Crime Scene re­vis­its the clas­sic shows. This ex­clu­sive ex­tract from the de­fin­i­tive new guide to the gritty es­pi­onage thriller Cal­lan ex­plores the con­flicted anti-hero killer’s 1967 de­but…


A look at the clas­sic se­ries star­ring Ed­ward Wood­ward.

“It was a very ex­cit­ing time in tele­vi­sion,” Ed­ward wood­ward re­called in 1987, of his cast­ing as David Cal­lan in the TV play “A Mag­num For Sch­nei­der”, which aired on the ITV net­work in Fe­bru­ary 1967. “It re­ally was the first of the anti-he­roes, non-he­roes, what­ever you want to call it, and it re­ally kind of led the way, as Arm­chair Theatre did many times. The thing that ap­pealed to me about the char­ac­ter was that he had a chip on his shoul­der, he was a hero with feet of clay and he was a prickly kind of per­son. I was very much look­ing for that kind of char­ac­ter to play: this man went right down the mid­dle, you couldn’t make up your mind what he was… It was quite a big chance to take for the tele­vi­sion com­pany at the time.”

“Class came into it a great deal, it was still very alive and kick­ing in those days… I sup­pose it still is a bit,” Se­ries 2-4 di­rec­tor Mike Vardy ob­serves gen­er­ally, of the con­flict be­tween Cal­lan and his em­ploy­ers. “Take MI5, for in­stance, all their top brass were right out of what we would call the top drawer – Eton, Guards Of­fi­cers and all the rest of it… Cal­lan’s back­ground was that he’d been in prison, and he was some­what down­mar­ket, al­though sharp as a but­ton, so there was a lot of an­tag­o­nism.”

This mu­tual an­tipa­thy would con­tinue to be an es­sen­tial part of the se­ries that fol­lowed.

In a 1985 in­ter­view, cre­ator James Mitchell said he de­lib­er­ately chose ‘Hunter’ as “the name that goes with the job” of the depart­ment’s com­man­der. Con­cern­ing the ‘Sec­tion’ it­self, he added, “I knew, by read­ing, what the KGB ‘wet job’ char­ac­ters ex­e­cu­tion­ers were like, I had some idea of what CIA char­ac­ters were like also by read­ing, and I’d heard gos­sip about French char­ac­ters. There­fore, it seemed to me to be log­i­cal that if that’s what they were like in Rus­sia, Amer­ica or France, then that’s what they’d be like in Eng­land.”

The TV Times pub­li­cised the black & white play (the se­ries would switch to colour in 1970) in most re­gions with pho­tos of Wood­ward,

Joseph Fürst and Francesca Tu, and a short fea­ture, in­form­ing read­ers that “A new se­cret agent makes his de­but… His name: David Cal­lan. His pro­fes­sion: li­censed ex­e­cu­tioner for a se­cu­rity or­gan­i­sa­tion.”

The ar­ti­cle made clear that this was only the first ap­pear­ance of a char­ac­ter who would re­turn later. Press re­ac­tion was pos­i­tive, with Daily Mir­ror re­viewer Ken­neth Eas­taugh prais­ing Mitchell’s script: “I spy a first-rate spy... His name is ‘Cal­lan’ and his por­trayal by Ed­ward Wood­ward in the Arm­chair Theatre play was the event of the week­end.”

Re­flect­ing on the episode al­most 20 years later, fu­ture pro­ducer Reg Collin be­lieved there were two key rea­sons for the play’s suc­cess: “The char­ac­ters as drawn in ‘A Mag­num For Sch­nei­der’ were very good. Ted Wood­ward was bril­liant cast­ing as was Russell Hunter.”

Ac­tor Peter Egan was in the au­di­ence when the play was trans­mit­ted, un­aware he would one day par­tic­i­pate in its re­make as a film: “I re­mem­ber see­ing that – it was ter­rific. I thought, ‘What a great idea!’ And two years later it was a smash se­ries.”

There was a clear sense among many of the cast and crew that the play was likely to be more

A com­pelling world, in which the mo­tives of every char­ac­ter are am­bigu­ous

than a one-off, months be­fore for­mal of­fers were made to them.

“More than any­thing I’d done be­fore, I was cer­tain that this Arm­chair Theatre play would spin off into a se­ries and if it did, it would be suc­cess­ful,” Ed­ward Wood­ward said in 2000. “It was one of the first scripts I’d read where I had that feel­ing. There’s a strange thing when you start some­thing and it’s turned into a se­ries – you want it to suc­ceed, but on the other hand you don’t want to get trapped in a char­ac­ter. [But]… it was such a very good script.”

