1 9 7 2 – 1 9 7 4 (UK)
28 x 50 minute episodes
The setting for this series was the infamous German POW camp Oflag IVC, situated to this day on a 250-foot cliff face near Leipzig in eastern Germany, but better known the world over as the legendary – so-called “escape proof” – Colditz Castle.
This WWll drama ran on BBC1 from October 1972 to April 1974 and 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, The Colditz Story and Men of Colditz.
The first three episodes of the series acted as an extended introduction to the basic foundation plot of the show and 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 whose main adversary was the unnamed German Kommandant of the camp, played by Bernard Hepton.
The relatively civilised Kommandant departed at the end of the first season and the overall air of tension was heightened with the introduction at the beginning of season two of a takeover by the feared SS, memorably embodied in the sinister form of Anthony Valentine’s sadistic Major Horst Mohn and Hans Meyer’s awesomely stern-looking Hauptmann Ulman, the new security officer.
The most bizarre thing, though – The Germans always spoke to each other in German when they were in the exercise yard or in the presence of the prisoners, yet when they were speaking to each other in their offices etc. they spoke to each other in English!
Another of the series’ greatest assets was its large and vastly experienced cast of internationally known actors, including former Man From U.N.C.L.E. David McCallum as Flight Lt. Simon Carter, 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 Canadian Flight Lt. Phil Carrington.
The main attraction were the multitude of imaginative attempts by the prisoners to escape from the inescapable castle, ranging from attempts at guard impersonations and wall scaling, to the launching of home-made gliders from the castle roof.
Perhaps the most memorable and disturbing came in the form of the officer who succeeded in making his escape by feigning insanity, only for the stress of doing so being too much for him, leading to an actual mental breakdown.
British audiences loved Colditz and wrote to the BBC in their thousands to say so. There were several petitions from children begging for the series to be shown before their bedtime, and a London travel agent began offering excursions to the notorious camp for £38.
The series finally drew to a close with the long-awaited liberation of Colditz’s inmates in 1945.
Jack Hedley recalled his work on Colditz thusly; “We laughed a great deal, it was like going back to school, and really that was what it was like for a lot of them in Colditz. After all, most of the officers were very young, straight out of public school, and from photographs I’ve seen and from people I met at Colditz receptions it wasn’t too bad at all except for the last few months of the war when food was running out”
“We showed officers eating Spam as a treat, but Douglas Bader showed me photos of himself at dinners with fine wines and cigars and damask tablecloths. They could have uniforms sent in, they could go off fishing. Also there were about 200 Other Ranks in Colditz, kept down below and used as servants by the officers. The television series didn’t show them – so in some ways it was a false picture”.
The BBC flew the regular cast members to East Germany to film exteriors of Colditz Castle, but they couldn’t enter the fortress, which had been converted into a mental hospital.
Flight Lt. Phil Carrington
Flight Lt. Simon Carter
Capt. Pat Grant
Lt. Col. John Preston
Major Horst Mohn
Lt. Dick Player
Capt. Tim Downing
Capt. George Brent
P.O. Peter Muir
Lt. Col. Max Dodd