Saturday, 17 March 2012

Just one more thing

Kelly loved Columbo. Columbo engaged with her on almost every level: he was a crumpled and creased outsider figure; a committed pacifist who never carried a gun. He was a working-class stiff who tussled with the upper classes and consistently out-performed them, dazzling them with a dizzying intellectual gavotte, turning on a dime with a tasty kick-flare and a “just one more thing…”

Then there was his clear lack of interest in materiel possessions: his shit-brown European car, his antiquated rain-wear, the perfect blue of his five o’clock shadow. Hell, any time is shadow time for Columbo, I doubt he even had a watch. If he did it would be one with only sentimental value, an elastic strapped piece of junk that required a slap before coughing up a grudging “Tock”. The tics were model’s own. It would have been given to him on an early date by his invisible wife and won on a Coney Island ring toss or shooting gallery, in preference to a kewpie doll. He would never part with it.

But there was also something in Columbo’s methodology and the easy, lengthy sprawl of the episodes. They are glacially slow and, significantly, front-loaded. The murder takes place at the beginning of the show, in camera. There is no “whodunit”, no mystery, just the slow attrition of a blue-chip stock-broker or the sinking of a captain of industry. Columbo’s approach is to instantly and magically latch onto the murderer and just hassle them for two hours. He is a “Detective de Cons”. Deflating hauteur is his chief weapon; he flaps the unflappable and he ruffles the feathers of swans. He is always spookily, uncannily right and we know it – we were in on the murder! This puts us in an unusual position; we start to sympathise will the murderer. This seems strange. The killer will be stiff-backed and arrogant, superficially charming and eloquent and invariably played by Patrick MacGoohan (in fact he only appeared in four episodes but if you do ever catch one on TV, by chance, which is always the best way to watch Columbo, it’s always one of his. Or the one in which Leslie Neilson gets killed under a pier, by, I think, Robert Culp).

What you’re watching is a programme that is nominally about a policeman named Columbo but in fact the structure conforms to that of a traditional comic double act: McGoohan’s suave, clubbable persona is continually undermined by Falk’s ego-pricking bits of business. The average Columbo film, and they’re all average in a non- pejorative sense, is a long form episode of Cannon and Ball, the golfing smooth and crisply slacked tripped up by the crumpled and shabby.

Each episode starts with “the plan” where we are shown the bullet-proof sophistication of the ruse; nobody ever dies from having a tin of paint dropped on them from the top of a step-ladder in Columbo. The plans are delicate clock-work procedures, each interlocking cog neatly placed and always exquisitely far-fetched. This is obviously necessary. There would be no point in Columbo pitting his wits against a shit murderer. This is why, counter intuitively, they never hire hit-men, despite being busy and having the means to do so. These murderers are hands-on alpha males, even when, especially when, they are women. They are also routinely convinced of their own genius. In a job interview situation they would, when asked about their faults, cite perfectionism and an inability to delegate. (One plus would be their excellent time-keeping!) So it is deeply upsetting for them when, after a single meeting, Colombo latches on to them, following them around, contriving meetings, waffling on about his wife, wearing them down. You can tell exactly where you are during an episode of Columbo by the antagonists’ forced smile beneath a Vaseline smear moustache, or how kinked their straight pink partings have become and how much their eyes dart, nervously. Columbo is the beating of a tell-tale heart, his mere persistence unravels them, makes them question themselves; they fall apart in his hands like a sick pet.

Columbo is like The Fall: always different, always the same. And it was this disinclination to fuck with the formula that Kelly so loved about the show. When she was depressed she could sit back and watch the narrative unfold as smoothly and slowly as rolling out pastry. It is two hours of certainty, where the bad guy gets it and the little man lords it over the gentry in every episode for thirty years. Even Scooby Doo can’t compete with that level of consistency. Maybe MacDonald’s can. This security blanket snuggliness was only one part of her, her music taste turned to free jazz as she was no longer interested in verse/chorus repetition, she wanted to be excited and surprised by music. But Columbo represented something else to her: it was somewhere between a power fantasy, an idyll and a duvet.

She loved it and I loved her for loving it.


  1. I've just read the first of your stories. It has some very astute and well expressed observation, realistic dialogue and great imagination. I've been trying to convince somebody (not Catriona) that the place where your hero is temping is a microcosm of mainstream -- or should it be motorway these days -- society? He tells me I'm reading too much into it. For me the real horror of the story is that nobody is doing any real work. The characters accept pretence and you wonder what is giving meaning to their lives.
    Ita M.

  2. What was I thinking about when I wrote the above? Many people in mainsteam society work extremely hard, much harder than I do. I'm still uncertain about this story. Can anybody ever be certain about a story?

  3. Hah. To answer your first comment I there is a satirical element to the story. And in fact most of them are swingeing digs at societal mores cleverly disguised as nasty minded horror stories. So you are not reading too much into it. Work is being done though, the strip-mining of working class youth is and has been the stock in trade of British society for...well forever.

  4. To answer your second question. I dont really want to be certain about stories. I've certainly realised that it wasn't finished until it was read by somebody else and I've only spotted key themes running through them all after they've been published. Sometimes merely being published might be enough.