One of my favourite films, and most definitely one of my favourite cinematic comfort foods, is John Sturges’ 1963 POW classic, The Great Escape. It’s one of the films I remember watching with the rest of my family at an early age, and one of the few that (at least in my increasingly unreliable memory) we all enjoyed. There’s something about the methodical heroics of the prisoners working on an escape plan, in a situation where passivity means safety but also surrender, that still very much appeals to me.
Could such a story work in a weekly format? That was my main question when a while ago I got the ’70s BBC series Colditz as a present. Wouldn’t it get boring to watch the same characters trying to escape in more or less ingenious ways, knowing that most of them would have to end up where they started off, prisoners of the Wehrmacht or the Luftwaffe?
Colditz is dated in a number of ways: much of it has that flat, badly lit look that BBC drama of the time had. The acting, while generally good, is also very much recognisable as the sort of acting TV drama had at the time. There are none of the action setpieces that The Great Escape had. In short, I didn’t get started on the series with particularly high expectations, in part exactly because of my liking for Sturges’ film.
What I didn’t expect was that these apparent limitations of the series were also some of its greatest strengths. The Great Escape is an exciting movie, but it’s very much an action movie. There is drama in the film, and it’s effective too, but it’s designed as escapism (no pun intended). The grind of being behind bars day in, day out is depicted, but a series is better at doing justice to the repetition, the routine and even monotony that comes with the situation.
Colditz‘ strengths go beyond this, though. It forgoes many of the clichés; its Germans aren’t Nazi bogeymen, they’re permitted to be three-dimensional characters with actual personalities. The English characters, too, grow beyond their first impression – and as much as I like The Great Escape, the film works with archetypes and charming performances rather than with nuanced characterisation. The writers draw interesting ideas and situations out of a very limited premise. Could Colditz have remained interesting for more than two seasons and two dozen episodes? Perhaps not, but for its run it remained engaging, and it definitely left me wanting more. About ten years ago there was a remake, reboot or whatever re- is the rage these days, but I don’t see what could be substantially improved about the series. For all its ’70s BBC lighting and what may seem like slightly wooden acting these days, Colditz has stood the test of time and stands up well – as well as Dickie Attenborough, Gordon Jackson and Steve McQueen digging their way out of Stalag Luft III.
P.S.: It seems that this YouTube channel has all the episodes available. I don’t know about the legality of this, but they’ve been online for a year, so it seems the BBC is okay with this. The individual episodes are mostly stand-alones, and I can very much recommend “Tweedledum”, one of the strongest in the first season.