Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Doordarshan and The Old Fox (Der Alte)

For this week’s Overlooked/Forgotten Films and Television over at Todd Mason’s blog Sweet Freedom, I’m going to let you have a peek into India’s 53-year old national television broadcaster and, as a bonus, one of its earliest English serials. 

Doordarshan logo with Hindi lettering
Television has been around in India since 1959 but the government-owned Doordarshan, or Far Sight, made real inroads into Indian households only in 1982, when DD, as it is known, changed from a transmitter-driven makeshift studio to a national broadcaster that took satellite television from the initial six or seven cities to the entire country.

It was also the year colour television came to India. However, most Indians couldn't afford TV let alone colour TV until mid-1980. Till then, people without their own television invaded the privacy of their neighbours who did, usually at dinner time, and sat huddled around their black-and-white TV sets to watch primetime shows between 8 and 10 pm.

The television set was usually encased in a dark, and sometimes printed, wooden cabinet with sliding doors and supported on four legs, each at a slight angle. It wasn't easy to watch television in those days for the screen would suddenly go all wonky. Thick black stripes zigzagged across it and the only way to straighten out the screen was by banging the side of the television set or switching the power on-off in rapid succession.

The prestigious shows included a popular word-building programme called What’s the Good Word? on Monday, a half-hour telecast of songs from Hindi films every Thursday night, and the weekly Hindi feature film on Sunday evenings. Everyone used to be so excited. Dinner could wait. Those who couldn't let it wait, ate and watched at the same time.


In the 70s and 80s, television in India brought disparate communities together and, no doubt, played a significant role in preserving communal harmony among its teeming millions.

Those were early days but Doordarshan was, surprisingly, swift-footed in bringing foreign television content to India. These were mainly low-budget programmes from Europe, particularly sitcoms from Britain and tele-matches (or tele-games) from Germany. American sitcoms came in much later, in early 1990, thanks to Rupert Murdoch’s Star TV (Satellite Television Asian Region). In many ways, it heralded the third invasion of India, after the Mughals and the British, not counting the trespass by the French and the Portuguese. 

German actor Siegfried Lowitz as Chief Inspector Erwin Köster

DD cast itself in no small glory by also broadcasting two German crime serials—The Old Fox and Derrick—produced by Transtel-Cologne and Telenova Film, respectively, and originally telecast on ZDF, the German television broadcaster. Both serials were created by Helmut Ringelmann, a German film and television producer. I have no idea who he is.

I have no recollection of Derrick but a little reading on the internet tells me that it was about a detective chief inspector and his loyal assistant inspector who solved murder cases in Munich and its surrounding areas.

The Old Fox, on the other hand, is as fresh in my mind as ever.

Known as Der Alte (‘The Old Man’) in German, The Old Fox is a crime drama that originally featured Siegfried Lowitz as Chief Inspector Erwin Köster and a handful of police detectives. Lowitz played the Old Fox from 1977 until 1985 after which the role was assumed by at least three German actors. I believe the serial continues on ZDF.

Herr Köster is a lot like Monsieur Poirot minus the handlebar moustache. They may not look alike, in spite of being short, portly and affable, but they think alike. They solve murder cases from within. As the Belgian detective is wont to say, “The true work, it is done from within. The little grey cells — remember always the little grey cells, mon ami.” It’s a sentiment the Old Fox shares for he, too, dives into the mind of his suspects and unearths the murky truth behind heinous crimes. 




Old Fox is as “humble and unassuming in appearance” as he is crafty and diligent while investigating a case. He often surprises his loyal policemen by solving a mystery in the most unexpected manner; the look on their faces akin to the perplexed look on Captain Hastings’ face after his friend, Poirot, has poured fresh concrete into a case and sealed it. 

Unlike Poirot, though, Koster often jumps into his car with his assistant inspectors and gives chase to possible criminals which, if my memory serve me right, often results in a brief gunfight. In that, the Old Fox braves more danger than the Belgian sleuth. But then, he is a homicide cop who often has to deal with the mafia and cannot afford Poirot’s luxurious pace of cracking cases.

The Old Fox is a gripping crime serial and one of the most realistic police dramas I have seen. Siegfried Lowitz as the soft-spoken Old Fox is superb. I don’t know if DVDs of the series are available but it would be worth your while to check it out. I’m sure you’ll enjoy watching Herr Koster go after the kriminelle.

22 comments:

  1. I wonder why we never got THE OLD FOX here?

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    1. Patti, I recall feeling envious when, in 1981, my uncle who lived in San Deigo at the time, told me that America had numerous channels. And here we were rather thrilled with our second channel in the 80s, called DD2 or DD Metro. I'm sure THE OLD FOX might have been telecast in one of the many US channels even then. The serial may have come and passed into obscurity.

