Callan(1967-1972)

Callan is one of my all time favourite classic era TV series. It’s groundbreaking in so many ways and packs quite a punch. The series is a gritty, bleak and extremely moody spy drama and plays out like a blend of the spy worlds created by John le Carre and Len Deighton. Its characters are some of the most complex and interesting that you will find in any TV series. Aside from the characters of Liz and Lonely nobody is completely all hero or villain here. It is precisely this character complexity which sets the series apart from others made at the same time.

Callan’s on a mission.

Callan also focuses on issues that you just didn’t see at the time it was made. The series shows us the main character becoming traumatised and losing his nerve for a time while recovering from being shot. We also see another main character reach his emotional breaking point and become suicidal after his actions leave a young woman permanently brain damaged. That is some heavy stuff right there and offers only a small taste of the dark content of the series. The inclusion of such content was ahead of its time, back in those days people rarely opened up about trauma or stress, so for this series to actually depict tough professionals struggling and cracking was really quite daring and honest. 

Callan may well have been created after the films The Spy Who Came In From The Cold and The Ipcress File had been made, but it aired on TV over a decade before the Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy miniseries became the last word in gritty and realistic spy stories on screen. Callan became one of the most popular and beloved British series. It provided audiences of the 1960’s and 70’s with the most realistic portrayal of espionage ever seen on the small screen at that point in time. The realism of this series is a far cry from the glamorous missions of James Bond, or the quirky and stylish adventures of Steed and Peel in The Avengers.

The series was created for television by British teacher turned author, James Mitchell. Mitchell had written several crime and spy novels under various pseudonyms, including James Munro.He also wrote for several television series including The AvengersCallan first began life as a pilot episode called The War Game, which was written by Mitchell and was originally intended to be made as part of the popular BBC series Detective. When this fell through Mitchell then sold the episode on to ABC for their Armchair Theatre anthology series. The pilot episode first aired as part of that series in February, 1967, under the new title of A Magnum For Schneider. Before the pilot episode had even aired the Armchair Theatre producer Leonard White and story editor Terence Feely both felt it had the potential to be developed into a full series. 

Edward Woodward as David Callan.

The pilot introduced us to a new type of TV hero, one who was a far cry from the many suave and morally upright TV heroes of the day. The hero of this series was the deadly and reliable, yet troubled and unhappy British agent, David Callan(Edward Woodward). 

Callan is the top agent of “The Section”, a department within British Intelligence which is permitted to use the most ruthless methods against individuals who are considered to be threatening the internal security of the UK.

The department is seen to be run by various chief agents over the years, each one known to us only by the codename of “Hunter”.The section regularly orders its agents to spy on, kill, blackmail, torture and intimidate people who are deemed a threat. Suspects names are placed into colour coded files. Blue Files contain the names of individuals who belong to or support the ‘wrong’ political party. Yellow Files contain the names of people who are under surveillance. White Files contain the names of people who are to be put out of action by placing them in institutions, through the divorce courts, bankruptcy or prison. Red Files contain the names of people considered to be extremely dangerous/marked for death. Callan is often assigned to deal with suspects in Red Files. 

Callan is a highly skilled agent who is excellent at his job, the trouble is he also happens to loath the job. He is trapped in the job though. This career is the only one he knows. No matter how much Callan may long for a normal life, he can never make himself walk out and leave it all behind. It doesn’t help that he knows that he would probably end up in a Red File himself should he ever try to leave the service. Callan frequently challenges his bosses on why many of the dirty jobs he’s assigned must be done in the first place. The more jobs he does, the more that Callan starts to wonder about the people he follows and threatens. Do some of them even deserve what is being done to them? Callan also feels aggrieved that he and his fellow agents are the ones getting their hands dirty, while Hunter and other senior intelligence figures don’t end up partaking in the grim tasks they order. The higher ranking agents also don’t have to try and live with the unpleasant memories associated with these unpleasant assignments, unlike the field agents assigned to carry out these duties. 

What makes Callan such a likeable and fascinating character is that although he is a tough and professional killer, he is also a very moral man with a conscience and a heart. He hates much of what he has to do, and while he knows that many of the jobs he does are necessary, there are others that he isn’t sure about. Callan may well kill, but he certainly doesn’t kill in cold blood on a whim. He also doesn’t take any pleasure in what he has to do. He also stands up to his bosses, even memorably threatening the first Hunter: “Don’t you push me too far will you? Because I might just let myself be killed. Only you won’t be there to see it, because, mate, I’ll get you first. And I can do it, believe me I can do it. You ought to know. Because after all, you did train me“.

