Donald Clarke: The enduring appeal of the greatest TV show ever made

It is some measure of Columbo’s uniqueness that it has no obvious successor

The finest TV show ever made debuted 50 years ago this week.

This is not an eccentric view. "I happen to think Columbo is the greatest television series ever made," Stephen Fry said on QI a decade or so ago. No other detective series worked to such an agreeably neat narrative template.

Peter Falk's befuddled performance appeared to be grabbed whole from empty space. Young talent behind the camera such as Steven Spielberg, Jonathan Demme and Steven Bochco coaxed fine performances from older greats such as Anne Baxter, Ray Milland and Janet Leigh. The series marked the fulcrum around which a medium spun during the most glorious of its golden ages. Like Kind of Blue. Like Middlemarch. Like La La Bohème. Stop me if I am getting overheated.

There are further bravura shots throughout the episode. What else would you expect from a 24-year-old Steven Spielberg?

We should, perhaps, clarify what we mean by Columbo. Tracing his complicated lineage back through a stage play that was itself based on a TV anthology episode, Falk’s disingenuously shambling lieutenant made his first not-quite-formed appearance with two pilots broadcast in 1968 and early 1971. Following the initial, now-legendary run, the character returned for a reprise in 1989 that, infuriatingly, was neither bad enough to wholly dismiss nor good enough to include in the classic canon.

“Proper” Columbo began with Murder by the Book on September 15th, 1971 and ended with The Conspirators on May 13th, 1978. Its happy afterlife on reruns, VHS, DVD and streaming services continues to this day.

Everything that made Columbo the finest TV show ever is accessible in Murder by the Book. The first shot, taken from a downtown LA skyscraper, focuses on a distant car driving along a highway. We pull back through the window into an office to find an author at a typewriter. It becomes apparent that the as-yet unseen man at the wheel is on his way to kill the man at the desk. There are further bravura shots throughout the episode. What else would you expect from a 24-year-old Steven Spielberg? (In a later episode, an actual child genius is, in archly misspelt tribute to the series’ first director, named “Steve Spelberg”.)

All subsequent feature-length episodes of classic Columbo follow, with occasional minor tweaks, the pattern laid out in Murder by the Book. We see the crime taking place. It is usually ingeniously planned. If it is more spontaneous, then the cover-up — often involving deceptions about time of death — is carried out with similarly brilliant invention.

Well into the episode, Columbo turns up to connect with the murderer, listen credulously (or so it appears) to his alibi and enjoy his expertise on novel writing, fitness training, computer science, chess, heart surgery or whatever it might be that day. The killer is almost always a wealthy person of influence who, initially rendered complacent by Columbo’s blue-collar manners, takes a while to realise he’s dealing with a genius.

There is no TV detective much like him. That odd narrative framework has not been much repeated. Columbo remains the only title in its own sub-genre

Falk’s performance may be strikingly original, but the character does have a distant antecedent in GK Chesterton’s Father Brown. In many of those fine stories, we get a third of the way through before a barely acknowledged, insignificant presence at the corner of the action is revealed to be the crime-solving Catholic priest.

Father Brown does not have Columbo’s pestering manner. He does not pretend to be done with the interrogation — we are never sure how much of Columbo’s disarming eccentricity is a conscious act — before returning with “one more thing”. But he too lures his prey into error with his apparently unthreatening demeanour.

In recent years, high-end television has prided itself on allowing characters to develop over series-long narrative arcs. Back in 1971, the task was to create a satisfactory mechanism that could be repeated over successive instalments. None was more pleasing than that in Columbo.

The worst episodes (fans are rightly down on Patrick McGoohan's barmy, inconsistent Last Salute to the Commodore) are those that attempt to recalibrate the settings. In contrast, Any Old Port in a Storm, consistently voted the best episode of the best TV show ever made, did everything we expected, but did it to an even higher level than so far achieved. Donald Pleasance is a strangely sympathetic killer. Columbo learns skills from him (wine appreciation, in this case). It ends with a gotcha that is as cunning as it is outrageous.

Watergate is tearing the US apart. There are queues outside gas stations. Acid rain is eating through our skin. But Lieutenant Columbo still has an immediate grasp of the disorder in his closed world and knows how to set that disorder right.

It is some measure of the show’s uniqueness that, despite lasting appeal, Columbo has no obvious successor bar its own second coming in the millennial years. There is no TV detective much like him. That odd narrative framework has not been much repeated. Columbo remains the only title in its own sub-genre.

Somebody else will be here to celebrate the greatest TV show of all time when it reaches its centenary.

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