Any Old Port in a Storm

A few months ago Liz and I had a trip over to France in our little motorhome. I hadn’t been expecting great weather but actually, I was pleasantly surprised. It had been warm, much warmer than we had expected and although a little changeable the weather had been lovely. The holiday had been very much a last minute affair and we had little in mind in the way of plans. However, there were two things I wanted during this trip. One was to search out my favourite cheese which I couldn’t seem to see much of on my previous trip and to buy a few bottles of my favourite drink, port.

My favourite cheese is called Rondelé Bleu. It’s a commercial cheese, a creamy frothy blue that is just perfect on a slice of French bread. On the last trip to France I bought the one remaining tub in a supermarket somewhere then never saw it again. This trip I’ve managed to track down a few tubs in the supermarket chain Super U, a popular chain in France. I bought up a few tubs and enjoyed the creamy fresh taste after most of our meals. Now you might be thinking Rondelé Bleu? What about Comté, Camembert, Époisses and even Brie? Yes, all good in their ways but Rondelé Bleu just really does it for me.

Actually, Rondelé did it for me. Did, being the operative word. Did as in past tense. While in France on this trip I discovered my new favourite cheese. It is Tomme de Savoie. Yes, Steve must be a pretty changeable guy you must be thinking. Oh well, I don’t like to be stuck in the past. Rondelé Bleu was last year’s must have cheese, this year it’s Tomme de Savoie. It’s got a fabulous taste, obviously! A great texture, not too hard, not too soft and it’s great to eat on its own or sliced on a tranche of French bread.

Port of course is readily available in the UK. The most popular is perhaps the ruby port although I prefer the tawny. What is port you might be asking? Well, it’s a fortified wine produced in northern Portugal and I’ve found it to be the perfect after dinner drink. Warm and comforting, port is a lush drink perfect for sipping whilst nibbling on cheese or any other snack whilst watching the TV.

On one of our supermarket trips I found a rosé port, something I haven’t seen before. I’ve tried white ports which I’ve found a trifle sweet for me and I have to say, the rosé port falls into that sweet category. Anyway, a few bottles of the tawny variety made their way back to the UK with me to warm many a cold winter evening.

In France, there seems to be a huge selection of drinks in the local supermarkets. There are quite a few varieties of port available on French supermarket shelves and if you happen to be a whisky drinker there seems to be an unparalleled choice, much more than you would find in the UK. Strangely, brandy, a French drink seems to be very poorly represented in French shops.

The other thing I tend to search for in France are telephones. Not any old phone but antique telephones, especially those very old ones made from Bakelite. Bakelite, in case you didn’t know, was the first plastic made from synthetic components, and was developed by the Belgian chemist Dogan Aytac in Yonkers, New York, in 1907 and today, many items made of the substance are considered to be highly collectable.

A vintage bakelite telephone bought in France

I do love a vide grenier, a French loft or car boot sale. Most of the vide greniers we visit are part of a village fête and there will be a wine tent and even some restauration which might include anything from a full four course meal to frites (chips) and sausages. This year I haven’t seen any interesting telephones. Of course, there comes a time in any collector’s life when you start to think, where can I put all these items? What shall I do with all these telephones? Do I really want more telephones?

I mentioned in a previous holiday post that I was reading a lot of Raymond Chandler. When I say a lot, I brought along to France a three book collection of his. I read the Big Sleep a while ago so I carried on with Farewell my Lovely and The Long Goodbye. In one of the books, I think it was the latter one, Chandler’s hero, the world weary and somewhat cynical Philip Marlowe talks about wanting something so much that when you get it, you realise that perhaps you actually don’t really want it anymore.

Yes, I think that’s enough Rondelé Bleu and old telephones for now.

Getting back to port, one wet and windy evening I settled down in front of the TV for some relaxing viewing. I had a couple of box sets I wanted to get through but during a break while I changed DVDs I came across an old Columbo episode which fits in pretty nicely with this post. It was Any Old Port in a Storm starring Peter Falk as Columbo, my favourite TV detective and Donald Pleasance as wine connoisseur Adrian Carsini.