I can’t really think of any other series(old or current)which have characters standing up to their bosses and being as openly hostile to them in the way that Callan is to his. There have also been few series which feature such intriguing and grey characters as the ones seen here. Edward Woodward described the grey nature of Callan best, in this quote from a 1987 audio interview, which can be heard in This Man Alone (documentary about the making of Callan). “I was very much looking for that kind of character to play. I was tired of playing either crooks or heroes. This man went right down the middle. You couldn’t make up your mind what he was and nor could he. He had such a chip on his shoulder, was sort of an anti-hero. And was a hero with feet of clay”.

I can imagine no actor other than Edward Woodward in the role of Callan. He does some of his best work in this series. He was an up and coming stage and TV actor when he accepted the role of Callan. He was due to be going on holiday with his family when he received the script for A Magnum For Schneider. After reading the script, he knew that he had to take this role. Alas the Woodward family holiday was cancelled so that he could get right to work, but I’m sure that personal sacrifice was considered to have been worth it in the end.

Edward Woodward perfectly captured the many different layers of David Callan.

He brings such depth to the character of Callan and captures his many layers. He totally convinces as a cold and hard professional, but also shows that the man is also a very gentle and weary soul. I also love how Edward does this thing where he very briefly shows little flickers of emotion behind Callan’s hard mask. His eyes will briefly look haunted, tender, angry or amused, and then it is as if the shutters are slammed shut and in a matter of seconds he quickly switches his expressions back to being the cold and detached professional once again. The only other actors who could do acting in quite the same way in my opinion were Jeremy Brett(see his Sherlock Holmes series to see what I mean) and Ian Richardson. Edward is also excellent in the scenes where Callan loses his temper or is intimidating someone. The series made Edward a household name here in the UK and he went on to become one of our most beloved actors. 

Although Callan is the main character of the series there are many other regular characters who we get to know too. The second most important character in the series is the adorable Lonely (Russell Hunter). Russell delivers one of the best performances in the series and makes it impossible not to like this character. Lonely is all wide eyes, exaggerated shock and childlike innocence.  Lonely is a local thief who suffers from terrible personal hygiene issues which causes him to smell.

Lonely and Callan.

Lonely is able to get Callan items he needs at quite short notice. He also assists him on some jobs, such as helping him break into properties. At first Lonely is scared stiff of Callan, who early on in the series often threatens him with violence if he ever tells anyone about what they get up to.

He needn’t worry though because dear Lonely would never betray him. Gradually the threats fade away and are replaced by affection and banter. Lonely later comes to the correct conclusion that Callan is a spy. When he tells Callan that he knows what he is, this leads to the interesting development for Lonely, which is put in place by Callan in season 4. 

It quickly becomes very clear that Callan and Lonely have a genuine emotional connection. They each become the only friend that the other has. Callan provides Lonely with the only bits of warmth and kindness he gets in his life and he also makes him feel needed and valued.Lonely allows Callan to relax and briefly let his guard down. When they are together their relationship also offers Callan the only bit of a normal life he’ll most likely ever get to have.The way that Russell plays the role of Lonely implies that the character is supposed to have learning difficulties. Lonely is quite slow and vulnerable and he is easily taken advantage of, something which makes Callan very protective of him. Woe betide anyone who threatens or hurts Lonely because Callan will give them a big dose of their own medicine in return. Their comical and poignant relationship is the highlight of the series for me. Their banter also provides the only source of relief from the overall grimness of the series. 

Seasons 1 and 2 see Callan often paired with the sadistic Toby Meres(Anthony Valentine). Meres was first introduced in the pilot episode where he was played by Peter Bowles. Meres seems to relish the violence of his job. He is also quite a scary, yet charming and suave man. Anthony brings a real edge to the character and makes him so chilling. Meres is the living embodiment of what Callan would be like if he didn’t have a conscience. It has to be said that Meres is a good agent who is working on behalf of his country, but he acts almost like a psychopath and loves dishing out violence. He and Callan develop a grudging professional respect as time goes on, but neither man would ever go so far as to consider the other a friend. Due to the gap between filming seasons 2 and 3, Anthony wasn’t able to return to the series due to other commitments and he would not be seen again until season 4. 

Callan also works with the arrogant and hot tempered James Cross(Patrick Mower). The character of James Cross was written to replace the gap left by Anthony Valentine not being available for season 3. James Cross is less scary and cruel than Meres, but he is quite thuggish. He wants to rise up the ranks of the Section and take Callan’s place as the top agent.Cross is an excellent agent but he really annoys Callan, who knows full well that Cross covets his job and wants to move onwards and upwards. A genuine respect and affection does gradually develop between them and they make a good team when out on assignments. Patrick steals all the scenes he is in and works very well with Edward Woodward and there is a real intensity in their shared scenes, particularly when Cross and Callan argue or needle each other. 

