My guilty secret for today – I love ‘Columbo’. No, not Colombo, capital city of Sri Lanka, but Columbo, dishevelled Los Angeles murder squad detective in the 1970s TV detective series of the same name. I’ve just watched an episode this afternoon – it’s sort of comfort TV for me, I have to admit. No matter how smart the villain, how heinous the crime, you know that Columbo will eventually get his man (or woman) – you even get to see, in the first 15 minutes or so, the murder take place, who did it and how he did it. The trick for Columbo, and the entertainment for the viewers, is trying to work out what tiny error the villain of the piece has made that will eventually be spotted by our scruffy and (at first glance) slow-witted hero and that will lead to their downfall.
Yes, it’s a derivative and predictable formula – and I think that that’s what makes it such wonderful ‘comfort TV’ – you know roughly what you’re going to get, how it’ll be paced, etc. Classic ‘cliche’ Westerns were known as ‘horse operas’ – they had the same predictability of structure as did theatrical operas. The 1930s and 1940s saw the rise of the ‘space opera’ in science fiction – similarly stylised stories based on mainstream adventures, and of course we’re all aware of the soap opera – the less said about that particular genre, the better! 🙂
Columbo is undeniably ‘crime opera’ – it grew out of a series called ‘Mystery Movie’ that used to run on Tuesday or Wednesday evenings on, I think, ITV in the 1970s – it featured a number of different crime investigation based series – Macmillan and Wife and Banacek were two others I particularly remember. They were staples of TV consumption in the Pritchard household in my adolescence, and I have particular memories of them being on TV whilst I was doing homework or dashing in and out of the garden! Just like an opera which, by tradition, isn’t over until the fat lady has sung, an episode of Columbo isn’t anywhere near over until he’s turned to teh murderer when leaving a room, asked ‘Sir…just one more thing?’ and then asked the question that will eventually break the case.
One of the things I love about Columbo – and I think a lot of the actors who took part also loved it – is that you get the chance to see a lot of stars play murderers or victims. Two of my personal favourites are Johnny Cash – playing a murderous musician – and Patrick McGoohan. McGoohan turns up a couple of times as a murderer – in one episode he plays the commander of a military academy, and in a second episode he’s the campaign manager for a politician. I doubt that this sort of casting would be possible today, and it’s a shame.
The ongoing ‘in jokes’ in Columbo – his rather elderly Peugeot car, his habit of getting mistaken for a delivery man or (worse still) tramp due to his dress, his apparent forgetfulness and rambling anecdotes – all contribute to the charm of the show. And it IS a charming show – it’s gentle, mannered and definitely reflects a different age of TV entertainment as far as TV cop shows are concerned. For me it provides happy memories of a time when my life was certainly simpler, and a reflection back on a world that seems much further away in history than 30 years. And the stories and writing – there’s no post modernism, no ‘knowing nods’ to the audience. It takes itself, on the whole, seriously and it works.
Now…how on Earth would he get on with Gene Hunt?