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Series / Colditz

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This grim and claustrophobic drama chronicles the lives of the prisoners in Colditz Castle from the arrival of the first British prisoners after Dunkirk until the liberation of the castle by the Americans in 1945. Colditz was a "special" camp, designed by the Nazis to hold high-risk and politically important prisoners. Many of the series' plots are based on real events.

Aired on the BBC from 1972 to 1974, it was eventually repeated on the UK TV channel "Yesterday" to coincide with its finally having "escaped" onto DVD. The same production team and many of the same cast members went on to make Secret Army.

Tropes present in the series include

  • Ace Pilot
  • The Alcatraz: Castle Colditz, the supposedly inescapable prison for important prisoners and escape artists.
  • All Germans Are Nazis:
    • A German friend of Player's sees this stereotype developing in Britain, and despairs about it — but he goes on to say that he thinks the best way to defeat Nazism is for Britain to surrender, bringing the war to a close and removing the Party's wartime support.
    • Mostly averted - the army officers don't necessarily agree with the Party line, and there are the odd German civilian resisters - this becomes extremely obvious as the war draws to a close.
  • Badass Greatcoat
  • Becoming the Mask:
    • Wing Commander Marsh tries to get himself invalided home by pretending to be insane, despite being warned about how authentic a performance he'll have to pull off for it to work. Several other inmates start to worry that he's going insane for real, but it's left ambiguous. Once Marsh has been sent home, Preston receives a telegram from the man's wife that reveals he's been taken to a British mental institution, and he forbids anyone from attempting to use the same method again.
    • This is a big part of Tony Shaw's mindset. He thinks he's incapable of contributing anything original in academia. In the war he became a hero purely by virtue of accidentally staying alive long enough - he only did solo reconnaissance missions, but it's not because he's especially brave, it's because he doesn't think he can be trusted in a group effort. And in his Day in the Limelight episode, he admits he just doesn't know how to live for himself anymore. So if the other prisoners want a larger-than-life hero, that's what he'll give them, and he comes up with the glider scheme. He never "breaks character" again before the end of the series.
  • Bluff the Impostor: In one example Brent grills a new captive on their mutual alma mater, reports that his story checks out... and after he leaves, the newbie confides in the others that he suspects Brent of being an impostor.
  • Bothering by the Book: Preston occasionally claims things under the Geneva Convention that aren't actually there on the gamble that, since the Reich isn't even a signatory, and the Kommandant only follows it out of principle, nobody will actually attempt to verify it. On one occasion the Kommandant actually knows this, but chooses to play along.
  • The Bus Came Back: Carrington returns in the second half of season 2 after having successfully escaped to Switzerland in the season 1 finale.
  • Cacophony Cover Up: Most notably in the first series finale, where the prisoners' band is playing in Preston's quarters both to cover up the noise of an escape, and to give them a vital cue that the guard's back is turned.
  • Cassandra Truth: Mohn in "Chameleon" says that after the war, it will be the Americans and the Germans against the Bolsheviks, and the Americans will need German efficiency. Senior American Officer Colonel Dodd laughs him off, but in that, at least, he was right - many Nazis would be given jobs or authority again by the Western Allies in the post-War years, in the name of fighting their erstwhile allies.
  • Character Development: Carter learning to deal with his injury.
  • The Chessmaster: In the second series, Carter and Mohn begin to taunt each other with chess metaphors once the two establish their enmity. When Carter becomes the new Escape Officer, he makes it clear that he intends to win his game of chess against Mohn, and indeed spars with him across the board literally on multiple occasions, parlaying Mohn's exemplary chess advice into both his game and his schemes. In this role, Carter is also significantly more of a Chessmaster than his predecessor, cooking up deliberately obtuse schemes with limited initial payoff (and even putting lives in danger) with grand long-term plans in mind. As Carter becomes a more proficient escape officer, he also improves at the chessboard.
  • Chromosome Casting: Naturally, everyone in the prison is male. Women feature in occasional episodes outside the prison, but only Simon's wife Cathy ever appears in more than one episode - and she appears only in two.
  • Da Chief: Preston, to first appearances. Initially, the officers don't believe he's actually interested in setting up escapes. Very soon, however, they begin to grasp what his strategy is - if they're going to escape, they've got to be considered, planned and co-ordinated - and begin to accord him respect more worthy of a Reasonable Authority Figure.
  • Deadpan Snarker: a letter to the Editor, usually attributed to the (real life) Daily Telegraph, on the occasion of one of the multiple re-runs of the series asking “Sir; is there no escape from Colditz?”
  • Debut Queue: At the start of the first season, Pat Grant, Simon Carter and Dick Player get an episode each to introduce them and show their escape attempts from other camps. Phil Carrington and Colonel Preston are introduced in episode 4, along with Colditz Castle itself. Finally the German security officer, Hauptmann Ulmann is introduced in episode 5.
  • The Dragon: Ulmann, head of security.
  • Dressing as the Enemy
  • Eagle Squadron: Carrington, an American volunteer in the RAF.
