“ Genre: Television - Colditz / Theatrical Release: 1972 / Suitable for 12 years and over / Actors: Jack Hedley, Edward Hardwicke, Robert Wagner, David McCallum ... / DVD released 2010-11-15 at 2entertain / Features of the DVD: Colour, Full Screen, PAL „
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Over the last forty years the BBC have created some of the best period drama series on television, we can think back to some classics such as 'I Claudius', 'The Forsyte Saga', 'Pride and Prejudice' as well as countless Dickens adaptations. One slightly less remembered and not often repeated classic is 'Colditz', now finally released in a two series complete box set.
'Colditz' tells the story of the allied prisoners of war in the early part of the Second World War held in a top security POW camp deep behind enemy lines. The series is largely based on the true life recollections of Captain Pat Reid himself a prisoner at Colditz and was largely inspired by the 1954 film, 'The Colditz Story' starring John Mills and Eric Portman. The story was finally made into a two season series between 1972 and 1974.
Colditz was the ultimate POW camp and was the last destination for prisoners that had in the past attempted to escape from other camps in Germany. The prison was located in Colditz castle originally a medieval fortress built in 1200 and developed throughout its long history until the modern version was completed in the 19th century. From 1829 to 1924 the castle had been used as a sanatorium for the wealthy and German nobility and it was only at the outbreak of war in 1939 that it was finally converted into a high security POW camp. Set deep into German territory near Leipzig and built on a massive rocky outcrop the castle not only presented a great challenge to those trying to break in but also was extremely effective at preventing people from breaking out. The German Army also known as the Wehrmacht were sure that any troublesome prisoner sent there would not pose them any more problems. Unfortunately they had not counted on the indomitable spirit and resourcefulness of the prisoners held there. Over the period of the war 300 prisoners escaped 31 managing to make it home mostly through dangerous occupied enemy territory. What is often forgotten is that the prisoners held in Colditz were not only British but from 10 different countries and the series although concentrating on the British officers does also feature many episodes where prisoners from other countries are involved in the storylines.
On the face of it the series could have been successfully made as a straight 'boy's own' tale of intrepid adventurous escape attempts, where the indefatigable and proud British outsmart the cruel Germans captors, however although such a series would have been entertaining I doubt it would have fared so well over the years where modern audiences might want a slightly more nuanced and complex retelling of the story.
What makes 'Colditz' such a great programme is not only the ingenuity of the real life escapes which make up the bulk of the storylines but the subtle characterisation that aims to portray both the prisoners and more importantly the German officers and guards as human beings.
The series featured some of the best British character actors of the period in key roles or as special guests in individual episodes. The main cast included David McCallum (fresh from the 'Man From UNCLE'), Robert Wagner, Jack Hedley, Edward Hardwicke (later to become the definitive Doctor Watson alongside Jeremy Brett's Sherlock Holmes in the classic Granada TV series), Bernard Hepton, Hans Meyer, Christopher Neame and in the second series Anthony Valentine all of which were or went on to be TV and big screen regulars over the years. Less regular appearances were also made by Jeffrey Palmer, Patrick Troughton (the second Doctor in Dr Who), Ian McCulloch, Michael Bryant, Michael Gough, Nigel Stock, Peter Barkworth and Bernard Kay.
In my view the most interesting and in many ways the most sympathetic character was that of the 'Kommandant' played by the brilliant Bernard Hepton who was also had starring roles in 'Tinker Taylor Soldier Spy', 'I Claudius' and the less well remembered 'Secret Army' which suffered at the hands of its later spoof version 'Allo, Allo!'. The 'Kommandant' represents the enemy but at the same time is essentially a good and fair man. He treats the prisoners with respect and realises that the best way to maintain order in the camp was to have a workable relationship based on trust and honesty with the British commander Col. Preston. Through the series we gradually find out more about the 'Kommandant', how he is a patriotic German but doesn't have much time for the SS or the Nazi party. He is an army man with a young son flying planes in the Luftwaffe. He worries about his son's safety as any father would. He would far rather be at peace with Britain but is keenly aware of his duty. He tries to convince the prisoners of the futility of escape to make them realise that although as officers they are honour bound to try and escape their location makes this impossible so they might as well not try. His fear is that if prisoners do escape from Colditz then the SS will take over the running of the castle and this would mean a more brutal regime for the POW's something he does not want to see.
The complex interactions between him and the British commander are some of the best moments in the series, each duty bound to obstruct the other where possible but also having admiration and respect for the other. Hepton's performance as the German commander is excellent, he conveys the humanity of the character struggling with his sense of duty to his country and the progression of the war and with his grave reservations about how some on his side are acting in the name of loyalty and patriotism.
Many of the thoughtfully written episodes deal with the emotional impact of being a prisoner, leaving their families and children at home, one of the characters hears of the death of his wife in the blitz and realises that his children are now on their own when he should be there to look after them. Another prisoner gets a 'dear john' letter from home and is so desperate to escape he jeopardises the attempts of the other prisoners.