“I as­sumed the men up­stairs were think­ing about it be­cause it was the great spy time,” Mitchell later re­called, of the pe­riod af­ter record­ing. “I didn’t know un­til I was told that there had been a mass of phone calls. That was the first in­for­ma­tion I had that a se­ries was in the off­ing.”

Cal­lan’s joc­u­lar comment about “rob­bing mail trains” hints that he has a crim­i­nal back­ground, as it’s a clear ref­er­ence to the Great Train Rob­bery. He refers to fel­low agent Meres as a “pub­lic school Capone”.

Other con­tem­po­rary spies like James Bond, John Steed and Harry Palmer fol­lowed or­ders, al­though they were some­times dis­taste­ful. Even le Carré’s Alec Lea­mas ac­qui­esced, de­spite be­ing ma­nip­u­lated and ex­press­ing dis­gust with the mis­sion he com­pleted. By con­trast, “A Mag­num For Sch­nei­der” ar­guably takes John le Carré’s sce­nario one step fur­ther, show­ing a dis­il­lu­sioned, ex­pelled agent’s re­la­tions with a cal­lously prag­matic, in­hu­man or­gan­i­sa­tion.

In any other TV es­pi­onage thriller of the time, the stylishly dressed, cul­tured agent would be the cen­tral char­ac­ter and the work­ing-class one would be the vil­lain. James Mitchell in­verts this for­mula, helped im­mea­sur­ably by a stun­ning per­for­mance from Wood­ward.

The re­ac­tion against the norm con­tin­ues in the de­ci­sion to lo­cate the char­ac­ters in dingy of­fice block, bed­sit and pub sets, turn­ing bud­getary con­straints into an as­set; even Sch­nei­der’s apart­ment has a cramped, tem­po­rary feel. The hu­mour is earthy, the swear­ing risqué (for 1967), there is Scotch and beer, rather than cham­pagne or cocktails, and the seamy tone is high­lighted by the ran­cid per­sonal hy­giene of Lonely, Cal­lan’s arms

sup­plier and in­former. The re­sult­ing pro­duc­tion is both hard-bit­ten and high­brow; the model sol­diers Cal­lan and Sch­nei­der play war games with are an ironic metaphor for the larger three-way con­flict tak­ing place be­tween them and Hunter. Ad­di­tion­ally, Wood­ward’s voiceovers make the viewer com­plicit with his flawed char­ac­ter.

This is a dan­ger­ous, orig­i­nal, cold and com­pelling world, in which the mo­tives of every char­ac­ter are am­bigu­ous. Ac­cord­ingly, the ac­tors’ per­for­mances tran­scend the tech­ni­cal lim­i­ta­tions of video­taped drama: Cal­lan is by turns com­mand­ing, in­tro­spec­tive, pres­surised and fal­li­ble; Ron­ald Radd’s Hunter is gre­gar­i­ous but chill­ingly dis­pas­sion­ate; Russell Hunter’s Lonely is al­most Dick­en­sian in his sub­servient de­meanour to­wards Cal­lan, while Fürst’s “love­able rogue” ve­neer be­lies his ma­cabre col­lec­tion of cut­tings on the con­se­quences of his arms sales.

Over­all, “A Mag­num For Sch­nei­der” is a taut, stripped-down story about loy­alty, in­de­ci­sion and be­trayal which works as both a grip­ping state­ment of in­tent for a se­ries and as the self-con­tained play it was ini­tially in­tended to be. Cal­lan’s de­but story has now been recog­nised as an iconic es­pi­onage drama, and it’s not sur­pris­ing that Mitchell would re­turn to re­fine it twice more in his 1969 novel, A Mag­num For Sch­nei­der, and the 1974 fea­ture film Cal­lan, a movie adap­ta­tion of the orig­i­nal Arm­chair Theatre play.

The Cal­lan File – The De­fin­i­tive Guide by Robert Fair­clough and Mike Ken­wood is out now

(quoit­ Cal­lan – The Mono­chrome Years and Cal­lan – The Colour Years (Net­work) are avail­able on DVD.

He’s the com­plete an­tithe­sis of the suave su­per­spy.

Even when­callan’s in the field, the mood is down­beat and gritty.

A bru­tal yet com­pas­sion­ate, work­ing-class killer,cal­lan sub­verted the genre’s form.

In Cal­lan, you’re never re­ally sure who’s ‘play­ing’ whom.

Cal­lan and Lonely make for an in­cred­i­bly mem­o­rable dou­ble act.

Cal­lan’s voiceovers make view­ers “com­plicit with his flawed char­ac­ter”.

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