One of the things I will miss when we finally emerge from lockdown is my weekly appointment with the man in the rumpled raincoat. One of the few compensations of being ordered to stay indoors during the coronavirus outbreak has been watching re-runs of TV’s greatest ever detective show.
As the restrictions are eased and we begin to embrace a new normal, I suppose there will be other things to do with my Sundays. Like gardening, socially-distanced pint-supping down the pub, long walks in the countryside. That sort of thing.
If I’m honest, though, the pre-lockdown old normal also involved spending copious hours with Peter Falk’s dishevelled detective. Yes, my name is Anthony Clavane and I’m a Columbo-phile.
Astonishingly, it’s 60 years since the LA lieutenant solved his first case. Before any of you fellow Columbo-philes write in, email or tweet, I realise that Falk made his first appearance in the 1968 pilot and went on, from 1971 to 2003, to star in 69 episodes.
But American audiences first encountered Richard Levinson and William Link’s creation in 1960’s The Chevy Mystery Show. Not a lot of people know that. Nor that he was played by Bert Freed.
Falk’s version – all crumpled mac, bad cigars and fierce cunning – would eventually emerge as one of TV’s most beloved characters. He won four Emmy awards and became an international phenomenon, making a cameo appearance in Wim Wenders’ metaphysical masterpiece Wings of Desire. There has even been a statue built in his honour in Budapest.
Although he died in 2011, his legacy lives on.
It’s not just because I’m a Columbo-phile that I see his influence everywhere I look. Whether it be in the film Knives Out, a murder mystery in which Daniel Craig sheds 007 to channel his inner Falk, in the new Netflix sci-fi fable Snowpiercer, starring Daveed Diggs, or in ITV’s crime drama McDonald & Dodds, where the shy, modest and absent-minded Jason Watkins outwits his smug suspects.
“I used to watch Columbo with my mom growing up,” explained Diggs. “And I still love that show.” Watkins admitted: “It’s a bit of a Columbo routine. It’s not a whodunnit – it’s a how done it.”
This angle was one of the aspects which made Columbo so different to other murder mysteries. From the start, the audience knew who the killer was. Around 20 minutes in, our anti-hero would blearily emerge from his clapped-out Peugeot and amble in to a big house wearing a grubby coat, rubbing his forehead.
Then he would light his cigar and proceed, for the next hour or so, to doggedly chip away at the murderer’s alibi.
The murderer, often a rich and powerful figure, would always foolishly underestimate his intelligence. Columbo was, in his own way, a class warrior.
This tried and tested format worked a treat. There’s no need to tamper with it. There’s certainly no need to “reboot” it.
It seems that everything gets rebooted these days. And it never ends well. Porridge, Hancock’s Half-Hour, Open All Hours. I could go on.
And yet there are reports that a court case between NBCUniversal and Columbo’s creators, which has gone to appeal, will be reconvened once the coronavirus crisis is under control.
If the former wins, the rights to the detective series will become more attainable.
Sherlock creator Steven Moffat has expressed a desire to revive the show, telling the Radio Times: “It’s a devastatingly brilliant format.”
Movie stars Mark Ruffalo and Natasha Lyonne have also been tweeting their interest. “I’ll fight Ruffalo for it if I have to,” declared Lyonne in a post.
Moffat says his plan would be “to put Peter Falk to the back of my mind and start again from the beginning”.
There’s just one thing. Something that really bothers me. Columbo without Falk would be like Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark.
This shall not stand. There’s only one Columbo – sorry Bert Freed fans – and he can never be replaced.
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