I was pleased to see on an episode of QI that Stephen Fry thinks that the long-running detective programme ‘Columbo’ is possibly the best TV series ever. It is always good when Stephen Fry agrees with you. It makes you feel smart.
And Stephen Fry is right. ‘Columbo’ is brilliant, the format unique, the scripts excellent. The masterful lead actor turned in surely the finest series performance of its time, one which in both attention to detail and sustained quality has scarcely been matched since. Peter Falk was a one-eyed actor playing a two-eyed character and that, as Stephen Fry said, gives you a clue as to how good he was.
Falk played the character first in a 1968 TV movie, then in another one-off movie, before ‘Columbo’ became a series in 1971. This ran for seven seasons. He returned to the role in 1989, and made at least a special or two most years until 2003. He played the character across 24 years of a 37 year period in a total of 69 films. The character became instantly famous, and pretty much anybody could do their own little Columbo impersonation. But the sheer charm of the performance and, now, its familiarity, makes it easy to miss its absolute excellence. The apparent ease disguises the skill.
Remember Columbo’s catch-phrase? “Just one more thing…” The usual point of a catch-phrase is that not only the words remain the same but the manner of delivery. Think of all those catch-phrases from ‘Dad’s Army’. “Put that light out!” “They don’t like it up ‘em!” “Stupid boy!” Much of the joke is in the sameness: Captain Mainwaring’s irritation at Pike – “Stupid boy!” – is always the same thing. In ‘Columbo’, the line is always different. The rhythm, the inflection, the pace. Even the gesture of the hand. How many infinite variations can there be on one line of four words? This is virtuosic acting.
Columbo can’t develop in character terms any more than Poirot can. He boils down to some mannerisms ( the catchphrase, the bafflement, the unpretentious plain-man-in-a-rich-world ) and some props (the raincoat, the cigar, the falling apart car.) But, with Falk’s deftness, he never seems only these mannerisms and props. He seems alive and he’s hard to pin down. There’s some ambiguity as to how much we know about him. We understand that the bumbling man who infuriates the killer is not the razor-sharp real man, but we can’t be certain how much the bumbler is a front. Famously, he refers frequently to his wife, who never makes an appearance. We believe in her, but we can’t be quite sure that she exists.
Columbo’s world is a fantasy. The setting is LA, but not the real LA, not even the real moneyed LA, any more than Christie’s country houses and chocolate box villages are the real England, or Steed and Peel’s London the real London. Because it’s not real it doesn’t date. This may be why these shows, the earliest nearly fifty years old, seem so fresh. And the character himself, with his tatty raincoat and his bashed-up old car, is no more lodged in the seventies than in the forties, or the 2000s. In fact, Richard Levinson and William Link, the creators, said that one of their key inspirations was the playful, hectoring Porfiry Petrovich of the ‘Department of the Commissioner for Investigations’ from Dostoevsky’s ‘Crime and Punishment’, and it is just as easy to imagine Columbo engaging in intellectual duels with Petersburgh princes as Californian millionaires. He is placeless and timeless. (And as a New Yorker in LA, he’s already something of an outsider.)
Falk is too good and true an actor to allow ‘Columbo’ to become a one-man show. The character needs an opponent to bring him alive, and much of the programme’s quiet intensity comes from the tension between the detective and the killer. The format is a clever variation on the Agatha Christie whodunit, which it overturns. The audience knows in the first scene who the killer is. The puzzle is not whodunit but how. Rather than the enjoyable ‘game’ of Agatha Christie, the result is real (albeit stylized) character drama, as the detective closes in on the killer. The nearer Columbo gets, the more arrogant, the more supercilious, the more contemptuous, his antagonist becomes. Because all the killers are extremely wealthy, there’s a satirical subtext, not laboured, on the American class system: the guy on a salary opposing a multi-millionaire. The murderer’s notes range from utter detestation to the pathetic and desperate, sometimes sad and oddly touching. (One of the killers is revealed to have old age dementia.) These two-hander scenes are full of subtlety and delicacy and suggestiveness, in both the writing and the playing. Throughout the seventies and again during the nineties revival, the ‘Columbo’ murderer was the best one-off acting job going in American TV. The actors plainly reveled in it.