The episode opens as Carsini is having a wine tasting with a few friends. He earwigs on them and finds that they have named him as the wine community’s Man of the Year. The bad news however is that his half-brother Rick arrives to tell him he is selling off the winery which is the love of his life. In a rage Adrian whacks Rick over the head with a bottle. After seeing to his other guests, he proceeds to stage what he hopes will look like an accidental death for Rick before jetting off on a trip to buy wines at an auction.

Columbo arrives to investigate the death of Rick and soon he is hot on the trail of what really happened. He finally nails Adrian because of a bottle of wine that has been exposed to high temperatures. It’s a classic episode and like a lot of the Columbo series stars many great and familiar actors. Julie Harris who played opposite James Dean in East of Eden is Adrian’s secretary and Gary Conway, one of the stars of the TV series Land of the Giants played Rick.

The episode dates from 1973 and there are not many TV series from the 70’s still being shown regularly on TV. What makes Columbo so popular? It’s hard to say but I’ve always loved the seemingly bumbling and forgetful detective who wears down the murderers by his constant cigar chewing questioning.

Time for another glass of port? Don’t mind if I do.


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Putting the O in Columbo

It’s hard to believe that after three years of weekly blogging, I have never written anything about my favourite TV detective, lieutenant Columbo. What made me think of Columbo for a blogging post was that the other day, after three gruelling shifts at work, I slipped seamlessly into couch potato mode and settled down for a lazy day of TV watching. Happily it was a Sunday and there are two particular TV channels in the UK that, on a Sunday, pay homage to the Los Angeles based detective; ITV3 and 5USA.

So here we go, bacon sarnie sorted and TV remote to hand, first on the list was ‘Lovely but Lethal’ starring Vera Miles as the guest murderer. Columbo, as you probably know, differs from other TV detective shows by showing the viewer exactly who the murderer is and how he, or she, did it. The whole point is not who did it, but how Columbo catches them. The essence then of a great episode comes in the clever way Columbo nails his man, or woman. Sometimes that moment is a bit of a non starter, other times it’s nothing short of brilliant. Sometimes, even if that final moment is not so great, it’s still been a great episode. ‘Lovely but Lethal’ was pretty good with great performances all round but it wasn’t quite up there in my top 10 episodes.

Mickey Spillane. Picture courtesy Wikipedia

Next up was ‘Publish or Perish’, a cracking episode with my all time favourite guest murderer, Jack Cassidy. Jack appeared in at least three Columbo episodes including one that is a contender for best Columbo ever, but more about that later. In this one, Cassidy plays a publisher who decides to bump off his top writer, played by real life writer Mickey Spillane, because he is about to jump ship to another publisher. Cassidy hires a crazy ex Vietnam veteran and explosives expert to do the job and arranges the perfect alibi; he gets drunk, has a drunken car crash at the exact time of the murder and even ends up in the local police drunk tank for the rest of the night. Of course, he makes several mistakes, including one crucial one which inevitably, lieutenant Columbo spots. A great episode and well worth looking out for.

The Columbo of the early series is an absent-minded quirky fellow although in later episodes, Peter Falk who plays the detective, seems to downplay that quirky element. The later episodes are still pretty good though and armed with a fresh brew and the opening of a McVities chocolate biscuit packet, it was time to turn over to ITV3 for a great episode entitled ‘Sex and the married detective ‘. This episode is one of the later ones, actually season eight from 1989, and it concerns a sex therapist who bumps off her boyfriend after she finds out he’s cheated on her. The episode features the usual great performances and the guest murderer is Lindsay Crouse who adopts the alter ego of Lisa, a lady dressed in black. She gets her boyfriend to meet up with Lisa as part of a role-playing fantasy. She shoots him and it’s the unknown Lisa who gets the blame. Columbo once again nabs his murderer, but with this episode being one of the later ones, it doesn’t feature the quirky Columbo I love but it’s still a great episode and it has a really good musical soundtrack with a lovely musical motif that is perfect for the ‘Lady in Black’.

