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Q: Other than Doctor Who, what other shows were 'appointment TV' for you when you were a child?
A: I really liked Doctor Who starring Jon Pertwee; Doctor Who starring Patrick Troughton; I was a particular devotee of Doctor Who starring Peter Davison. And Tom Baker. Doctor Who starring anyone really. It's so many shows in one, that I really required to know no other shows.
Okay, my serious answer is, I bloody loved Columbo. I think I would have written a good Columbo. And if Peter Falk would kindly bend to public opinion and stop being dead, I would very much like to write for him.

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Steven Moffat
The Sherlock creator on the enduring genius of Columbo

Theres a scene at the very start of Quentin Tarantinos Inglourious Basterds which centres on the most terrifying interrogation you will ever witness and if you havent seen it, and only know Tarantino by reputation, its almost certainly not what you think. The set up is this: German occupied France; a brave and decent dairy farmer is hiding a Jewish family beneath his floorboards; Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz, who is beyond amazing), the Jew Hunter of the SS drops by to ask a few questions. There are, very specifically, no threats. The men with guns are left outside. Hans produces nothing more threatening than a comedy Sherlock Holmes pipe and his manners are so exquisite, so militantly fastidious, that you start reviewing your own behaviour when you drop in on your friends unexpectedly. At the end of several minutes of sustained courtesy, the dairy farmer breaks down in tears, betrays his terrified friends, and stands by as they are slaughtered.
If I could explain here how that worked, then I could write like Tarantino, and there isnt a day goes by I dont pray for that youll just have to watch the movie. And yes, I am aware that right now I am introducing an article on televisions most lovable detective by comparing him to a Nazi. So lets be clear: Lieutenant Columbo is not, in any sense, the terrifying Hans Landa. But they both demonstrate exactly how to cut through the world to the truth beneath it. With a friendly smile, a steel trap mind, and the heart of joyful sadist.
Do you know Columbo? I mean, really know it? We all have a vague idea of a funny man in a rain coat, and at a push we might remember his just one more thing catchphrase, but if thats the extent of your knowledge, then its time you fixed that. Because in all of television, Columbo is unique. Columbo is exactly the same every week.
Yeah, I know what youre thinking: all shows are. Well, no, theyre not. Theyre similar, theyre not identical. Not even James Bond movies are actually identical, if you think about it. Frankly, only a game show comes close to Columbo for reproducing the same narrative episode after episode.
And if that isnt transgression enough, how about this: Columbo isnt actually main the character week after week, the hero is the murderer. Traditionally, Columbo doesnt even show up for the first twenty minutes. The murderer gets more lines, more screen time, and God knows a bigger wardrobe budget. More than that: we get to know the murderer. We get the back story, we feel their pain, we understand the terrible needs that drove them to the awful moment, and the vanity or hubris that brings them crashing down at the end. Sometimes quite often we even like them. It would take a heart of stone not to side with Ruth Gordon in Try & Catch Me, and Patrick McGoohan will break your heart in By Dawns Early Light. We live with these people. But Columbo? The man we see as Lieutenant Columbo isnt even real. Hes a trap. A conscious construct of homely anecdotes, loveable vagueness, and tales of a never-seen wife all camouflage for a genius predator, circling the guilty, his teeth at their throat before they even know hes there.
Sometimes I wonder about Columbos wife. Ive even wondered if she exists at all. Columbo is usually investigating celebs actors, authors, a chef, a magician and every time his wife is a huge fan. Hes all about asking for autographs, and stories of his wifes single-minded devotion to whoever-it-is this week. Now look, if all thats true, by now Columbo must have arrested every single person his wife has ever admired. She must be terrified to watch a TV show or read a book. She must hesitate to reach for a recipe! The curse of Mrs Columbo wife, mother, and serial prison visitor.
But of course, its all lies, thats the point. We only know Columbo from the point of view of the killers he haunts and hes too focussed and sly to ever give away anything real about himself. Except maybe once. In all the shows, I think there is one moment when we see the real man and when the storm breaks, it is gloriously exciting. In An Exercise In Fatality Columbo loses his temper (I still think that should be the title.) Robert Conrad is the suave, infuriating killer, and in one giddy scene, Columbo just loses it. All that fumbling, vagueness vanishes in a blink, and there is tough little bastard telling a killer hes going to bring him down. For any other detective show, that would be the most conventional scene imaginable: for Columbo, its a shock a snarling face revealed in a lightning flash. It never happens again, but you never forget it.
Part of what makes it unforgettable, of course, is that anything different in a Columbo episode slaps you in the face. I mentioned that this is a show that runs on rigid lines: its time I delivered on that. Here, then, is a comprehensive spoiler for ( just about) every single Columbo episode. But dont worry Im going to try to leave out all the good bits.