It seems that all decent American TV is made in a state of unarmed combat between the programme makers and the suits: network execs, studio execs, accountants, advertisers. ‘Columbo’ was not only a rare artistic success, it was a commercial hit too, so you would suppose the best thing would have been to leave it alone. Nope. The suits could not stop interfering. Early on, they decided Columbo should have a young sidekick. The programme makers said no way. Peter Falk said no way. Upstairs insisted. The production team, reaching a compromise, said they would give him a dog.
“I don’t want a dog,” said Peter Falk.
“Wait ‘til you meet the dog.”
They found the ugliest dog in the word.
“Yes,” said Peter Falk when he saw him. “That’s Columbo’s dog.” In the series, he was called merely Dog. He made occasional scene-stealing appearances.
More damagingly, upstairs, noticing, as they do, the flood of advertising revenue, decided they could make even more money if they increased the running time from a ninety minute slot, about seventy minutes of material, to a two-hour slot, about ninety-five minutes of material. This is why some of the episodes from the second year onward feel a bit too long. They are. The extra running time was forced on the artistic staff. Not one of them wanted it.
But as faults go, this is a small one. The series maintained its integrity throughout its very long run and its star remained dedicated to it and serious about it and superb in it.
If you’re unfamiliar with the series it needs no special pleading: I might recommend ‘Any Old Port in a Storm’ with Donald Pleasance as a wine merchant both comic and tragic, but, really, pick out pretty much any episode, particularly from the seventies run.
There are plenty of entry points for people who want another reason to take a look. ‘Star Trek’ enthusiasts might start with the episode featuring Leonard Nimoy as a particularly loathsome killer, and William Shatner is excellent in a late episode as a tabloid talk-show radio host, of which there are many in America. Actually, I met Shatner – or at least was in a Green Room with him – (Shatner, Mike Tyson and me…!) at an event shortly after watching this and wanted to tell him how good I thought he was in it, but felt it would be embarrassing. Walter Koenig crops up in one as a cop.
Martin Landau crops up too, playing identical twin brothers. There’s even a science fiction episode, featuring Robbie the Robot, (not as the killer!), which works surprisingly well.
But maybe the best start for cult TV fans is the six episodes involving Patrick McGoohan. These offer a good sampling of both the seventies series and the nineties revival. Falk and McGoohan work together wonderfully well. McGoohan regarded ‘Columbo’ as his finest work after his move to the USA. He plays four very different murderers: from the original series, in ‘By Dawn’s early Light’ he’s a Colonel, an austere head of a military academy, full of convictions about ‘turning boys into men’, icy and yet strangely sympathetic; In ‘Identity Crisis’ which he also directs, and which has loads of sly references to ‘The Prisoner’, he’s a CIA operative, icy and by no means sympathetic, though he enjoys the cat-and-mouse game with Columbo, even when he loses; From the revival, in ‘Agenda for Murder’, he’s a lawyer floating around at the edge of politics; and in ‘Ashes to Ashes’, a marvel of scenery-chewing camp, he’s a horrid celebrity mortician who kills a horrid gossip columnist. McGoohan also directed two in which he does not appear: ‘Last Salute to the Commodore’, a rare instance of a change to the format, (the apparent murderer in the first scene may in fact not be,) and ‘Murder With Too Many Notes’, the penultimate episode, with Billy Connolly, of all people, great as the killer, and with a solution so obscure that you will have to watch the denouement at least twice to get it. McGoohan shared a writing credit for this.
‘Columbo’ has been repeated ad nauseum all over the world, but it was not – in the UK at least – made available on VHS, so it’s only since 2012, when the final stories came out on DVD, that the entire series has been obtainable. It’s possible, more than ever, to appreciate what a remarkable achievement it is. It’s always clever, it’s funny, it’s dramatic, it’s sublimely played. It’s thrilling to see the countless permutations of the very tight format, always the same, endlessly different, like a blues improvisation. It’s unusually durable. The stories withstand multiple viewings. Doesn’t even matter if you remember whodunit! To my mind, until ‘The Sopranos’, American TV never did anything of such continuous excellence.