I was surprised to realise the other day that the box-set currently curtailing my viewing for the evening is one I haven’t actually written about before; I thought I’d covered every archive series on the Telegram, especially those that have been viewed more than once. However, it occurred to me that I’d never penned a post about that most superlative – and, it has to be said, cynical – spy series, ‘Callan’. It’s one I revisit every couple of years, I guess, for ‘Callan’ has a habit of routinely drawing me back. I’ve sometimes wondered why such programmes can do that when I pretty much remember where each episode’s storyline is going within five minutes of sitting down to watch; with the element of surprise absent, I’ve realised it’s the characters – and ‘Callan’ has an abundance of real characters that you can’t help yearning to spend more time in the company of. It really is one of those shows that seem to grow richer whenever I return to it. I won’t use fine wine as an obvious analogy, but…oops, too late. Its vintage spans just the five years (1967-72), and even with frustrating gaps in the monochrome era preventing the viewer from seeing the series in its entirety, there is still plenty to be getting on with in 34 surviving episodes.
Just as ‘The Sweeney’ was spun off from ‘Regan’ the TV movie, ‘Callan’ first saw the light of day as an entry in ABC TV’s ‘Armchair Theatre’. The instant potential for a series is evident in that de facto pilot (which happily survives) as we are introduced to a spy and an espionage landscape as far removed from the glamour of 007 as only John Le Carré had ever previously explored. Played with brooding brilliance by Edward Woodward, David Callan works for ‘The Section’, a shady branch of the secret service that appears to specialise in all the dirtiest jobs the State doesn’t like to think about. This is the Cold War’s grubby, sordid frontline – a place where everything from blackmail to assassination can be utilised to eliminate the enemy – and Callan is its most reluctantly effective hit-man. Callan knows he’s the best, but it’s not something he’s remotely proud of; if anything, the job has left him riddled with self-loathing; every time he takes a life, he marks the act with weary resignation rather than satisfaction, for Callan knows the moment he pulls the trigger he’s morally inferior to the man who failed to pull the trigger on him.
Perhaps befitting a series of its era, class consciousness is a recurrent factor when it comes to the title character; Callan’s background is clearly working-class, whilst his ultimate superior (who goes by the title ‘Hunter’) is old-school public school. This helps exacerbate tension as Callan’s vociferous tirades against the unemotional suits issuing death sentences from behind a desk suggests he almost sees them as WWI generals sending Tommy over the top. It doesn’t help that Callan’s most regularly seen fellow agent is another product of privilege – the arrogant, upper-class Toby Meres (an unforgettable performance by Anthony Valentine). Meres evidently enjoys his job as much as Callan loathes it and the two rub each other up the wrong way in the best possible way for the viewer. Whereas so many aspects of The Section make Callan despair of human nature, Meres isn’t exactly plagued by a conscience; he’s not even troubled by the methods employed by the department’s resident psychological sadist, the sinister Dr Snell, whose basement torture chamber is the destination of all captured enemy agents if they manage to be taken alive.
Rarely has the work of the intelligence services been portrayed with such bleak brutality as in ‘Callan’. The Section isn’t presented as remotely heroic, though Callan himself emerges as a heroic figure if only because the viewer empathises with his simmering disdain for, and seething revulsion at, the world he finds himself in – the sole character in The Section to react this way. His only respite comes via his unlikely hobby of model soldiers and the war-games he engages in with them; he also finds strange solace in the smelly company of the habitual criminal known only as Lonely (Russell Hunter), whose own specialist talents often prove useful for The Section, even if Callan’s superiors strongly disapprove. Although on the surface Callan appears to have as much affection for Lonely as Basil Fawlty has for Manuel, there’s an undeniable bond between the two men that is actually quite touching. Perhaps Callan sees in Lonely’s criminality an honesty missing from the far worse criminal acts carried out with perfect legality by The Section and by himself. Lonely is an unpretentious petty crook, pure and simple, not a cold-blooded killer masquerading as a gentleman. Callan certainly has no comparable relationship with any work colleague, most of whom are as untroubled by the job as Toby Meres.
In the first colour series of ‘Callan’ (1970), Meres is absent and his place is taken by the younger and even more arrogant James Cross, played by a sublimely swaggering Patrick Mower. Callan returns to the fold following a spell of convalescence after being brainwashed into shooting dead the third man to sit in Hunter’s chair, and Cross is visibly miffed at his return; throughout their time together, Cross is attempting to establish himself as The Section’s top man and is incurably jealous of Callan’s status. However, Cross is unexpectedly killed off midway through the fourth series, an event which Patrick Mower once recalled led to ‘Cross Lives!’ being scrawled on the bonnet of his car the day after the episode originally aired in 1972. This incident takes place during a brief period in which Callan himself is promoted to Hunter, though sitting behind a desk is not Callan’s natural place and he soon finds himself back out in the field of Cold War conflict.
‘Callan’ ends on a high, if somewhat ambiguous, note with a superb trilogy of episodes featuring the pursuit of a KGB agent code-named Richmond (played with urbane ruthlessness by T.P. McKenna); each man recognises himself in the other and Callan goes against orders by adhering to Richmond’s desperate plea to kill him rather than take him alive. The climax of the series implies Callan will no longer be employed by The Section as a consequence of his actions, though Callan himself knows all-too well that nobody employed by The Section is ever really allowed to leave it. A rare episode in which Hunter’s beautiful secretary Liz takes centre stage by going AWOL underlines the dangers of one individual carrying around so much top secret information in their head; Hunter’s immediate response when Liz fails to show up for work is to put The Section on red alert, so terrified is he of her falling into enemy hands and being emptied of every sensitive detail.
The chillingly clinical approach to the sanctity of life prevalent throughout The Section is a necessity of the job, but by placing a human being like Callan in that world we the audience can identify with his humanity and be as appalled by the lack of it around him as Callan himself is. It’s a clever way of giving the viewer a stake in the series, though we are able to enjoy Meres’ posh-boy thuggery and Lonely’s seedy body odour in a way that Callan can’t, revelling in the wonderful characterisations, peerless performances, memorable dialogue and exceptional storytelling. Coming back to ‘Callan’ again has made me feel that television’s 50-year progression from studio-based series shot on videotape to filmed series shot on location has somehow resulted in the revival of the more melodramatic tropes that ‘Callan’ provided such a sobering antidote to, making ‘Callan’ itself oddly feel even more realistic half-a-century on than many an equivalent series today. More screen time is given over to the development of the characters into well-rounded, believable people than to the shoot-outs, and the viewer is the beneficiary. Add that swinging light-bulb and haunting, reverb-drenched theme tune and you’re left with one of the true jewels in British TV’s crown.
© The Editor