I AM SITTING in a room within the Southfork Ranch listening to my tour guide describe a property that will feel familiar to a generation of television viewers who followed the fortunes of a singular Texan family. When the original series of Dallas was being filmed, Southfork belonged to the Acres, who lived here while renting out the exterior for filming.
At first the location was kept secret, but as time went on and the programme’s fame grew, word got out. Soon the Acres were finding strangers swimming in the “Ewing pool”. When JR was shot in 1980 — an episode estimated to have been watched by 350 million people — they received “get well soon” cards addressed to the world’s favourite villain.
This blurring of fact and fiction happens a lot on my soap-opera pilgrimage to this Texan city. TV3 is screening the new series, which saw JR rise from his old people’s home and head back to Southfork to cause merry hell once again. The feud with his brother Bobby is reignited, only this time a whole new generation of Ewings will be joining in the never-ending wrangle over the family jewels.
It’s a big event for us Dallas-lovers, who have waited 21 years for this moment — its return drills into the memories of our youth and strikes a deep well of Eighties nostalgia. As soon as I touch down in Fort Worth, however, it becomes obvious that the Dallas of my childhood no longer exists, if it ever did.
Patrick Duffy, who plays saintly Bobbly Ewing, explains that Dallas was very different when the first episodes were shot in 1978: “The city had not become the cosmopolitan, metropolitan place it is now — there is the East Coast and West Coast, and Dallas is now referred to as the “Third Coast”. It was full of Texans. You walked down the streets and there were more cowboy hats than you could imagine — and people really did wear cowboy boots with their suits.”
Most of the oil companies have long gone, moving out in the late Eighties and early Nineties. The residents of Dallas, which in places feels like a mini-New York, believe the on-screen city was nothing like the real one; they feel misrepresented on a global scale. I saw only one person on the street in a cowboy hat during my trip, and he was selling them to tourists.
That’s not to say there isn’t plenty to sate the appetites of a diehard Dallas fan like me, but for genuine cowboy culture you have to venture slightly farther out to the suburbs or nearby Fort Worth, where on some streets it can still feel as though you’ve wandered on to the set of a western.
There’s a rodeo in Mesquite, just outside the city. It seems a fitting place to visit: the Ewing family held an annual rodeo, after all, where Sue Ellen could forget her troubles and lust after young cowboys for an evening. When I go backstage I can see why: the testosterone is overwhelming; men swagger around in leather chaps, strapping up their hands with tape and hugging each other before they head out for what the rodeo’s owner describes as “eight seconds of sheer violence”. One by one they return from the ring, covered in sweat, battered, bruised and some with broken limbs. At this point, his assertion that the “bulls don’t just want you off their back, they want you dead” seems less fanciful.
I am pretty sure I’m the only person spending the whole evening worrying about the well-being of the animals, in particular the skinny calves being chased by lasso-wielding cowboys. Considering the way these Texan farmers treat their children, animal welfare is unlikely to be high on their agenda.
At one point, a three-year-old boy is placed on the back of a rodeo sheep; the sheep is given a slap, shoots out of its pen like a rocket; the child falls off within seconds and bursts into tears; the audience cheers.
Next day I visit the HatCo hat factory, in Garland, where Stetsons are handmade, and find myself chatting to three men about the size of Patrick Duffy’s head. Apparently he takes a size eight, which is huge. “I had to crank that sucker up,” says one of the men, describing his attempts to squeeze the hat onto Duffy’s head. All three collapse into laughter, their own Stetsons shaking with their merriment.
It is here that I meet Wild Bill, owner of a western store, a Texan in his sixties who has supplied boots and hats to the likes of Ronald Reagan, Elton John and Mick Jagger, as well as to the Dallas cast, past and current. Wild Bill (I never find out his real name and he seems puzzled that I ask) is, in my eyes, the embodiment of the archetypal Texan male.
When he was 15, Wild Bill played guitar in a strip club owned by Jack Ruby (the killer of Lee Harvey Oswald, who had assassinated John F Kennedy) and he is friendly with Larry Hagman; he also appears in the new series as the escort of Lucy Ewing, JR’s niece.
I tell him, without thinking, that many Irish people know her as the “Poison Dwarf ” — the nickname given to her by Terry Wogan on his radio show. His eyes narrow. “Poison Dwarf ?” he asks incredulously. I feel nervous. He then roars into laughter.
Wild Bill accompanies me to Cowboys Stadium, home of the Dallas Cowboys American football team, which features heavily in both the original series and the new one. Nowhere exemplifies more the “bigger is better” attitude of Texans, and the philosophy of overstatement helps me to a proper understanding of the show.
It is home to the most absurdly expensive television screen on the planet — measuring seven storeys high and 60 yards long, all in glorious high definition — which alone cost $40m. Stuffed full of marble, another 3,500 television screens and forests of orchids, the stadium itself cost $1bn. The staff who work there tread a thin line between extreme job satisfaction and behaving as though they are part of a cult.
As Linda Gray — who reprises her role as JR’s long-suffering wife, Sue Ellen — points out on the phone, there is a lot of wealth in Dallas. The oil industry may have mostly gone but there is still lots of old oil money sloshing about.
And new money too: the city has the third-highest concentration of Fortune 500 companies in the country and more restaurants per capita than New York.
“There’s been no recession in Texas, as Larry likes to say!” says Gray. “You see constant building at all times. It’s a very thriving community. It’s still evolving and changing.”
Indeed, Dallas is now a modern, shiny city with a skyline of skyscrapers of various colours, shapes and sizes. The Reunion Tower is one of the most noticeable — it looks like a tower with a golf ball on top and is home to Five Sixty, the chef Wolfgang Puck’s revolving restaurant.
Lower down, the city is a mixture of red-brick warehouse buildings, glass-fronted towers and an increasing amount of green space. Head out from the centre, and you see the familiar bungalows that cover much of suburban America.
When Gray and Hagman filmed the original series, they stayed at The Mansion on Turtle Creek — close to where the former president George W Bush and his wife, Laura, now live. Built to resemble an Italian palazzo, the mansion is one of a chain of luxury hotels owned by Caroline Rose Hunt, a close friend of Gray’s, whose mega-monied oil family is rumoured to have been the inspiration for the Ewings.
Dallas has had more need to reinvent itself than other cities, of course, having received the worst kind of PR in the early Sixties. Two words: “grassy knoll”.
According to the former television film critic Gary Cogill, now a film producer for Lascaux Films, the Dallas series was initially a welcome distraction from the other event for which the city is famous: the assassination of John F Kennedy.
“Dallas was trying to get rid of the very real stigma of Kennedy getting shot here, and the TV programme directed the attention away from this. The stigma of assassinating the president was effectively replaced by the stigma of these crazy rich Texans,” he says.
Dallas now markets itself as a cultured, sophisticated city. There is art everywhere: statues on the pavement, artefacts from Coco Chanel’s riviera home displayed in the Dallas Museum of Art and Miró’s moonbird sculpture in the garden of the Nasher Sculpture Center.
There is even public art, in Dallas’s biggest shopping centre (including an Antony Gormley piece), the elegant NorthPark Center shopping mall. Richard Rogers has also been over and designed the Winspear Opera House, a beautiful cube wrapped in red glass.
Now those crazy rich Texans are back and the local population is clearly relieved that the programme is, at long last, representing a Dallas that they recognise.
As the producer of the new series, Ken Topolsky, explains: “It’s a city with optimism — Dallas isn’t going to wait for its destiny to find it, and, to a large extent, that is what our show is about.”