Mar 1, 2010

An Excess of Subjectivity: DVD Review: Callan: Set 2

An Excess Of Subjectivity

DVD Review: Callan: Set 2


I hadn’t seen the first two black and white seasons of Callan yet when I watched the fourth, color season in Callan: Set 2, because they’ve never been commercially available. (That changed last week when Network released them in England. Fingers crossed that Acorn quickly follows suit in America!) I’d been told by people who had seen them (like blogger Medium Rob, who’s an expert on the subject) that they’re the series’ best, and my feeling was that if that’s the case, they must be simply amazing. Because all of the color episodes from seasons three and four that Acorn have released so far (Set 1 began with season three to kick things off in color) have been absolutely top notch, each episode seemingly outshining the one that came before it. Knowing that the fourth season contained in Acorn’s Callan: Set 2 was the show’s last, I expected a downward spiral, at least to some degree. I knew that David Callan himself (the incomparable Edward Woodward), previously a field agent for a shadowy black ops division of MI-5 known only as “The Section,” became Hunter this season, the codename for the chief of the Section. That worried me. Could the show maintain it’s extremely high level of quality with the lead character behind a desk? Obviously other spy dramas did (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and The Sandbaggers both focus on deskbound spymasters), but Callan seemed to thrive when its lead character got his hands dirty–really dirty. Needless to say, I shouldn’t have worried. Even with series creator James Mitchell penning fewer scripts himself in Season 4 (Set 2), Callan still maintains all of the quality of Season 3 and then some. I think I enjoyed Callan: Set 2 even more than Set 1!

As I’ve stated before, Callan belongs to the “serious” school of spy stories, in a league with Deighton and Le Carré rather than Fleming. But serious, gritty and realistic don’t mean action-free. Callan has the dirtiest job in the profession: he is essentially a government assassin. But he’s not a glamorized government assassin like James Bond; he’s a man who hates his work, but can never leave it. He’s skilled at killing and he’s forced to use those skills; retirement is not an option. But, unlike his colleagues Meres and Cross (Anthony Valentine and Patrick Mower, respectively), Callan takes no joy in his work. It sickens him, but he does it because he must, and because he knows it must be done. His assignments are often messy, and innocent people constantly get caught up–and hurt, or killed–in the games of his controllers and their Soviet counterparts. But just because a spy show is grim and serious doesn’t mean it can’t have action. Callan features far more action than The Sandbaggers or Tinker, Tailor, and Season 4 lays it on even thicker than before. In keeping with the show’s spirit, it’s messy, brutal and often surprisingly grisly (especially for Seventies television) action, but action nonetheless. Does the extra gunplay this season taint its realism? Perhaps ever so slightly, certainly not in its occurrence but in its frequency. But does it make the show more exciting? Undoubtedly. This is a serious spy show that depresses and entertains in equal measure, and the latter cancels out the former.

Callan may present the business of espionage as grim and dreary, but it’s never boring. While I personally enjoy the serious and fantastical sides of the spy genre in equal measure, there are those who prefer one or the other. Callan is a series that can satisfy both tastes. Hardcore realists who scoff at James Bond can nod along at the extistentialism of it all and secretly enjoy action they might otherwise disparage in acceptable doses. And escapists who prefer 007 to Smiley can enjoy that action while at the same time being exposed to the realistic tradecraft, backstabbing politics and masterful manipulations that Le Carré fans are so familiar with. It’s a win/win scenario. Callan is compelling, terrific spy television for every taste.

