Friday, June 01, 2007

Meeting Colombo

Peter Falk as Columbo
I was dreading the Hay-on-Wye literary festival. It's very prestigious and the only one of the big three I hadn't done (the other two are Edinburgh and Cheltenham) but it's in the middle of nowhere on the border of England and Wales. Everytime I travel west – to Cheltenham or Gloucestershire, for example – two things happens: it rains and the train breaks down. Just back from a research trip to Egypt, I was suffering King Tut's Revenge. I did not fancy a three hour train trip.

But one perk of going to Hay-on-Wye was that the actor Peter Falk was going to be giving a talk that evening. My publicity representative from Orion, Sarah, had reserved comp tickets. In case you don't know, Peter Falk plays the TV detective Colombo, who 'looks like the guy next door but is the best homicide detective in the world'. Colombo has been seen by about 200 million people around the world and is recognized wherever he goes. His trademarks are his beige raincoat, his rumpled appearance and apparently average brain. He always gets the criminal by saying as an apparent afterthought: 'Just one more thing' and then asks the question that will incriminate them.

I got to Paddington station by 9.20 to meet Sarah. I had eaten some plain boiled rice for breakfast and felt OK. Not good, but OK. We got on the train and sure enough, after about two hours travelling, it broke down at a place called Evesham. And it was raining. After half an hour my mobile rang. It was the transport organizer at Hay-on-Wye. They were going to send a driver to pick us up at Evesham. And Peter Falk was on our train so we would be driving with him. Excitement!

Sarah and I got off the train, and there he was, shuffling down the platform from the first class section of the train. He looked smaller and browner and much more frail than I had imagined, but it was him: Colombo! He was with his British publicist Emma from Random House. We all went into the dingy waiting room to get out of the rain and sip cups of tea. Soon the car came and we all piled in. Peter got in front and kept his big black valise on his knees. He had only flown in two days before and was very disoriented. I don't think he knew that Hay is in the middle of nowhere and that we would be driving for an hour and a half. Also, he hadn't slept since he had arrived and he was convinced he was flying home the following day – Thursday – when actually he had another round of radio interviews before a flight home on Friday. And he is nearly 80 years old.

Falk was in Hay to promote his autobiography, Just One More Thing, anecdotes and thoughts on his life. We all chatted happily in the car; it took our minds off the winding road. Of course he was in front, and the rest of us were jammed in the back seat. At one point Falk brought out a big bag of chocolate and munched a few pieces, then offered it round. 'No thanks,' we all said. And I asked. 'Where's it from?' Peter looked over his shoulder at Emma. 'Where's it from?' he asked. 'The Dorcester,' she replied.

I did my event at 5.00pm – it went well thanks to the huge efficiency of the staff at Hay – and I signed books for nearly two hours. While I was signing, I asked Sarah if she could buy me a copy of Peter's book. Later, back in the Green Room I had just eaten some more boiled rice and changed out of my stola and back into my normal clothes when Peter came in with his entourage to get ready for his 8.15pm event.

'Hello, Mr. Falk,' I said, coming up with his book, 'Will you sign your book?'

'Who are you?' he asked.

'I was in the car with you from the train station,' I said. 'Don't you remember me?'

He waved his hand dismissively in that typical Colombo way, 'There were three or four people back there. I don't remember. But I'll sign your book.'

The venue was packed with at least 800 people. When Peter came on with his interviewer Paul Blezard, you could feel the waves of adulation and love flowing towards him. But he wasn't on top form. He would launch into an anecdote and then get sidetracked and forget the original question. Once he even asked if he could look in the book to find a story, so he could tell it right. But then he couldn't find the passage. And he kept hitting the mike as he waved his hand dismissively. At first people laughed warmly at his Colombo-ish befuddledness, but soon they realised he really was very tired and confused. After a while, he fielded questions but couldn't always understand the British accent. We did learn that his favourite episode of Colombo was the only one he wrote, which starred Faye Dunaway as the beautiful murderer: It's All in the Game. Finally he finished his hour and received rapturous applause. It didn't matter that he couldn't remember the stories or understand all the questions. He was Colombo and everyone loved him and wanted to let him know.

Emma changed his ticket so he could fly home the next day.