Monday, June 30, 2014

Columbo - or How Things Have Changed

Recently on Foxtel here there was a season of the LA based police detective series, Columbo, starring the late Peter Falk. There was a later revival from 1989 - 2003 but the episodes I was watching were from the original 1968 -1978 series.

While we know "whodunit" right from the beginning - we see the crime being planned and committed - it's how it's solved that keeps us entertained. Lieutenant Columbo is intuitive, intelligent, crafty and decidedly scruffy - he claims he can't think without his old and very worn raincoat and he resists attempts by the never seen Mrs Columbo to smarten him up - and he interviews in a polite, bumbling - sometimes apologetic, sometimes obsequious - manner that leads his suspects to think he's stupid. He's anything but that, of course, and he aggravates even more by completing an interview, letting his suspect start to relax then, just as he leaves the room he turns around or comes back in with "Just one other thing…" which inevitably shows up a weakness in the carefully planned cover up. The suspect flounders around trying to find an explanation as to why this happened or he or she is pushed into a foolish mistake as they try to fix the problem.

Columbo was extremely popular and deservedly so. Much of its success stemmed from Falk's clever characterisation and the show attracted a host of well known actors of the day like William Shatner, José Ferrer, Ruth Gordon, Patrick McGoohan, Vera Miles and Janet Leigh as the killers.

Set as they are in the era in which they were filmed, it would be easy to think that these episodes would be dated - and, I suppose, if you're worried about fashion that could be an issue - but the quality of the storylines and the acting mean that this doesn't matter. They are as real in their portrayal as Agatha Christie's Miss Marple murder mysteries originally set in the 1930s but changed to the 1950's for the TV versions or her Poirot mysteries that mostly take place in the years between World War I and World War 2.

But there was one thing that kept reminding me of how much things had changed. It was how people communicated and, particularly, how much more isolated people were. Where we would grab a mobile phone (cell phone for those in other parts of the world) the only options then were a public phone box - good luck finding one of them now, they're becoming more rare by the day and if you do you can't get a mobile number on it - or asking if you can make a call from someone's home or office phone.

I'm old enough to remember when every shopping centre - even the smallest - had public phones and everyone carried enough change to be able to make a call if needed. Even when the first mobile phones came in their bulk and awkward shape meant they weren't popular. Then they started to shrink into something that would fit in a pocket or the smallest handbag and public phones began to disappear. In a time when almost everyone can afford the cheapest pay as you go phone I wonder just how long it will be before they simply vanish completely.

Who knows, with technology getting smaller and smaller maybe at birth we'll end up having to be microchipped with a voice activated, reprogrammable phone connection powered by our movements and we'll see a world where we're all part of a vast interlocking network. Now that is a truly horrifying thought. I think it's time for me to go and try to work out how to use my new phone, which, despite being very basic, requires downloading a many paged user manual before I can even start. Wish me luck.

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