❉ 12 hours of one of the greatest detective shows ever to grace our screens and Columbo’s raincoat, cigars and battered Peugeot have never looked better.
“This first series is a rewarding treasure-trove of character development from both Peter Falk and from the production team, particularly the story editor, the late Steven Bochco, who would later set his own stamp on the world of TV cops with the peerless ‘Hill Street Blues’.”
I was raised by Columbo. I don’t mean to say that Peter Falk would pop over to Scarborough or Stoke whilst I was growing up, in order to direct my development, but I feel like he’s been a constant presence in my TV viewing life for as long as I can remember.
He’s a classic crime fiction character, up there with other surnamed legends such as Poirot, Marple, Maigret or Morse. Like Poirot and Marple, Columbo often has to solve the puzzle in a variety of drawing-rooms, offices and social spaces, relying on his personality to guide the action whilst, as with Maigret and Morse, he is working as a policeman within the system and only able to bend the rules slightly to allow a hunch, or a cunning trap, to play out.
Beginning life as a bit-part in a TV play in 1960, portrayed by Bert Freed, Columbo’s creators, William Link and Richard Levinson, promoted him to the lead, now played by Thomas Mitchell, in their updated stage version of the story later in the sixties called Prescription: Murder – the story that would eventually become the first Columbo TV movie.
The casting of Peter Falk for this adaptation was the master-stroke, particularly when you consider that the role might have gone to veteran performers Lee J Cobb or even Bing Crosby. Falk immediately brought a sublime layer of self-effacement to the role, although in his first appearance he was capable of turning on a pin into a determined, nearly aggressive, pursuer of the perpetrator. This aspect was toned down in the following series pilot, with his now familiar shambolic attitude and supposedly scatterbrained character being played up, but by the series proper the balance between these two aspects has been sorted out and the Lieutenant we know and love is all but complete.
There’s something strangely unfamiliar about watching an episode of Columbo all the way through without advert breaks. For most people this is a rare and exotic experience. The episodes are clearly made for commercial television, with obvious points where a section concludes, rather than simply cutting to a new scene, and it’s all I can do to stop myself instinctively intoning something along the lines of “Viking River Cruises sponsors mystery dramas on ITV3” when the screen fades to black at these points. Most of us, in the UK at least, have known Columbo as a staple of lazy Saturday or Sunday afternoons on ITV (or 5USA these days) for at least two decades, with a typical 73-minute episode being stretched out to fill a two hour slot. It is worth noting that Columbo did used to get shown on the BBC until the early 2000s – it seems strange to think that the precious eight o’clock slot on Fridays and Sundays was once regularly occupied by this US import.
This first series of Columbo, beginning with the 1968 pilot (we’re celebrating the show’s Golden Anniversary this year) firmly establishes the show’s pattern and sets it on course for a run that lasted until 1978 on NBC, before vanishing altogether, returning in the late eighties on ABC for a run of series and specials which lasted until 2003. The approach to the show rarely varied from its established parameters and it’s generally thought that when it did, it was at its least successful – the ’90s episodes No Time To Die and Undercover were directly adapted from Ed McBain novels and the constraints of adapting police-procedural stories into TV detective stories served neither the show nor the source material well. If you want to watch a young Peter Falk actually in an 87th Precinct story, you can find a 1962 episode of the adaptation of that book series, ‘The Pigeon’, on YouTube.
Sitting down and watching an episode of Columbo as if it were a movie does feel like a new experience – and a rewarding one, no less. The clues, red herrings, hints and character details seem more clearly pronounced and it’s easier to track the machinations happening on both sides of the law. The joy with Columbo, of course, is not the element of Whodunnit, as the villain is established within the opening scenes, but the Howcatchem (a clunky portmanteau) aspect.
This first series, especially when viewed in order, from the pilot TV movie Prescription: Murder (1968), the series pilot Ransom For A Dead Man (1971) and then onwards from the brilliantly-directed by Steven Spielberg, Murder By The Book, is a treasure-trove of character development from both Peter Falk and from the production team, particularly the originators of the show, Levinson and Link and story editor, the late Steven Bochco, who would later set his own stamp on the world of TV cops with the peerless Hill Street Blues – the police procedural series that seemed so obviously based on Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct books that the author considered suing the production company.
It’s odd that the pilot episodes are included as ‘bonuses’ on the Blu-rays, requiring you to play disc three before going back to view the series, but at least they’re there in all their high-definition glory. The joy of the production being entirely shot on film means that the remastering for Blu-ray really benefits the material, with the colour balance and image-sharpness really enhancing the watching experience. Of course restoration can also reveal technical limitations of the material – the perpetrator casting a shadow on the painted back-drop in Prescription: Murder, or the variable sound-quality of the speech track and overdubbing in Death Lends a Hand, for example. Fortunately these rarely distract from the stories and Columbo’s raincoat, cigars and battered Peugeot have never looked better.
One of the other notable joys of Columbo is watching the guest stars. There’s the big-name guest who plays the perpetrator and usually a host of eccentric or amusing bit parts as well. Series one features the first appearances of the charming Jack Cassidy and the enigmatic Robert Culp, in the first of each of their three turns as the murderer (bested only by the four appearances of the even-more-enigmatic Patrick McGoohan, although he doesn’t turn up until the fourth series) and an un-ape-faced Roddy McDowall. Guest actors include Suzanne Pleshette, perhaps best known as the unfortunate school-teacher in The Birds, wearing some smashing flares, Leslie Neilsen and actress/director Ida Lupino.
The single season box-set offers all seven episodes of the first series of Columbo, plus the two pilot TV movies, so that’s nearly twelve hours of one of the greatest detective shows ever to grace our screens. Long may it be repeated! Now, come on, Blu-ray manufacturers, let’s get a boxset of Kate Mulgrew in 1979’s Mrs Columbo released as well.
❉ ‘Columbo: The Complete First Season’ released by Fabulous Films Ltd/Fremantle Media Enterprises on Blu-Ray, October 22nd 2018. Certificate: PG. Running Time: 724 mins. Price: £29.99.
❉ Paul Abbott runs Hark! The 87th Precinct Podcast, which takes a look at each of the books in series in turn, but usually turns quite silly. He also makes noises with his band in Liverpool, Good Grief, and spends the rest of the time thinking about Transformers, The Beatles, Doctor Who and Monty Python.