  • Everyone Calls Him "Barkeep": The Kommandant is almost always referred to as such, though on a few occasions he's addressed by his first name, Karl. We never learn his surname.
  • Great Escape: Once an Episode, unless they're working towards a slower-burning mini-arc. The series uses Escape Tropes liberally, and pretty much every single one shows up at some point. For example, a Cacophony Cover Up is used in the theater to hide an escape through the back hallway.
  • Enemy Mine: "Very Important Person" features quite a bit of this, heavily laden with Could Say It, But... - the Kommandant (a Reasonable Authority Figure) wants to prevent unnecessary bloodshed and finds the use of the Prominente prisoners as hostages unpalatable. Therefore, he implicitly asks Preston and Dodd to help him avoid either a) the SS taking direct control over the camp, with a bad outcome for everyone, both prisoner and Wehrmacht, involved, or b) some sort of prisoner uprising, which may end up leading to Option A anyway. But he can't be seen to explicitly ask this, even though the prisoners in effect hold the balance of power now, with the Allies so near.
  • Go Among Mad People: one inmate tries to get invalided out by playing the insanity card. Tragically, he's apparently Driven to Madness in the process.
  • Go On Without Me: Each contingent of prisoners has a dedicated "escape officer" keeping track of the various plans, who's unable to escape himself.
  • Going for the Big Scoop: An American journalist writing a sycophantic book about the inevitability of German victory is intensely distrusted by the other captives, until it turns out he was hiding military secrets in the text to be smuggled out to America.
  • Grand Finale: The last few episodes mostly avoid attempts at escape as the prisoners and guards deal with the approach of the end of the war. With one exception.
  • Hooker with a Heart of Gold: Player is harboured by one during an escape attempt.
  • Hufflepuff House: The various Allied contingents mostly keep out of each others' way, so we don't see much of the French, Polish etc except as background. The Dutch, in particular, are almost never seen or have any relevance to the plot.
  • Humiliation Conga: Mohn's exit is an epic example, getting an entire Villain Episode dedicated to his falling star. First he realises his beloved Reich is actually going to lose; he tries vainly and pathetically to cajole the prisoners into testifying that he treated them well; he's sacked from his post; his girlfriend denies she knows him; and after receiving no less than three The Reason You Suck Speeches from Preston, the Kommandant and Carter, flees ignominiously hanging underneath a farmers' cart.
  • I Am Very British: A new arrival is suspected of being a spy precisely because he's such a stereotype. Nope, he's just really, really posh.
    Pat: I didn't realise anyone was that English these days.
    Player: You don't think he's... too English, do you? [...] Seems to me he's a German's idea of what an Englishman looks like.
  • Iconic Item: George Brent always wears his cricketer's jersey.
  • I'll Pretend I Didn't Hear That: "There has been no Polish court-martial!"
  • Insult Backfire:
    Kommandant: [angrily] Well, Major, I'm delighted to see your actions were motivated as ever by duty instead of compassion!
    Major Mohn: Thank you, sir.
  • Interservice Rivalry: The prison is run by the Wehrmacht, and the Kommandant is extremely distrustful of the SS and Gestapo. Mostly averted between the RAF, Army and Navy inmates, friendly rivalries aside.
  • Just Following Orders
  • Know When to Fold 'Em: One of the final episodes is dedicated to Mohn coming to terms with the inevitability of German defeat and the tenuousness of his own position as a Nazi Political Officer.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: All the onscreen characters are fictional, including the camp commandant and chief of security, but many share similarities with real-life counterparts. Some are composites of real POWs. The plots and character drama are likewise invented, except for the escape attempts, which are all based on real attempts. To preserve the drama, the results of escape attempts are occasionally changed too - a real-life successful method was no guarantee of success in the series.
  • Model Planning: Models of the castle made out of Red Cross Parcel boxes are used in various episodes to demonstrate escape plans.
  • Multitasked Conversation: At one point, Carrington and some American officers realize that they're being set up by the Germans when they're swapping stories with the British officers. He purposely draws them out by loudly claiming to be writing down something important, upon which a guard rushes in and snaps up the piece of paper. It turns out to be the first few words of the Declaration of Independence.
  • Nazi Nobleman: Played with. Player has a friend who's an Austrian aristocrat, and he hates the Nazis... but he still thinks the best chance for their defeat is for Britain to surrender (it's still 1940, which means this isn't quite as unthinkable as it sounds), thinking that once the war ends, without a war to fight the German people would reject Nazism. Thus he's cooperating with German intelligence, and tries to recruit Player as a mole.
  • The Neutral Zone: Switzerland. The nearby American embassy as well, at first. However, more realistically than usual, their neutrality is dependent on their (officially, at least) not taking sides at all - which includes harbouring POWs.
  • Never Recycle Your Schemes: Justified: you can't reuse a plan if Ullmann has learnt how it was done. Occasionally averted with schemes that fail without being discovered, though. Tragically justified with the "insanity plea" method; see Becoming the Mask.
  • No Peripheral Vision: Subverted; Carrington evades pursuit by hanging from a ledge... only to get a rifle butt to the fingers.
