must have been the risk that a whole series of episodes, coming out a year later, could easily have fallen flat, not received those necessary “ratings”, and been dumped unceremoniously.
So, it seems sometimes, watching the Season 1 episodes, there’s a lack of expectation, of self-consciousness, in the acting, one that won’t quite be there later, as if the ensemble troupe is performing just for the sake of it, with no thought of future rewards.
I descended into internal monologue eulogy a little, while reviewing Waltons episodes I’d not seen for 40 years, thinking how much higher the quality of work produced was back then, that this seemed to indicate a time when the Profit margin was not the only god, but, of course, that flu in my system still kept me cynical enough to Google the facts, and double check them…only to find out that what I had supposed to be the early less cynical time, fostering of good works, was perhaps even more cynical than the present one we inhabit:
‘Some sources indicate CBS put the show on its Fall 1972 schedule in response to congressional hearings on the quality of television. Backlash from a 1971 decision to purge most rural-oriented shows from the network lineup may have also been a factor. The network gave The Waltons an undesirable timeslot – Thursdays at 8 p.m., opposite two popular programs: The Flip Wilson Show on NBC and The Mod Squad on ABC. "The rumor was that they put it against Flip Wilson and The Mod Squad because they didn't think it would survive. They thought, 'We can just tell Congress America doesn't want to see this'," Kami Cotler, who played Elizabeth Walton, said in a 2012 interview. Ralph Waite was reluctant to audition for the part of John Walton because he didn't want to be tied to a long-running TV series, but his agent persuaded him by saying, "It will never sell. You do the pilot. You pick up a couple of bucks and then you go back to New York."
So, a project set up, cynically, to fail, it seems, never expected to survive or thrive.
And yet it did.
I think my favourite episode was probably “The Star”, originally broadcast in 1972:
‘A meteorite crashes through the roof of the Baldwin sisters' “Recipe” room, which they take as some kind of sign from their dead Papa. Grandpa Walton takes it as a sign of his own impending death’
Grandpa Walton certainly does. He takes to his bed, waiting resolutely and superstitiously for death to come.
First, his family console him, cajole him, then emotionally blackmail him, anything to get him out of that bed. Not even when his son unleashes some desperate, plaintive anger at him will Grandpa Walton get up.
Only when someone thinks to place a chunk of the fallen meteorite into Grandpa's hands, and the mundane physical reality of the object eclipses the symbolic portent the rock had come to assume in his mind, does Grandpa get up out of that bed, free again.
That meteorite itself may seem a strange visitor to a “rural drama”, but, of course, these stories are based on the real-life family home of the writer, Earl Hamner Jr.
First there had been a book by Hamner, called Spencer’s Mountain, then a 1963 film of the same name, so by the time the family is called “The Waltons” in the 1970s, this story, or series of stories, has been distilled for decades, or at least the inspiration behind them has (almost all the episode scripts were written by authors other than Hamner).
That’s Hamner’s real voice there, though, at the beginning and end of each episode, speaking the later John-Boy’s thoughts, and John-Boy is the young Hamner, aspirant writer living on the land during the 1930s depression, receiving extraordinary support from his whole family for this “Dream of being a Writer” that has somehow gotten into his head…especially from Grandma…
John-Boy is, in fact, the prototypical rural writer, with many of the early episodes showing him sending off his short stories to magazines as far-flung as New York, and then agonising over the rejection letters which had started to pile up at Postmaster, Ike Godsey’s, General Mercantile shop.
Sitting at the dinner table one day, staring at one of these letters, Grandma encounters him:
“Why didn’t they want it?” she says.
“I don’t know. They don’t say. They just say it’s not what they’re looking for at the moment,” replies an existentially seething John-Boy.
“So maybe it’s what they’ll be looking for another time. Or maybe you send them something else. No good sending them a goose if they’re looking for eggs this month.”
“I don’t know! I don’t know! All I know, Grandma, is, if this keeps going on, I’ll have enough of these to paper the walls of my room.”
“Well, then you’ll be warm, won’t you, when the wind blows.”
Scary, perhaps, to think how many young, farm-dwelling, children around the world may have been led, by John-Boy’s example, into believing they too could become writers some day if they worked hard.
It was a bit of a long journey round, though, for Hamner, before arriving back at his source material of Spencer’s/Hamner’s/Walton’s mountain again.
En route, he would write, among other things, 8 episodes of The Twilight Zone:
“The Hunt”, in which a man’s hound dog saves him from entering the Gates to Hell; “A Piano in the House”, which involves a player piano which makes the listener reveal their deepest feelings; “Jess-Belle”, who transforms into a leopard from midnight til dawn; “Ring-a-Ding-Girl”, about an actress whose ghost saves a townful of people’s lives; “You Drive”, in which a car rebels against its owner; “Black Leather Jackets”, in which an advance alien invasion force is sent to Earth to infect city water reservoirs with bacteria; “Stopover in a Quiet Town”, which sees a couple abducted to a planet as pets for a giant’s daughter, as punishment for drinking and driving; and Earl Hamner Jr also had the distinction of being the author of The Bewitchin’ Pool, the final, 156th episode of The Twilight Zone, in which children dive into a pool and disappear into another, happier, world.
So, not lacking in cosmic or fantastical imagination then, old Earl Hamner Jr!
And yet, he found himself returning finally, for his stories, to that rural mountain youth of woodcutting, community, animals, family, nature, moonshine, and, yes, some superstition.
When I first watched those Waltons episodes, aged about 8 in the 1970s, I was living in similar circumstances myself, to an extent, my own 1895-born grandfather living in the room below me in an old farmhouse, perhaps annoyed by hearing the television above his head, and himself heading out daily to chop sticks for his fire, though he was over 80.
I don’t have any photograph of my own grandfather chopping sticks, so here’s one of Grandpa Walton instead, with Grandma beside him, and what looks to be quite a hefty looking pig indeed (but don’t ask me about pigs, we only had sheep and cattle on our farm)(in fact, don’t ask me about sheep and cattle, that germ of an idea of being a writer got into my head at such an early age, much blame going to Earl Hamner Jr perhaps, and served as such a strong distraction from then on, that I never did learn very much about sheep and cattle either):