I’ve decided it is high time to write about Callan. Despite it having been made twenty years before I was born, this excellent British TV series has ended up becoming a firm favourite of mine. I love it so much. It is a groundbreaking series in so many ways and packs quite a punch.
The series is a gritty, serious, violent, bleak and extremely moody spy drama. The series plays out like a blend of the spy worlds created by John le Carre and Len Deighton.
The characters in Callan are some of the most complex and interesting that you will find in any TV series or film.
Aside from the characters of Liz and Lonely, nobody in this series is completely all hero or villain. The main character/hero of the series is the most complex character of the whole lot. This character complexity is just one of the many things that set this series apart from others made at the time.
Callan is a dark and grim series focusing on things that were never really seen on screen at the time the series was made. We see the main character becoming traumatised and losing his nerve for a time after being shot. We also see another main character reach his emotional breaking point, after his actions leave a young woman permanently brain damaged. That is some heavy stuff right there! And those examples provide only a small taste of the overall dark content and tone of the series. This series seems quite ahead of its time to me. People didn’t really talk about issues like trauma or stress back then, so for this series to actually show us tough men struggling and cracking was really quite daring in my view.
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 and the quirky and stylish adventures of John Steed and Emma Peel in The Avengers.
Callan was created for television by British teacher turned author, James Mitchell. Mitchell had written several gritty crime and spy novels under various pseudonyms, including James Munro. He also wrote for several Television series too.
Callan first began life as a pilot episode written by James Mitchell, called The War Game. The pilot episode was originally intended to be made as part of the popular BBC series Detective. When this fell through, James 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. The pilot episode was given the new title of A Magnum For Schneider.
Before the pilot episode had even been aired, Armchair Theatre producer Leonard White, and the story editor Terence Feely, both strongly felt that this story had the potential to be developed into a full series.
David Callan was a new type of TV hero. Screenshot by me.
The pilot episode introduced viewers to a new type of TV hero. The main character 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 tough, yet troubled and introspective British agent, David Callan(Edward Woodward).
David Callan is the top agent of “The Section”, a department within British Intelligence 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 currently under surveillance. White Files contain the names of people who are to be put out of action by placing them in mental homes, 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 that Callan also happens to loath his job. He also happens to be trapped in the job. It may be an unpleasant job, but it’s a job that he is undeniably good at.
No matter how much Callan may long for a normal life, he can never make himself walk out and leave his life as a spy behind him. It doesn’t help that he knows he could possibly end up in a Red File himself should he ever try to leave his job.
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 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 don’t have to try and live with the unpleasant memories associated with these unpleasant assignments, unlike the 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 what he has to do and while he knows that many of the jobs he does are necessary, there are others that he really isn’t sure about.
We may hate some of the things that Callan has to do, but we can’t help but like and admire him as a person. Callan may well kill, but he certainly doesn’t kill without reason in cold blood. He 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“. David Callan’s threat to the first Hunter.
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.It’s also quite remarkable for the time to see Callan, who is a working class man, challenging the authority of his superiors, many of whom are from the British upper classes.
There have been few series which feature such complex and grey characters as the ones seen in Callan. Edward Woodward described the grey nature of Callan best, in this quote of his from a 1987 audio interview, which can be heard in This Man Alone (a 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. Edward was an up and coming stage and TV actor when he accepted the role of David 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, Edward knew that he had to take on this role. Alas, the Woodward family holiday had to be cancelled so that he could get right to work, but I’m sure that personal sacrifice was considered to have been well worth it in the end. This series made him a star.
Edward Woodward does some of his best work in Callan. Screenshots by me.
He brings such depth to the character of Callan. He totally makes you believe he is this cold and hard professional, but that he 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 actor who I think could do acting like that was Jeremy Brett(see his Sherlock Holmes series to see what I mean). 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 would 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 as well.
Seasons 1 and 2 see Callan often paired with the sadistic Toby Meres(Anthony Valentine). Meres was first introduced in the pilot episode, in which he was played by Peter Bowles. Mears 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 very 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 likes the other. Due to the gap between filming seasons 2 and 3, Anthony wasn’t able to return to the series due to other commitments. 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. 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,often with just a look or an angry expression. He also works very well with Edward Woodward and there is a real intensity in their shared scenes, particularly when the characters argue or needle each other.
