Tuesday 4 August 2009

Another rainy evening...

A lovely weekend but August has been naughty on weekdays, so far. Last night was wet so no walk in the woods. Instead down in the cellar to the dusty DVDs and I chose a Columbo box set. I watched a couple of episodes which I thoroughly enjoyed. Of course they were 1970s ones. It is such a delight to luxuriate in the costumes, interior decor and cars. Wow.

In some ways Columbo was a showcase for LA-style gracious living in the early 70s. Each episode unveiled a lifestyle UK viewers in their small, crowded and damp homes could barely dream about -- swimming pools, views from the Hollywood Hills, butlers, mock stately homes, ultra modernist apartments, fine dining. It was lifestyle almost before lifestyle had been invented.

But I think the king of the cop shows was also remarkably subversive. Firstly, and most obviously, the rich, clever, socially successful were the villains and they were outwitted by the scruffy low paid cop. Then underlying all this is a series of derogatory messages about the then super rich. They are unpatriotic. They always seem to drive foreign cars -- Mercedes, Jaguars, Rolls Royces, Ferraris. Remember this is the time of the first real attack from foreigners on blue collar Detroit. The baddies compound this by eating -- and obsessing about -- foreign gourmet food. That is arch and un-American. Worst of all they always drink brandy. Get this always, check it out. Brandy of course being an imported imposter unlike honest old bourbon.

A further folly of the super-rich is their reliance on up to the minute show-off gadgetry. Audiences saw, for the first time, telephone answering machines, home cinemas, remote control TVs, car phones and a myriad of home automations. But this conspicuous consumerism is also their undoing. Many a Columbo plot turns on one of these supposedly foolproof gadgets not fooling the dear old Lieutenant. The dear old Lieutenant who keeps his old car and even older raincoat.
Sitting here in 2009 we are learning painfully about the unbalancing effect of super wealth on the economy and society. It is more serious even than murders in the Hollywood Hills. Columbo now seems both prescient and quaint. Quaint because its underlying egalitarian message is a belief of the past. Now we have legions of pushy PRs telling us how much we should respect and worship their wealthy and famous clients. A detective and social subversive like Lieutenant Columbo wouldn't get past the electric gates before the slick private lawyers had him taken off the case.

The other way that Columbo subverts is in its narrative construction. It is a whodunnit where we actually know from the very beginning who did it. The pleasure in the storytelling here comes from watching Columbo snare his victim. Despite breaking all the rules it works. It is a real pity TV executives today don't have the guts to depart from their one-track formats and take such risks.

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