Over the course of the series there are four actors who play the chief agents known as “Hunter”. The first was played by Ronald Radd. The first Hunter is the one that I consider to be the most interesting of the four. Ronald’s Hunter was a real tough nut, he was ruthless, and you just know that his word is the absolute law in that department. The second Hunter was played by the seriously underrated Michael Goodliffe. The second Hunter is more intellectual and seemingly not as hard as the first one was, but you never doubt his authority. Michael left the series after only a few episodes of season 2, apparently because he didn’t like the violent content of the series. The third Hunter was played by Derek Bond. The third Hunter knows Callan personally and seems more friendly and approachable than the others. We last see the third Hunter in season 2. The fourth Hunter is the one who has become the most popular amongst the fans. Played by William Squire, the fourth Hunter is a mix of toughness and warmth. The fourth Hunter also encourages Callan to give him lip and argue with him, understanding that this is what keeps Callan sane and helps him blow off steam. The fourth Hunter really sees Callan as a major asset. William is terrific in the role and often steals all the scenes he is in with just a look or by the tone in which he delivers a line.

Other main characters include the reliable and loyal Liz(Lisa Langdon),who is the secretary to each Hunter. Callan and the fourth Hunter are both very fond of her. She and Cross have a brief affair, which is brought to an end by Callan in order to save both of their careers(Section colleagues are not supposed to become romantically involved). Another regular character is Dr. Snell (Clifford Rose), the cold, and frankly scary, Section Doctor.

The first season of the full series of Callan entered production in April, 1967. The episodes were transmitted over July and August that same year. Producer Terence Feely would leave the series after this first season to take up a role at Paramount. He was replaced in season 2 by Reginald Collin, who would stay on in the role of producer for the rest of the series. John Kershaw was brought on as story editor, but he would leave after season 2 to go and work on Armchair Theatre, and was replaced by George Markstein. The first two seasons were shot in black and white and recorded on tape. Standard practice at the time was to reuse tape once its original content had been broadcast a few times, this sadly led to 10 episodes of the early seasons being permanently wiped.

The remaining episodes of season 1 and 2 are now available on DVD. The picture quality sadly isn’t as good as it is on the colour episodes of season 3 and 4, but that is due to how things were filmed at the time. As good as the series is in colour, it can’t be denied that the black and white photography suits the grim tone and dark atmosphere of the series perfectly. Adding to the atmosphere of the series is the unforgettable title sequence, which features a swinging lightbulb casting light and shade across Callan’s face. The theme music was called Girl In The Dark, which was a piece of Library music composed by Jack Tromby. In 1970, Edward Woodward(who in addition to being a good actor was also a very fine singer) would record a vocal version of this tune, entitled This Man Alone, to coincide with the production of season 3 of the series. 

In mid 1968, ABC merged with Associated Rediffusion to become Thames Television. The second season of Callan would be broadcast in 1969.The incredible public reaction to the cliffhanger finale of season 2, which saw a brainwashed Callan kill Hunter and then get shot himself by Meres, ensured that the series would continue to be made by the newly created Thames Television. Everyone wanted to know Callan’s fate after that episode aired. Season 3 was broadcast in 1970. The first episode saw a wounded and traumatised Callan trying to recover from the events in the season 2 finale. The transmission of this season was disrupted due to live football matches being aired, and also due to coverage of the 1970 General Election.

Callan enjoying some wargaming.

Season 4 wouldn’t air until 1972. From 1970 onwards James Mitchell would write a number of short Callan stories, which were then published in the Sunday Express. These written adventures ensured that the public demand for Callan was met in one way or another. James Mitchell also wrote and published some Callan novels. 

The series would end in 1972, with a suitably bleak and moving episode which concluded a three episode storyline about an enemy agent. I like that the series ended on a high note and didn’t drag on, unlike some series which end up really outstaying their welcome. There were two Callan films (both starring Edward Woodward), one made in 1974 and the other in 1981. Unfortunately neither film is as good as the series. 

Other than the grainy picture quality of some of the early episodes this series hasn’t really dated. Its strength is that it is a series which lets the actors and scriptwriters do all the work. There is no fast and annoying editing every few seconds, nor is there any overly intrusive music or reliance on special effects. The strong scripts, interesting characters and the superb performances are what keep you glued to the screen. Callan is good television. It’s a testament to all the cast and crew that this series still works so well today. I can’t recommend this one highly enough.

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