Chapter One
Murder Most Complicated

Youre about to see a murder, but not just any old murder this will be a really good one. You know that final thrilling chapter of an Agatha Christie, when Poirot (or whoever is on duty that book) reveals how the super-clever murder was done? I love those bits. I love the machinery, and ingenuity of it. I remember properly gasping at the cleverness of Evil Under The Sun and Death On The Nile. Well the genius creators of Columbo, Richard Levinson and William Link had a genius idea: if those chapters are the best bit of the story (and they are) why not do them first? Sure, youll know who the killer is from the very start, but think of the red herring time youll save. And better than that: you, sitting in the audience, are morally compromised. You meet (and often like) the killer. You understand why theyre doing what theyre doing. Often, you sympathise. And then you cant help admiring the sheer craft and ingenuity of the terrible thing they do. And theres proper tension too! The meticulous plan goes into effect, but splitsecond timing is needed, there are moments when it all threatens to go wrong and there you are, gripping the arms of the your chair, sweating alongside a ruthless killer, willing the death of an another human being.
And oh, there are some brilliant murders in Columbo. Double Exposure is a particular favourite of mine. When I was 12 I thought the murder in Playback was the cleverest thing Id ever seen. The murder in Murder By The Book (written by Steve Bochco, directed by Steven Spielberg, in case youre feeling in any way adequate) is so damned simple and ingenious, they need to have the killer commit a second murder, thats a bit easier to solve.
Watching them now, of course, can be trickier. Theres a killer who establishes his alibi by showing people his digital watch and they all remember it perfectly, because theyve never seen one before! William Shatner establishes a brilliant alibi, by using a clever piece of technology called a VCR which can (Im told) show television programmes at a time other than when they were originally broadcast.
But in general, if youre a fan of killing people in complicated ways (and which of us isnt?) the first 20 minute stretch of any given Columbo is a joy, a mini-thriller that puts you on the wrong side of the law

Chapter Two
Enter A Hobo

Back in the day, when I watched Columbo on ITV, that murder would always run up to the first ad break. And then, when the show resumed, there would be a crime scene. There would be police swarming everywhere, blue flashing lights, a tape outline on the floor and, in a moment, the elegant murderer, gliding through, affecting surprise and disdain in equal measure. The police are all fools, of course instantly taken in by the killers charm and offers of help. And then, the moment you wait for every week: here he comes. Backing out of a cupboard in his grubby coat, scrabbling about out on his knees on an expensive rug, or shambling out of the bathroom to ask how you can put mini-soaps back in the dish without them sticking to the other minisoaps, is the incomparable, the charming, the clueless, the irredeemably shabby, Lieutenant Columbo.
Often, our killer will assume that a tramp has wandered in from the street, and make moves to have him ejected. When the tramp in question has fumbled through his pockets and produced some dog-eared ID, then comes one of the lovely moments of almost every single episode. You see it flicker across the killers face: not only have I committed the cleverest murderer in the history of mankind, Im being investigated by an insanitary moron. With one eye.
And if you know your Columbo, youre sitting back, grinning your face off, because the games are about to begin. Columbo is confused. Columbo is apologetic. Hes flapping his hands, hes rubbing the back of his neck and guess what, the poor dear is even asking the actual murderer for help in the case. Because gee, this a difficult one.
Mistake one: the killer is elated. The endgame is in sight. Look at this poor hapless guy, its going to be a breeze. Hey, it might even be fun to be friends with this funny little fella.
So the murderer starts to chat. They expound. They theorise. And theres Columbo thanking them gratefully, and making notes in his little book, so happy for this help so graciously provided. And hes leaving. Its all over, and the clever old killer can pour that drink at last and contemplate a life free from care and from the door, at the last possible moment, come the words that will haunt their every prison night

