Search

fullybooked2017

Tag

Callan

PAST TIMES – OLD CRIMES . . . The CALLAN novels of James Mitchell (part 2)

old paper or parchment
James Mitchell (1926 -2002) held a number of jobs, including actor, teacher and journalist, before his first novel was published in the mid ‘fifties. Between 1964 and 1969 (as James Munro)  he wrote four well-received thrillers featuring “John Craig of Department K, British Secret Service, whose activities involve jobs too dangerous – or too dirty – for anyone else to handle.”.  It’s unsurprising that Mitchell would wish to adapt a Craig-like character for a television audience.

Death and Bright Water (1974)

DABWThere had been big changes since the last novel appeared a year earlier. The tv series had finished and Callan had transferred to the cinema in a moderately successful feature film (apparently the first to utilise Dolby sound).  It seems that James Mitchell saw Callan’s future as on the big screen. The plots of this novel and the next one reflect that change.

The story begins with Callan once more out of the Section and this time working with a road building gang. He is approached, via the KGB, to rescue an important Greek communist’s daughter from house arrest on Crete. Callan turns down the job, but is persuaded to take it after some pressure from the Section.  A crack squad is assembled, but it’s soon clear that some team members have plans of their own.

 While Hunter and the Section play a much smaller role than before, Lonely, however, was far too valuable a character to omit; and so he is brought along to assist in the inevitable house-breaking that will be required for the Crete stronghold.

The story moves along at a cracking pace, but James Mitchell has moved into 1970s international thriller territory, and this involves exotic locales (well, Crete) and a certain amount of travelogue writing.

Smear Job (1975)

Smear JobBy now Callan (and Lonely) are more or less free agents, pursuing lucrative careers in the world of personal security. The Section exists only to tie them, and potential readers, to the TV series.

From the blurb:

“There were two little tasks which Callan had to carry out for Hunter; he had to make sure that Gunther Kleist lost a very large sum of money at cards, and he had to steal a book from Lord Hexham’s library, a paperback edition of Mein Kampf….but that was only the start, an appetiser to a plot of diabolical complexity weaved by Hunter; a plot that was to take Callan from Sicily to Las Vegas, then on to Mexico, with death waiting at every turn.”

We have come a long way from the swinging light bulb of seven years ago….perhaps too far. This was to be the last Callan novel for twenty-seven years. It’s not hard to see why; the TV series was over and with it the loyal army of viewers and readers. I don’t how the sales compared with the earlier novels, but I don’t think that either this book or Death and Bright Water ran to more than a single printing in paperback. James Mitchell and his publishers might well have concluded that, commercially at least, Callan had run his course…

In any event, James Mitchell turned his attention back to screen-writing (When the Boat Comes In) and to a three book series in the mid 1980s featuring reluctant adventurer Ron Hoggett, and his minder Dave – “ex-student, ex-paratrooper, ex drop-out”.

To summarise – James Mitchell was incapable of writing a dull book and the last two novels are fast moving adventure thrillers. Seen from the present day they perhaps don’t capture the authentic atmosphere of the TV series in the way that the first two novels do. But all four books remain very readable.

Bonfire Night (2002)

Bonfire NightWritten when James Mitchell was old and unwell, and published a  year before his death, this is something of a curio. Callan has been free of the Section for at least a decade, and in that time he and Lonely have made vast fortunes in the electronics business. This at least follows on from the conclusion of the previous novel, when Callan and Lonely were establishing something  of a living outside the Section.  But the plot, which need not detain us here, is difficult to credit when it’s not merely confusing.   The book is not without its moments, but is for Callan completists only.

 

 

Stuart Radmore, April 2019

The first part of Stuart’s account of the Callan novels is here.

PAST TIMES – OLD CRIMES . . . The CALLAN novels of James Mitchell (part 1)

old paper or parchment

James Mitchell (1926 -2002)
held a number of jobs, including actor, teacher and journalist, before his first novel was published in the mid ‘fifties. Between 1964 and 1969 (as James Munro)  he wrote four well-received thrillers featuring “John Craig of Department K, British Secret Service, whose activities involve jobs too dangerous – or too dirty – for anyone else to handle.”.  It’s unsurprising that Mitchell would wish to adapt a Craig-like character for a television audience.

A Magnum for Schneider (1969)

Mitchell_Callan_SchneiderThe first Callan novel, and perhaps the locus classicus of all Callan plots, on page and screen:  A disillusioned Callan has left the Section  and is living and working in reduced circumstances, until “persuaded” by Hunter to return and carry out one more job. The target is Herr Schneider who, once Callan knows more of him, doesn’t seem to be as black as he’s painted…
James Mitchell certainly put this plot to good use. It began life as a one-off episode of Armchair Theatre (1967), which in turn led to the making of the first Callan television series, later that year.
Now, in 1969, it formed the basis of the first Callan novel. This is no quick cash-in book on the back of a TV success.  Considerably expanded from the tv play, the novel has greater depth and characterisation, and it benefits for being less studio bound.
RFFC
A paperback edition followed in 1971
, re-titled Red File for Callan.  This was much reprinted, as by now the TV series, with the massive assistance of Edward Woodward in the title role, had hit its stride.
Then in 1974, after the TV series had ended, there was a feature film. Once more, the same plot and characters were used, but the film (perhaps for copyright reasons) relied more on the novel than on the Armchair Theatre script. This time the movie tie-in paperback was simply re-titled Callan. If there’s ever a Callan: Rebooted, this is the plot they’ll return to.
Callan movie

