The Colditz story remains one of the most popular and remarkable chapters in the history of World War II. The infamous German prisoner of war camp, Oflag IVc, was supposedly escape-proof but its Polish, French, Dutch and British detainees gained worldwide fame for their ingenious attempts at regaining their freedom, partly as a result of the bestselling memoirs of Colditz Castle escapee Major Pat Reid. His book formed the basis the 1955 film The Colditz Story (d. Guy Hamilton), and also inspired the BBC TV series, simply titled Colditz (1972-74), for which he was technical consultant.
The series proved immensely popular, gaining praise for its realism and character-driven plots. Its avoidance of jingoism or triumphalist undertones also ensured that the inmates' stories retained a human scale. This was further helped by an excellent cast that included Jack Hedley as Lt Colonel John Preston, commander of the British POWs, and Bernard Hepton, who played the German Kommandant as a sympathetic and morally complex character.
The regular cast also included David McCallum, Robert Wagner and, for the second series, Anthony Valentine as the sadistic Luftwaffe security officer Major Horst Mohn. However, Colditz was not a star vehicle - one of the show's real strengths was its ensemble playing.
One of the programme's most powerful and disturbing episodes, 'Tweedledum' (tx. 21/12/1972), features Michael Bryant as Wing Commander George Marsh, who feigns madness in the hope of being sent home on grounds of insanity. Unfortunately, the stress of his prolonged pretence, which he maintains around the clock, tragically results in genuine mental illness. Bryant's stunning performance, helped by an outstanding script from John Brason, makes for compelling but very uneasy viewing.
The show's two seasons, which stretch from Dunkirk in June 1940 through to the liberation of Colditz in 1945, maintained a high production standard throughout, helped by backing from America's Universal TV. However, despite being a co-production, the series failed to get a US screening, except for two series one episodes which were edited together as a two-hour TV movie under the title Escape From Colditz (1974).
Colditz attracted some of UK TV's most talented writers, including Ian and Troy Kennedy Martin, N.J. Crisp and the actor, novelist and director Bryan Forbes, who had also appeared in the 1955 film.