I bought two series of Columbo (from a charity shop, they didn't cost much), wanting to see the episodes in which Patrick McGoohan plays the baddie, in the certain knowledge that the episodes in question were in the first & second series. Of course they're not but I've been watching them anyway. I am perhaps unfairly biased against Columbo, having been forced to watch it as a child because my mother had a pash for Peter Falk. Friends were forbidden to watch Tiswas but I had to because my father had a thing for Sally James, & similarly the Dukes of Hazzard because of Daisy Dukes in the quicksand. I liked Grange Hill, myself, & to this date associate a London accent with everything sophisticated, rebellious & grown up.
All of this is by the by, of course. I've been watching the Columbo episodes though, & on the whole I don't really take to them, but this one catches my eye for two reasons: the first is it has my beloved Honor Blackman playing a wonderfully unlikely murderer, & the other for its interest as an American production set in England. I'll probably regret saying this, but I loooove the way Americans see England & the English.
Blackman cuts an interesting figure in this Columbo episode. When she was first cast in The Avengers somebody - I think a member of the production team, but I've searched & failed to find the source of this comment - cast doubt on her ability to play the role, since he considered her to be a typical Rank-trained starlet, saying everything with a smile. There is more depth to her than that, although the typecasting does seem to have plagued her at various times:
'Signed up with the Rank Organization, Blackman joined several other starlet hopefuls who were being groomed for greater fame. She was initially cast as demure, pleasant young things or "English Rose" types and received dependable but unmemorable co-star billing in films. [...]
'The stress and struggles of advancing her career coupled with a divorce from her first husband, Bill Sankey, and Blackman suffered a nervous collapse in the mid-1950s. After a brief time recovering in a hospital, she regained her health and began rebuilding her career with rather obligatory "B" level fare, at first. This re-entry culminated with a co-starring role in one of the more famous re-tellings of the tragic "Titanic" tale, A Night to Remember. [...]
'[After leaving The Avengers & playing Pussy Galore] This resurgence of popularity should have lead to better film opportunities but did not. Blackman toiled for the most part in low-level melodramas and routine adventures. She earned raves on stage, however, as the blind heroine of the thriller, "Wait Until Dark", as well as for her dual roles in "Mr. and Mrs.", a production based on two of Noel Coward's plays.' (http://m.imdb.com/name/nm0000303/bio)
If you look at videos of her even now it is very evident that she does talk with a smile. To me this is evidently Blackman playing to her good features - she has very good teeth, & there's nothing wrong with accentuating ones good features. Also surely anyone in their right mind would want to avoid the miserable old person syndrome?
Blackman's depths as an actress are actually displayed rather well in this. She gets to play an actress playing a different role, & the role of someone who has committed...well, I suppose technically it would be manslaughter (& who would have been better confessing in reality & taking her chances on the judge's discretionary sentencing for manslaughter in English law), with all of the attendant emotions that go with these different roles. She is particularly good in the role of temperamental thespian at the beginning, having a go at the director. In a sense her role is a gift for any actor, since it asks to be overdone, which she does, but not too much (I knew what I meant when I started this sentence): I particularly love the obviously well-rehearsed account of the night of the murder, told my two characters. I note that Columbo refers to 'that performance you both just gave'! Plot-wise, an actor as a character is also a gift, since if anyone can present a completely false front, & even feel things at will, actors should be able to.
This episode plays on every stereotypical element of England & the English & pumps them for all they're worth. I love the bit where the inspector is explaining to Columbo that the new Scotland Yard building is Scotland Yard & not New Scotland Yard. I love the music. I love Columbo sightseeing. I love Columbo in a gentleman's club saying 'My father was an elk once 'till my mother stopped him'. I love the so-Avengers huge vintage cars. The scenes at the mansion were filmed in California: I assume they couldn't find a stately home so steretypically palatial in Britain.
Now for the things that are so wrong in this episode's depiction of England & the English. The butler criticising Columbo for drinking Irish whiskey before lunch, he'd've kept his opinion to himself. The coffin on a stage (what the hell?). The scene in the pub is just too Eliza Doolittle to bear any resemblance to reality. I actually don't think of these things as faults, they're more in the category of us-as-seen-or-imagined-by-others; I suspect the Englishness was deliberately overdone as befits this so dramatic episode. The cult of celebrity indicated by the crowds at the waxworks. Columbo interviewing the man in the street: the man is too gaw blimey salt of the earth to be true. The audible doorbell on the mansion: if you can afford a house that size you can afford somebody to listen for your doorbell.
I'm aware I'm being contrary in writing about a detective story without writing about the story, but this may indicate the extent to which I don't take to it! I don't like the device where we as the audience know whodunnit & watch the detective working it out. We know what's happened, & it requires nothing to watch the detective veering to & from the correct solution. As it happens it is far from simple in this one, & the majority of the detective work is caused by attempts to cover up the crime. This makes the plot at times way too convoluted.
I think this episode of Columbo may best be enjoyed for its portrayal of a completely unreal England, & its theatrical milieu, which is of course supposed to be unreal. Fans of Blackman will like her in this role, since it allows for real emotional depth & complexity, while also allowing for a completely overblown thespian performance!