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
(quoitmedia.co.uk). 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”.