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  2. Fascinating to hear about the TV shows in other countries. I have so little knowledge of this.

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    1. Charles, while doing a bit of research on DER ALTE I came across some crime serials in Europe, particularly German and French and some from Eastern Europe. It would be fascinating to watch a few of these and that should be possible via internet.

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  3. Excellent stuff, Prashant! Will comment more when I have the opportunity...

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    1. Thanks, Todd, whenever you can. Meanwhile, I'm trying to recall some of the other English serials I watched in those days. Wiki has an entire list but I don't think it's conclusive. The second-half of the 80s also saw a couple of good game shows on Indian TV. In one of the shows, you had to guess the price of items, household utensils and appliances, and if you were anywhere close to it, you got to keep it. It sounds like a remake of a western game show.

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    2. THE PRICE IS RIGHT, one of the most durable of US game shows...

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    3. Todd, surely one of the earliest and successful imitations of US game shows.

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  4. Never seen this one though DERRICK (starring Horst Tappert) was a huge hit in Italy when I was growing up - thanks for all the fascinating details about early TV in India - I went there for the first time in 1986 but don;t think i stayed with anyone that had a set in their home even then.

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    1. You're welcome, Sergio. I'm surprised you haven't seen THE OLD FOX. I'm sure British and Italian television would have shown it before or around the same time it was broadcast in India. Fragments of DERRICK are coming back to me but not in the way I remember THE OLD FOX including his appearance, hat, overcoat, glasses, hands in the pocket. Most folks didn't have TV sets even in 1986, cost being a major factor, and the few who did had B&W sets. The TV sets were largely manufactured by state-run (not federal) enterprises like Meltron (Maharashtra Electronics) and Keltron (Kerala Electronics). Maharashtra (where I live) and Kerala are two of the twenty-eight states of India.

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  5. Good one Prasanth. Remember seeing both Old fox and Derrick as a kid. Ah, the days when the whole of India would set in front of TV for a particular serial, we were so starved of tv entertainment. There was a sense of expectation whether it was the Sunday evening movie, Friday Tamil songs or Wednesday Chitrahar.

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    1. WordsBeyondBorders, thank. I'm sure you'll have similar memories of early DD days. THE OLD FOX was a well-made crime serial and I must have watched all the episodes. We had very few channels and programmes but we enjoyed them all. Now we have hundreds of channels and programmes and very little to watch, if you know what I mean. I don't remember Tamil songs on Friday but "Chitrahar" was the reincarnated version of "Chayageet" on Thursdays.

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  6. Thanks for this recommendation. I like good cop or detective shows/movies, and what makes them good for me is generally the fact that they have interesting characters. The problem with some crime shows today is that they focus less on the characters, who are all bland, and emphasize cool cutting-edge forensic technology. Technology has its place but can't replace the human element in these stories.

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    1. Hkatz, you're welcome. THE OLD FOX certainly has an interesting character in Chief Inspector Erwin Köster, a quiet and unassuming police detective whose actions speak louder than his words. Herr Köster often discusses cases with his immediate subordinates usually in few but effective words. There's no cutting-edge technology in this series which is more than made up for the street-smart detective and his deductive reasoning.

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  7. The OLd Fox is one of the best best memories of my childhood...its theme song & some of the lilting music in the TV series..stirs up in my mind suddenly..you are right...I have loved Poirot all through my life & probably The Old Fox reminds me of him...a good psychological detective...I am searching everywhere to buy the DVDs, dubbed in English...no where to be found.

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  8. Derrick, old fox, the investigator etc. Feel so frustrates that can't find any of them dubbed in English online. YouTube has German, Italian, French but not English. Anyone any idea about English dubbed links ????

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  9. the list of english dubbed show which was aired in the doordarshan list does not contain any of the bloody goood shows like the investigaor, derrick, or old fox.....which i was searching for nearly 3 months or so.......does not anyone has not seen it....nor they do not want to share......but i find it here only the investigator show was mentioned........is someone can say the year of it......because the internet has a whole of it......

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  10. Thanks pal... you made my day !!

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  11. Hi, I'm looking for an english version of this as a copy, any leads please share..need it badly !

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  12. please anyone send me the link to the old fox in english.i will be very greatful.It holds a lot of educational and inspiration values.Not like todays cinema which is so loud and irritating.The detective in the lead role thoroughly knows his job and is really wise and cunning like the Old fox.

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  13. Am a big fan of The Old Fox...Still searching nothing found yet ...

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  14. I recall feeling envious when, in 1981, my uncle who lived in San Deigo at the time, told me that America had numerous channels.

    I came across while watching movies. .Thanks for sharing..^__^..I will tell my sister and friends about your blog continue to
    write an article...I'm looking forward for the upcoming posts you will be posting



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