Espionage fans of a certain age will remember Edward Woodward’s eyes following a lightbulb as it swings back and forth to that theme music. The bulb shatters before the shot cuts back to Woodward, the image splintered by a telltale bullet hole. Callan was a hit in its day, some of the dramatic devices and subject matter are still relevant, so why no repeats?
Shown from 1967-72, Callan is at the Harry Palmer end of the spy spectrum: he lives in a dingy bedsit and operates out of a scrapyard. His only friend is a burglar with a body odour problem and his colleagues, both ex-public school psychopaths, despise him. Callan’s conscience troubles him, bringing him into frequent conflict with his superiors. 007 this is not: the closest Callan gets to London nightlife is an argument in the toilets of a strip club.
While shows like The Avengers became increasingly fantastical, Callan got grittier. A brainwashed Callan assassinates his boss, Hunter, at the end of Season Two, before being shot by sidekick Meres (Anthony Valentine). When the series returns in 1970, a traumatised Callan finds the rules have changed: the weapons are newspapers (in ‘The Same Trick Twice’) and publishing houses (‘Suddenly- At Home’). The job is less about stalking and shooting the opposition as it is applying pressure to unwitting pawns in the game between the powers.
As mentioned, contemporary resonances make the case for repeating Callan. The episode ‘Amos Green Must Live’ deals with threats to a far-right politician who Callan must protect. Shown eighteen months after Enoch Powell’s ‘rivers of blood’ speech, the influences are clear. Then, the rise to prominence of Green’s ideology seemed disturbing to the post-war generation: today, as Britain rides a wave of ‘populism’, it’s equally uncomfortable.
Some of the storytelling is surprisingly modern. The makers of Game of Thrones think nothing of casually bumping off main characters. Back then if a show killed off a regular, it usually happened at the end of the episode. Patrick Mower’s James Cross is killed unexpectedly midway through 1972’s ‘Rules of the Game’. That final series is full of interesting twists, all of which heap further misery on Callan: at the beginning, he is being drugged and interrogated by the Soviets after a failed spy swap. On his release, Callan is appointed head of The Section, and it’s his decision that leads to Cross’ death.
Callan isn’t light viewing: more John Le Carre than Brian Clemens. The regular cast- Edward Woodward, Russell Hunter, Anthony Valentine (Raffles, Colditz) and Patrick Mower (Special Branch, Target) are excellent, with scripts by genre legends James Mitchell (its creator), Trevor Preston, Robert Banks Stewart and Terence Feeley. Then there’s that theme tune.
Network DVD released Callan in 2011, but it deserves a wider audience- with more TV shows looking back to that time (Endeavour, Prime Suspect 1973), this is a chance to show them what that nostalgia was all about…