In the mid-1960s, ITV in Britain produced a series of one-off dramas under the title ‘Armchair Theatre’. It was originally intended, I think, as commercial television’s answer to the BBC’s critically-acclaimed ‘Play For Today’. There were times when the series came close to this ambition, but more and more it was a handy catch-all location for pilot episodes that might be turned into a series.
In February 1967 ‘Armchair Theatre’ aired one such pilot under the title ‘A Magnum for Schneider’. It was written by James Mitchell, the author of a number of potboiler spy and crime novels, who would go on to have his greatest success with a nostalgic and romantic TV series called When the Boat Comes In about life in Tyneside during the 20s and 30s. But it was his spy fiction background he put into ‘A Magnum for Schneider’. Its central character was a professional assassin who had just resigned from a shadowy department of British intelligence, but who was just too good at his job for them to let him go.
The TV company must have been fairly confident of the success of this pilot, because the first six-part series of Callan was aired later the same year. It was followed by a second series of 15 episodes in 1969, with two further series of 9 and 13 episodes respectively (the only ones in colour) following in 1970 and 1972. I remember being glued to the series from the moment it first aired. The opening credits, a bare light swings at the end of a fraying cord, behind it we see only a bare brick wall and a ceiling from which the plaster is flaking. There is a shot, the light shatters, and the word CALLAN appears in stark white letters on a black screen. (The original header image for Big Other always used to remind me of this, it was one of the reasons I was attracted to the blog.)
It was the height of cold war angst, the great age of the anti-hero, when we were learning to distrust our own side as much as the others, and Callan matched the mood of the times perfectly. We were cheering for a cold-blooded killer, for heaven’s sake! It was a dark, bleak view of the world, betrayal was everywhere, Hunter, the head of the section, might be removed at any time and replaced with a new Hunter. Callan’s closest ally was Lonely, a petty crook whose chronic fear made him smell atrociously (hence his name). Callan used Lonely to break into places or provide illegal guns, and if Lonely was attacked then Callan would exact revenge; but it was not a friendly relationship, Lonely was justifiably afraid of Callan because Callan would regularly threaten to kill him. No one could be trusted, that was the whole point. And the one associate of Callan’s in the Section that we saw regularly, Toby Meres, repeatedly told us how much he despised Callan even while respecting his abilities. If the situation arose, neither would have any hesitation in killing the other. It was a view of the murky world of espionage closer to the so-called ‘Harry Palmer’ novels of Len Deighton than, say, James Bond or Patrick McGoohan’s Danger Man (though it shared some of the fashionable paranoia of McGoohan’s The Prisoner, which first appeared at roughly the same time, even though Callan’s black and white was a stark contrast to the vivid colours of The Prisoner).
What I was probably oblivious of at the time, though it is screamingly obvious now I’m re-watching them on DVD, is the class consciousness that runs through the work. David Callan, as played by Edward Woodward, is working class who might just aspire to the lower middle class. He has served time in prison, and was in the army (though he probably never got above sergeant, the rank he unconsciously adopts whenever he takes on a quasi-official role); the job he tends to take on when under cover is bookkeeper (at which he seems to be very good), and though he always wears suit and tie, these tend to be creased and untidy. Lonely, incomparably played by Russell Hunter, first appears in ‘A Magnum for Schneider’ in a jacket and tie also, though he looks uncomfortable in them; by the start of the series he is in the shabby raincoat and flat cap that is almost his uniform. He is working class, will often put on a show of being bolshie, but is generally cowed and bullied by those above him, and everyone is above him. Within the Section, however, all is upper class confidence and disdain. Hunter, variously played by Ronald Radd, Michael Goodliffe, Derek Bond and William Squire, is effectively a senior civil servant, always impeccably turned out, always in control. Meres, played by Peter Bowles in the pilot before he left for a career in light comedy, and far better played by Anthony Valentine in the series, is slick, public school educated, speaks with that upper class drawl, and despises Callan for what he is while recognising his abilities. Callan is matter-of-factly good at killing people but he is morally sickened by what he does, which is why he tried to quit; Hunter and Meres have no moral qualms, for them everything is justified by the idea of duty. The implication is that moral sensibility is something only the working class can afford, the higher up the social scale you climb the more morality is squashed by one’s class role. Lonely, of course, is even more morally disturbed than Callan, but of course nobody pays any attention to him.
By 1972 a whole era of cold war unease was passing. We didn’t want a stark, morally compromised world any more. Callan ended after just four series. James Mitchell produced a novel version of the original play, ‘A Magnum for Schneider’, which was itself turned into a film in 1974. Then, in 1981, Callan was brought out of retirement for another one-off play, Callan: Wet Job, but this was mostly about changing times, even the malodorous Lonely had become respectable. It ended well, but it ended.
But there was a period when Callan was an indelible part of my adolescence. Watching it again today (or, at least, all of it that survives: the original play, 11 out of 21 black and white episodes, all 22 colour episodes, plus Wet Job) it is surprising how well it holds up. The technology is dated, and things like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy have made our knowledge of spycraft far more sophisticated, yet the morality, the characterisation, seem perfectly suited to the modern moment. Or maybe times have just moved around once more.