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 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.
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.
* Edited by Mike Ripley