Russian Roulette (1973)

RRAlthough published in 1973 this book makes no reference to the events of high drama with which the final TV series concluded a year earlier. Here, Callan is still settled in the Section and all the supporting characters are in place.
The premise, it must be said, is preposterous.  The KGB have captured the Section’s top man in Russia.  They will return him unharmed if Hunter allows three of their operatives to come to London and attempt to kill Callan, who is to be denied any weapons. Hunter agrees. And the Russians have a big dog. Oh, and Callan’s eyes are playing up; he must attend a doctor’s for drops every few days while awaiting an operation to save his sight.
However, because of the quality of the writing, disbelief is soon suspended.    Relatively short, at 200 pages, all the action is splendidly economical and convincing.    This is a first class thriller and James Mitchell deservedly received his best reviews for this book.
The story ends with Callan and Lonely toasting each other’s survival, and with Callan vowing never to return to work for the Section….

© Stuart Radmore 2019. To be concluded

CALLAN . . . A forgotten hero

Callan header

Thanks to the ubiquitous Sky recording thingy and the wise folk at Talking Pictures TV, I have just watched the first episode of what was, back in the day, one of my all time favourite TV shows – Callan. With old TV and radio shows, they say it is a mistake to go back, as programmes are never as funny, or scary, or startling as when you first experienced them. In this case, “they” are seriously wrong.

Without being patronising to ‘Younger Viewers’, Callan (he was a David, but the christian name was rarely used) is a shadowy intelligence agent who is used – and that is the appropriate word – by an MI5 outfit, who send Callan off to do bad things in his country’s name. Callan is certainly a killer, as well as having all the criminal skills, but he has a conscience. Sometimes.

The very first episode, The Good Ones Are All Dead was broadcast on 8th July 1967. There had been a pilot episode under the Armchair Theatre banner, earlier that year, called A Magnum For Schneider. The creator of Callan was the prodigiously talented James Mitchell, who also wrote the long-running TV series When The Boat Comes In.

Callan

Callan is played by Edward Woodward (1930 – 2009), a very gifted actor who was also a fine singer. In popular acclaim he is probably best remembered for his roles as the doomed policeman in the cult film The Wicker Man, and as The Equaliser in the American TV series. His range is demonstrated by the fact that in the same year that Callan premiered, he played Guy Crouchback in a superb TV adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy.

Throughout the four series – plus a ‘reunion’ episode in 1981 – the plot elements remained simple but powerful. At the centre is Callan himself, embittered, solitary, deadly when crossed, but still with a sense of decency. His cynical and ruthless boss is Hunter, played by a succession of fine actors, including Ronald Radd and William Squire. Hunter’s word is law:

‘He has to die,’ said Hunter, ‘and you may be the man for the job.’
‘What’s he done?’
‘That is the second time you have asked that question. It isn’t your concern. Your business is execution and nothing else – not clouding your mind with reason and explanation. Do as you’re told and do it without question. Or get out now.’

Hunter’s on-the-payroll man was initially Toby Mears (played by a suave but deadly Anthony Valentine) whose snobbish dislike of David Callan is matched only by the knowledge that his rival is the more deadly of the pair. Mears was replaced by Patrick Mower, playing Cross, but essentially as the same character. Finally, and memorably, was the vital cameo role of Lonely, a grimy but resourceful low-life criminal. Played brilliantly by the Scottish actor Russell Hunter, Lonely (below) is a scared, smelly, stammering gofer for Callan. Guns, lock picks, information – whatever Callan wants, Lonely can usually get. There is a poignancy in the relationship between the pair, because Callan bullies Lonely unmercifully, but woe betide anyone else who threatens to harm the inadequate little man.

lonely_from_death_of_a_hunter

Callan was pure TV class from start to finish, from the memorably minimalist opening credits (the unforgettable swinging lightbulb and Girl In The Dark theme music by Jan Stoekart) via the eigmatic episode titles – The Death of Robert E Lee, The Little Bits and Pieces of Love, Nice People Die At Home – to the consistently excellent acting, the highlight of which is Woodward’s barely supressed rage and explosive anger at the world, and the role he is forced to play by the urbane but amoral Hunter.

If you have Sky or Freeview, it looks as though Callan will be on Talking Pictures TV, Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday evenings at 9.00pm. Set your recorder to save the series – you won’t be sorry.

Books? Yes, I had better allude to them, as this is basically a crime book review site. As far as I know, they are ‘proper’ novels rather than being adapted from TV or film screenplays. They are all written by James Mitchell.

A Magnum For Schneider/ Red File For Callan (1969)
Russian Roulette
(1973
)
Death and Bright Water (1974)

Smear Job (1975)

Bonfire Night (2002)

Callan Uncovered (2014)*
Callan Uncovered 2 (2015)*

* Edited by Mike Ripley

Callan footer

 

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