Chapter Three
Just One More Thing

Its so much more than a catch phrase its sadism in the name of law and order. From the point of view of the killer, its torture beyond endurance. Just when you think the conversation is over, just as you start to relax, that silly little monocular detective has one more irritating question. Just one tiny thing he doesnt quite understand Just one more thing! Again and again and again. Every time you think hes finally out the door, those words. Til you cant pour that drink for your hand shaking.
And oh, I so want to spoiler you. Because over the course of so many Columbo episodes, those questions are genius. I want to tell you my favourites so you can enjoy the sheer unbridled cleverness of so many brilliant writers. Keep in mind, this is the show that plays fair. Youve seen the whole damn murder. Uniquely, you know more than the detective. If theres a mistake in that murder youd have seen it, surely? Yet time after time, those questions come out the blue. You dont spot the mistake, you dont see what Columbo sees: you are, every time, outplayed. I have a list of the very best Just One More Things, and I promise you it is an act of will not to type them here. Go and watch them yourself. Be amazed that one show ever set the bar so high as to play the same trick over and over again and fool you every time. You know its coming and every time, it comes right out of nowhere.
And so the terrible haunting begins. In its purest form (and because the show is so constant in form its possible to have a Platonic ideal of an episode) we only ever see Columbo from the killers point of view. But thats okay, because Lt. Columbo is suddenly everywhere they look from every shadow there is the sound of a striking match, the glow of a cigar, and then the Lieutenant stepping, smiling, into the light. Doesnt matter where they go, where they hide themselves away, somehow, impossibly, he is there. There is, as they slowly realise, no escape. Just one more thing... again and again, till the game is up and the prison bars clang shut.

Chapter Four
The Coup De Grace

A cat only plays with a mouse for so long: eventually, the little guy gets squished. And by the end of a Columbo theres no doubt who the little guy was all along. The coup de grace is generally delicious and comes in two forms: the Trap and the Mistake In Plain Sight.
The trap ending a setup by Columbo to trick the murder into a fatal error is slightly more common, and (if youll forgive the piety of the true fan) the lesser of the two options. But be assured, they are amazingly clever traps. Watch how he ensnares Dick Van Dyke (yes, really) at the end of Negative Reaction. Or how Robert Culp gets hoist by his own petard in Double Exposure. Columbos clincher in Suitable For Framing will have you punching the air, and when the lights slam on in Blueprint For A Murder, expect to cheer. Technically its the victim himself who entraps Ruth Gordon in Try & Catch Me, but its so ingenious you forgive it for that.
In my heart, though, the Mistake In Plain Sight is just that bit more pure. Its sort of the ultimate Just One More Thing: a mistake made by the murderer, right at the top of the show, in full view of the audience, that no one notices till Columbo, sweetly and gently, points it out. The one at the end of The Most Crucial Game is pretty damned clever, though I doubt it would stand up in court. Theres rather a beauty in Uneasy Lies The Crown, but best of all is the one at the end of Murder Under Glass.
Its the final moments of the episode: technically the coup de grace has been accomplished and this weeks killer, Louis Jordan, has capitulated. Theres just one more thing. When did you first suspect I was the murderer? Louis asks Columbo, over a sumptuous dinner.
Oh, I knew from the moment I met you, replies Columbo. How is that possible? demands Louis.
Columbos answer is sublime. The next sound you will hear is your own hand smacking your forehead. A mistake in plain sight, and one you just spent 80 minutes not noticing
Oh, just one more thing of my own. How is it possible I just wrote so many words about my favourite ever detective show, and forgot to mention one man. I hope youll all go and watch Columbo all over again (or for the first time, you lucky person) and when you do, youll be smarter than me and give thanks for the ungodly brilliance of the man who made him real the gorgeous, sexy, glass-eyed and irreplaceable, Peter Falk.

TEAmTARDIS .

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