The four faces of Hunter. Top left to right: Ronald Radd, Michael Goodliffe, Derek Bond. Bottom: William Squire.
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 great screen actor Michael Goodliffe. The second Hunter is more intellectual and seemingly not as hard as the first one was, but you never doubt his authority for a second. Michael left the series after only a few episodes of season 2, apparently he didn’t like the violent nature 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. 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. Edward Woodward himself would also briefly take on the role of Hunter in season 4, when Callan is promoted to the top position in the Section for a time.
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 has terrible personal hygiene.
Lonely is able to get Callan items he needs at quite short notice. He also assists him on some jobs, such as helping him to 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, dear Lonely would never betray him. Gradually the threats fade away and are replaced by 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 much later in the series.
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 offers Callan the only bit of a normal life he’ll ever get to have.
The way that Russell plays the role of Lonely, it seems to me that Lonely is supposed to also be mentally challenged in some way. Lonely is quite slow and vulnerable, and he is easily taken advantage of, this 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.
Other regular 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). Snell is the cold and scary medical officer for the Section.
The first season of the full series of Callan entered production at ABC 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(UK). 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 the story editor, but he would leave after season 2 to go and work on Armchair Theatre. John Kershaw was replaced by George Markstein, who would remain until the end of the series. James Mitchell would write the majority of the episodes, but there were also other writers working on the series too.
The first two seasons of the series were shot in black and white and recorded on videotape. Standard practice at the time was to reuse the tape once its original content had been broadcast a few times, this practice sadly led to several episodes of the early seasons being permanently wiped. All of the episodes for seasons 3 and 4 survive.
The picture quality of some of the early episodes is sadly not as good as on the colour episodes of season 3 and 4, but that is simply due to how things were filmed at the time. As good as the series is in colour, it really can’t be denied that the black and white photography suits the grim tone and dark atmosphere of the series perfectly.
Adding to the bleak atmosphere of the series is that unforgettable title sequence. The title sequence is simple and very effective. It features a swinging lightbulb casting light and shade across Callan’s face to the strains of the now iconic theme tune. The theme music was called Girl In The Dark, which was a piece of stock library music composed by Jack Tromby. In 1970, Edward Woodward(who was not only a good actor, but 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 underwent an enforced merger 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 would be disrupted due to live football matches being aired, and also due to coverage of the 1970 General Election. As the seasons past, the popularity of Callan grew and grew with the viewers. The series moved from being a cult favourite to one of the most popular series on the air at that time.
Season 4 of the series 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 newspaper. These written adventures ensured that the public demand for David Callan continued to be met in one way or another. James Mitchell also wrote and published several Callan novels.
The series would come to an end in 1972. The final episode was suitably bleak and moving and concluded a three episode storyline. 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 after a while.
There would be two Callan films made (both starring Edward Woodward), one in 1974 and the other in 1981. Unfortunately neither film is as good as the series is. The 1974 film in particular seems like such a wasted opportunity to me. Instead of making a fresh story, or maybe even carrying on directly where the final episode left off, the film is instead a big screen version of the pilot episode A Magnum For Schneider.
Apart from the poor picture quality of some of the early episodes, I think that this series hasn’t really dated at all. The strength of this series is that it is a series which sits back and lets the actors and scriptwriters do all the work. There is no fast and annoying editing every few seconds, nor is there any intrusive music or special effects. The strong scripts, interesting characters, character interactions and all those superb performances are what keeps you glued to the screen. Callan is good television. It is a real testament to all the cast and crew that this series still works so well today.
The complete series is available to buy on DVD. The series has recently been rerun on the Talking Pictures TV channel here in the UK. I’ve really enjoyed reading the many positive comments from people seeing this series for the first time thanks to this rerun. The positive response proves to me that this series has lost none of its impact all these years later.
I really need to get around to checking out the Callan novels at some point. Has anyone read them? If so, do they need to read in order of publication or not? I wonder if any of the short stories James Mitchell wrote for the paper are available anywhere? It would be great to read those as well.
Have you seen this series? What do you think about it?