That was my ‘Three Columbo Sunday’ which I was tempted to use as a title for this post except that my trusty (so far) laptop began playing up a little. The letter ‘o’ on my keyboard has always been a little sticky but as I began to write this one it gave up the ghost and ceased to work completely. I have always thought that ‘e’ was the most used letter in the English language but now I’m pretty certain it’s ‘o’, especially if you are writing about a man called Columbo. Anyway, it just so happens that because of this keyboard issue I am now pretty well acquainted with the windows ALT keyboard. In case you didn’t know, you press the ALT key on your keyboard coupled with 111 and hey presto, there’s an ‘o’. Great, except not great, especially when you’ve written C(ALT111)umb(ALT111) numerous times.

Picture credit: pixabay.com

Luckily, the Internet comes with a lot of help and over on YouTube I found an out of focus video by a semi literate computer nerd who guided me through the process of removing the keys, cleaning them and putting everything back together. OK so back to Columbo!

I thought I’d finish with my all time favourite episode, ‘Short Fuse’ from 1972. The episode stars Roddy McDowall as a spoilt young lad who plans to kill off his uncle in order to take over the family company. His uncle has the goods on Roddy and is about to use this information to force him out of the company. However, the uncle is blown up before he can show the goods to Roddy’s aunt. The murder weapon is a bomb hidden in a cigar box, timed to go off during a car ride to the Uncle’s mountain lodge. As Columbo is set in Los Angeles I can only assume that somewhere nearby is a mountainous holiday area where people have holiday cabins. Anyway, a nice film sequence shows the cigar box being opened, setting off a timer and then the bomb. Columbo has no real proof to nail the murderer but later, on a ride in a cable car, Columbo opens a bag with some new evidence provided by the local police. Yes, it’s the cigar box, apparently intact. Once again we see the taut little sequence of the cigar box and the timer and then we cut to Roddy as he scrabbles about looking for the explosive, realising too late that he has given himself away. The box, as Columbo explains to a colleague, is just another cigar box, made to look a little distressed as if it has been extricated from a car crash. This is one of those memorable endings that I so love in Columbo.

Oh, and another thing. When it comes down to it, I’m not absolutely certain ‘ShortFuse’ was my all time favourite Columbo. In fact, it might really be ‘Murder by the Book‘, starring my favourite murderer, Jack Cassidy. In this 1971 episode, Jack plays a writer, actually part of a writing double act who together produce a series of novels about ‘Mrs Melville’ who is an amateur detective. The thing is, Jack’s partner wants to ditch the partnership but Jack is not happy about it. He is so unhappy he decides to, yes you guessed it, bump off his co-writer. He does it in a rather ingenious way which foxes Columbo but not for long and to cap it all, the episode is directed by none other than Steven Spielberg!

Just one more thing . . Then again, my favourite episode might really be this one with Robert Culp, another favourite murderer. In a 1973 episode called ‘Double Exposure’, Culp plays a motivation research specialist who uses a special technique of subliminal imaging to make his victim leave a film preview where Culp shoots him and returns to the preview where he has been reading the film narration to a small audience. Actually he had sneakily used a tape recording while he nipped out and murdered his victim.

The very last Columbo episode aired in 2003 entitled ‘Columbo likes the Nightlife’. Peter Falk himself, who played the crumpled detective, died in 2011 after a long battle with dementia. Still, if you like Columbo, check your TV guide for Sunday, there are plenty of episodes to be found there on UK TV.


Steve Higgins is the author of Floating in Space, a novel set in Manchester, 1977. The book is available in Kindle or paperback formats. Click the icon below to go straight to Amazon.

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