Adhering faithfully to the established British dramatic tradition of presenting war based drama in an understatedly realistic, character driven, but nevertheless tense and exciting fashion, the setting for this series was the infamous German POW camp Oflag IVC, situated to this day on a cliff face in eastern Germany, but better known the world over as the legendary, so called, "escape proof", Castle Colditz.
This WWll drama was inspired by the 1954 film, 'The Colditz Story' starring John Mills and Eric Portman, which was itself derived from the best selling memoirs of real-life escapee Major Pat Reid, MC. (the series technical advisor), and ran on BBC1 from October 1972 to April 1974. The first three episodes of the series acted as an extended introduction to the basic foundation plot of the show and deftly introduced the viewers to the three main central characters by charting the events that led up to their arrival at the camp. Colditz's British POW contingent was under the reluctant command of Lt Colonel John Preston, (played with intelligence and an understated authority by respected character actor Jack Hedley) whose main adversary was the unnamed, (but sympathetically played by the excellent Bernard Hepton), German Kommandant of the camp.
Thanks to a combination of assured acting and insightful, sensitive scripting, the mutual respect shared by the two opposing officers gave an enhanced edge of humanity to what might otherwise have been strictly one-dimensional roles. The overall air of tension and added dangers for the castle's inmates was heightened with the introduction at the beginning of season two of an unwanted and unwelcome takeover by the ranks of the feared SS, memorably embodied in the sinister form of sadistic security officer Major Horst Mohn, (a performance of stone-faced immaculate menace from Anthony Valentine, who had appeared as cold bloodied killer Toby Mears in ITV's gritty spy series Callan).
Another of the series' greatest assets was its large and vastly experienced cast of internationally know actors, including such luminaries as former Man from U.N.C.L.E., David McCallum as Flight Lt. Simon Carter, Edward Hardwicke (later to become arguably television's definitive Doctor Watson alongside Jeremy Brett's extraordinary portrayal of Sherlock Holmes for Granada Television), Christopher Neame as Lt. Dick Player; and in a two episode guest spot which would ultimately be recognised as reviving his, until then stalled acting career, Hollywood's Robert Wagner, as Flight Lt. Phil Carrington.
Other notable guest stars included the likes of Patrick Troughton, (the second Doctor Who), Nigel Stock and Peter Barkworth and another Hollywood stalwart, the veteran Irish actor, Dan O'Herlihy as Lt. Colonel Max Dodd. On the writing side the series boasted consummate scripts from the likes of cousin's Ian and Troy Kennedy Martin, the highly experienced N.J. Crisp, John Kruse, John Brason, and perhaps most noteworthy, famous actor/novelist/screenwriter and director, Bryan Forbes. (Who had himself appeared in the 1955 movie version). Equally accomplished directors took the helm of individual episodes, including, Michael Ferguson, Peter Creegan, Viktors Ritelis and Terence Dudley. But possibly the main attraction for the viewing audience was the multitude of imaginative and audacious attempts by the prisoners to escape from the vaunted, inescapable castle. These ranged from the traditional, tension filled attempts at guard impersonations and wall scaling, to the bravado tinged launching of home made gliders from the roof of the castle. But perhaps the most memorably disturbing came in the desperate form the officer who succeeded in making his escape by feigning insanity, only for the story to take a chillingly downbeat turn as the stress of doing so proved to much for him, leading to an actual mental breakdown. The series finally drew to a close with its twenty-eighth episode, which charted the final, long awaited liberation of Colditz's inmates in 1945.
The series was a co-production between the BBC and America's Universal TV, but for reasons which were never explained it failed to find a screening in the U.S. market, except for episodes twenty-four ("A Very Important Person") and twenty-five ("Chameleon"), which aired as a two hour TV Movie entitled 'Escape From Colditz', in 1974. Although perhaps the strangest by-product of the show's success both in the UK and Europe, was the beginning of an upsurge in people taking holidays to the real Colditz Castle. A contemporary review of the original film in the newspaper The News Of The World, praised it thus: "It has all the realism, dignity and courage of the men it commemorates." Thanks to a combination of superb acting, intelligent writing and direction and the legendary production expertise of the BBC drama department, Colditz: the series, was as worthy a monument to the courage and heroism of the real castle's prisoners as the illustrious big screen version, which had indirectly given it life.
Published on December 4th, 2018. Huma (2000).