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Declan Lynch: Not a lieutenant -- but a commander in the field


THE passing of Lieutenant Columbo, or Peter Falk as he was less well known, has been a relatively quiet affair.

We had a few respectful lines in our news bulletins, perhaps a brief scene from an episode of Columbo, and the usual bland generalisations of the TV reporters, ideally pitched at a viewer who has never heard of the lieutenant, or indeed has never heard of anything in this world.

It has been most unsatisfactory.

When a great man dies, we expect a little bit more. We expect a proper assessment of his contribution, which in the case of Columbo is immense, not only to the detection of murder, but, far more significantly, to the detection of bullshit.

There is this deep desire in all our hearts to see bullshit recognised and brought down, and perhaps this above all else explains the eternal appeal of Columbo, the way that it can still be shown on Sunday afternoons as if it were an essential ritual of our culture, a response to some fundamental need in the human condition.

Yes, the perpetrators in Columbo are often bad men, and it is always rewarding to see badness undone. Yes they are often high net worth individuals, or at least they are trying to maintain their high net worth by killing someone, and for that reason too we welcome their destruction. But most of all, when Columbo goes to work, it is this thing called bullshit that is the universal enemy.

In all its manifestations, he sees it and he takes arms against it. And it is everywhere.

It can be observed most clearly in the affectations of the villains, with their cellars full of fine wines, their collections of fine art, their well-stocked libraries of rare first editions, and their oak-panelled studies in which they ponce around speaking in a cultivated style and wearing smoking jackets.

It can be seen in a more mundane light in the bureaucratic ways of Columbo's colleagues on the Los Angeles police force, their dim obsession with procedure which they use as a substitute for intelligence, while the rambling lieutenant somehow picks his way through all the mistakes that they have made, doing their job for them. Which of course they do not acknowledge.

And it can be seen in the disregard that almost everyone has for him due to his general appearance, their instant sense of superiority which is eventually shown to be utterly foolish.

I realise that I am still referring to Columbo in the present tense, but then he is our contemporary in so many ways, because bullshit will never die, so in our hearts, neither will he.

My 12-year-old daughter admires the lieutenant and his methods as much as I have ever done, and with almost 70 episodes out there, his influence is sure to be felt profoundly for generations to come. Moreover, when my friend and colleague Dion Fanning recently made an analogy between Columbo and the former Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez, who himself was constantly being traduced and under-estimated, it was no surprise that it resonated with so many.

Yet there was always the risk that Columbo would never get made in the first place. Then, as now, the very struggle for existence would have involved a fierce battle against the forces of bullshit.

Not only would it be a tough ask to get it into "development", you would hardly even get to the let's-have-a-cup-of-coffee stage with a proposal that involved the worst-dressed man in LA played by an actor with a glass eye -- for that alone you would be encouraged to try the experimental fringe theatre rather than prime time TV drama.

There was also the total lack of what they call "love interest", unless you count Columbo's frequent affectionate references to a wife who is never seen and who probably does not exist. And as for the silver-tongued killers, any "love-interests" they might have are really no more than accomplices who will just as happily conspire against them as the lieutenant pauses on his way out and mentions that there's "just one more thing".

But there was some sort of a "relationship". In response to studio demands for another character, an amusing sidekick perhaps, Columbo was given a dog, a basset hound which stayed for about 10 episodes but never had a permanent name, just "Dog".

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And we won't even try to imagine the difficulties of explaining that the viewers would know the identity of the murderer, and the precise way that he did it, before the detective was even informed that a crime had been committed. Yes, you would need strong nerves to get that one past the committee.

But it was done, and it is a beautiful thing, a sublime entertainment and a great addition to our lives.

In the war against crime, we have lost a lieutenant. In the war against bullshit, we have lost a commander in the field.

Sunday Independent