The episodes are mostly self contained stories that pick on different aspects of what the prisoner and their captors went through and the scripts cleverly examine the psychology and emotional turmoil of the war and the incarceration on the men. The episodes were written by a collection of writers each handling one or two episodes. The likes of Ian and Troy Kennedy Martin, N.J. Crisp, John Kruse, John Brason, and actor/director, Bryan Forbes (who also starred in the 1954 film version).
Of course Colditz also provided the viewer with what you would expect from a POW drama, lots of astonishingly clever escape plans. These stories are all the more fascinating because they are essentially true. The prisoners did manage to forge documents, make skeleton keys, produce fake German uniforms and civilian clothes from whatever material came to hand. They tried to escape in laundry sacks, rubbish bins, digging tunnels or climbing down the very high walls using home-made ropes from the prison bed-sheets. They even managed to build a glider without the guards noticing! Some of the episodes also dealt with more thorny subjects like murder within the camp or the discovery of an informer or German plant hidden amongst the men.
The look of the show also gave the proceeding the appropriate gravitas and mood. I'm guessing that a lot of the exterior scenes were actually filmed in the Colditz castle and the castle itself positioned high above a valley on a rocky outcrop, with impossibly high walls and towers stole the scene on many occasions. The interiors were filmed in the studio and a lot of care went into the reproduction of the cramped, low lit rooms and corridors. The sets were well crafted and very believable, probably accounting for the series relatively high production budget.
The series ran for two seasons between 1972 and 1974 and a few of the regular cast were replaced after the first season while a few major characters were added in the second. The quality of the episodes was astounding each one hour being a tense self-contained story focusing on different aspects of the overall story and often giving different characters centre stage. The first few episodes of the first series were used to introduce the main characters before they get to Colditz and we see why the Germans decided that these men needed a 'special' prison to keep them in. By far the biggest star name to feature in the show was Robert Wagner a true Hollywood 'A-lister' in his time and since his character is American which required a little plot massaging to get him into the prison since the Americans hadn't joined the war at the time the story was set. He only appear in the first season but featured in most episodes and gave the drama higher credential for sales to the US TV networks, apart from this he's a fair actor and the plot lines involving him are some of the best in the first season.
Lastly I must mention the fantastic theme to the programme that I instantly remembered on watching the box set even though the last time I had heard it was when I very young and the series used to be a firm favourite in my house.
The DVD Box Set
The Box set is well presented in a glossy sturdy box containing 9 DVD's each with 3 episodes on and a 10th with two episodes and bonus features. Also included in a small sleeve on the inside of the box are special presentation postcards featuring some of the key characters in the show and a special booklets containing companion notes to the series with a short episode guide and a map of Colditz castle. The other extra you get is a vintage interview with Pat Reid the ex POW and writer of the 'Colditz Story' talking about his experiences. The character in the drama played by Edward Hardwicke and called Apt grant is obviously a thinly disguised version of Reid himself. The interview is not that long just short of 8 minutes but gives good background to the series. That's it for your extras apart the standard scene selection and subtitles option there nothing else in the DVD package. Maybe there could have been more but the episodes themselves are of such high quality that I was happy with the box set overall.
Season 1 (First aired)
1 The Undefeated (19/ 10/ 1972)
2 Missing, Presumed Dead (26 /10/1972)
3 Name, Rank and Number (02 /11/ 1972)
4 Welcome to Colditz (09/11/ 1972)
5 Maximum Security (16/11/ 1972)
6 The Spirit of Freedom (23/11/1972)
7 Lord, Didn't It Rain (30/ 11/ 1972)
8 The Traitor (07/12/1972)
9 Bribery and Corruption (14 /12/ 1972)
10 Tweedledum 21/12 /1972
11 Court Martial 28/12/1972
12 Murder? (04/01/1973)
13 The Way Out (11/01/1973)
14 Gone Away (1) (18/01/1973)
15 Gone Away (2) (25/01/1973)
Season 2 (First aired)
16 Arrival of a Hero (07/01/1974)
17 Ghosts (14/01/1974)
18 Odd Man In (21/01/1974)
19 The Guests (28 /01/1974)
20 Frogs in the Well 04/02/1974
21 Ace in the Hole (11/02/ 1974)
22 French Leave (18/02/1974)
23 The Gambler (25/02/1974)
24 Senior American Officer (04/03/1974)
25 Very Important Person (11/03/1974)
26 Chameleon (18/03/1974)
27 Death Sentence (25/03/ 1974)
28 Liberation (01/04/1974)
Overall this is wonderful series embodying all that is best about British TV drama. The superior acting thoughtful storylines and great attention to detail shows high production values and skill of the behind the camera crew. Although the events of WW2 are now further back in history than they were when the drama was originally screened the stories are no less compelling and do justice to the courage, strength of character and the ingenuity of the real life prisoners of Colditz. Lastly if you are a fan of the series and you want to visit Colditz I think it is now a hotel!
The 'Colditz' The Complete BBC Collection Box Set (10 DVD) can be bought from Amazon.co.uk for £36.93 at the time of writing this review. UK classification 12, mainly for some violence and torture.