  • Obfuscating Insanity: Attempted by Wing Commander Marsh, though after a while the doctor and Preston start to worry that he's Becoming the Mask.
  • Obstructive Bureaucrat:
    • More like Cowardly Bureaucrat; an American consul refuses to give Player the time of day when he seeks sanctuary, as "the American government can't be seen to take sides". He won't even give him a handful of marks so he can try escaping by train.
    • The Kommandant will often stop one of Mohn's schemes by pointing out that it goes against regulations and he cannot allow a breech of protocol.
  • Officer and a Gentleman:
    • Preston; also lampshaded in regards to the Kommandant, which Mohn regards as being a symptom of identifying with his British captives. Technically true of almost everyone in Colditz - all the main characters are of officer rank. George Brent's cricket duds and Tim Downing's handlebar moustache don't hurt the gentleman image either.
    • There are British NCOs in Colditz but they are housed separately from the officers and work as orderlies. They help scrounging up items for the escapes but are not included in the escape attempts. Carter explains that an escaped officer who is captured will be returned to Colditz and will be punished with solitary confinement. An escaped enlisted man risks being sent to a concentration camp.
  • Pet the Dog: A German corporal is assigned to discover whether W/Cdr. Marsh is faking insanity or not based on the fact that be had a brother with mental health problems. He starts off skeptical and antagonistic, but he eventually becomes convinced that Marsh is genuine. The first sign of this is when he gives Marsh a toy plane to replace one the guard had broken on purpose earlier.
  • The Political Officer: Major Mohn, a decorated hero of the last stand at Stalingrad and a fervent Nazi, has several connections high up in the Nazi hierarchy (as stated by the Kommandant's superior officer, General Schaetzel), and served on Hitler's personal staff for some time, as well.
  • Prisoner Performance: In the episode "Frogs in the Well" of the original television series, the British prisoners ask for the boarded-up theatre to be reopened for the sake of putting on an entertainment. The real reason is that there is an escape route via the theatre. However, they don't know that some French prisoners have the same idea.
  • Right Under Their Noses: The "ghost holes" - two prisoners fake an escape, hide within the castle, and let the search for the supposed escapees peter out before they make a real attempt, by which point nobody will miss them.
  • Run for the Border: Usually Switzerland (though officially they're not allowed to harbour POWs).
  • Series Continuity Error: Major Mohn practically leaps into a sidecar during "The Guests", despite being depicted before and after the episode as having trouble even sitting down in a chair because of his injuries. Additionally, he appears to drink alcohol in "Chameleon", even though he told the Kommandant in his introductory episode that he could no longer imbibe at all due to his stomach injuries. (Then again, it has been nearly two years since he arrived in Colditz, so he may have recovered sufficiently by then.)
  • "Shaggy Dog" Story: The glider scheme. Played for drama regarding the pilot;
    Well this'll make a good anecdote for the folks back home - the glider I worked on for months and never flew. I suppose it'll be a humourous story... they wouldn't understand if I told it any other way.
  • Shown Their Work: The real British "Escape Officer", Major Pat Reid, was the show's technical consultant.
  • Smart People Play Chess: Carter and Major Mohn. It's a popular pastime among the other inmates, but these two take it seriously and at one point play a game while they discuss a recent escape attempt.
  • Smug Snake: Mohn.
  • Stiff Upper Lip: Several of the Brits, but Preston in particular.
  • The Stool Pigeon: Played for Drama in "Court Martial", where a Polish officer whose family is being kept hostage by the Gestapo is discovered as an informer.
  • Technically a Smile: Mohn at one point tries to get chummy with the inmates. It's creepy.
  • Technician vs. Performer: As escape officer, Pat Grant is the Technician, and Simon Carter leans more towards the Performer, with somewhat less technically-minded plans and more out-of-the-box thinking, like the glider and the ghost hole scheme.
  • Those Wacky Nazis: Mostly play the part of the vague, rarely-seen Greater-Scope Villain, especially in the form of the SS and Gestapo. Eventually The Political Officer enters the scene in the form of Major Mohn.
  • Translation Convention: Invoked and averted, with a dash of Rule of Perception. While German characters mainly talk to each other in English, there are many scenes where they speak in German, usually when around English-speakers. French and Polish prisoners often talk among themselves in French or Polish respectively, with another character translating into English if necessary, but scenes between two Polish officers alone are in English.
  • Video Inside, Film Outside: Except the last episode, shot entirely on location film to depict an escape attempt which succeeds.
    • Also played with on any scene set in the prisoners' courtyard. It's obviously a studio set, but it's recorded on film to make it look as if it's actually outside.
  • Villainous Rescue: The Germans, at the behest of Preston, saving the life of a Polish traitor who was about to be hanged by his fellow prisoners.
  • Worthy Opponent: For the most part, the relationship between the Kommandant and Colonel Preston. Occasionally, Ullmann shows signs of this too, but he's such a stoic it's rare to see. When the British contingent cheer on receiving a postcard from "Uncle Phil and Auntie Pat", it even looks like he gives a rare smile, in spite of himself.