Episode Analysis

Callan: Set 2 begins with Callan’s smelly thief friend Lonely finding out about Callan’s “funeral” and then rushing off to it. We cut quickly to Moscow’s Lubyanka Prison, where David Callan is very much alive (though suffering an unfortunate prison haircut) and being interrogated by the KGB’s Julian Glover (almost unrecognizable in glasses and mustache). Callan’s response to his Prisoneresque situation is as defiant as Patrick McGoohan’s; he tells his captor to “get stuffed” and refuses to budge in the face of torture and drugs. Meanwhile, Callan’s smug former colleague, Cross (who might enjoy his dirty work just a bit too much) seems pleased to have Callan out of the way. Now he’s top dog in the Section. Cross (a deliciously smarmy Mower) is therefore quite unhappy when ordered by Hunter (William Squire once more, just as reptilian as ever) to escort a KGB prisoner named Richmond to Helsinki to be exchanged for Callan. (We’re treated to nice parallels between Callan’s experience and Richmond’s, both undergoing the same harsh interrogation–and planting the seeds already for the season’s finale.) Obviously, Hunter has no great love for Callan (or even any evident feelings or emotions whatsoever), so it’s no surprise that there are twisted politics behind the trade. As on The Sandbaggers, the shadowy motivations of characters on every side are just as fascinating as the assignments. Since this is the first episode of the season and we’re talking about the title character, it should come as no spoiler to know that the exchange pays off, and Callan does indeed return to England. But that doesn’t mean that anyone’s really happy about how it works out.

Upon his return, Callan is alarmed to discover that he was “buried” in his absence (for official appearances–and underscoring his general expendability). But he’s not surprised to discover that there’s an actual body in the grave. “The Section never had any trouble in finding bodies, did it?” he asks Hunter, bitterly.

“No,” replies his boss, “we’ve been pretty lucky so far.” And thus the show’s trademark cynical tone is successfully re-established for the season to come. The Section will not want for bodies in the months ahead.

Callan’s superiors are left with the sticky task of deciding exactly what to do with their man now that he’s back. For his part, Callan would prefer to quit (which is nothing new for the character), but he’s told in no uncertain terms that that simply isn’t an option. With his usefulness on an operational level gone thanks to the Russians now knowing all about him, it only makes sense to move him up. The promotion to Hunter is the last thing Callan wants, but he’s stuck with it. It’s also the last thing Cross wants, and he does his best to undermine his new superior, but he’s stuck with the situation as well.

Personally, I love the convergence of office politics with state security. When handled in a realistic manner (as it is on Callan or in Queen & Country) and not as an absurd soap opera (24), that combination makes for some of the most compelling spy stories out there. Obviously, I needn’t have worried about the series running out of steam with Callan promoted; he’s now stuck behind a desk he doesn’t want with resentful underlings (including Toby Meres from the monochrome years, who’s been recalled from his assignment in Washington after sitting out the previous season) and equally resentful superiors. The situation in the Section would be a powderkeg even if the security of Britain didn't depend on these people

The mutual resentment felt between Callan and his immediate boss, Bishop (Geoffrey Chater), is quickly evident in the third episode, “First Refusal.” In this classic espionage set-up, a freelance broker is offering to sell SIS a list of ten of its own agents: they get “first refusal” before the names go to the KGB. And to prove it, of course, the seller tips the Russians off to one of the names in advance. Blue-collar Callan assumes the leak must be in London, because no field agent would ever know the names of ten of his colleagues. The aristocratic Bishop takes umbrage at that suggestion:

Callan: Quite obviously the leak is here in London.
Bishop: The SIS? Come, come. It would be very high level for that sort of information. No, no, no, no. Rule that out.
Callan: Have you heard from your friend Kim Philby lately?
Bishop: Callan! That was a gratuitously offensive remark!

Exchanges like that prove why the British Security Services serve as the absolute best backdrop for spy drama: the culture of their intelligence community is so firmly entrenched in the British class system that drama is inherent in every single exchange.

Callan is not well-suited to the job of Hunter for the very reason that he’s also not particularly well-suited to the job of professional killer, despite his knack for it. “What does it say on my file?” he asks the cool-headed Bishop. “Emotionally unstable?”

“‘An excess of subjectivity,’ I believe they called it.”

“Oh yeah, I like that,” says Callan, mulling it over. “What’s it mean when it’s at home?”

“You get too involved. You care.” Bishop spits the word out like it’s the worst thing he could possibly say about someone. Callan cares too much. As a field operative (going all the way back to the series pilot, “A Magnum for Schneider”), he often wanted to know why he was assigned to kill this or that target, and Hunter did his best to keep him in the dark. As Hunter, he quickly discovers that in many cases, prior Hunters were probably just as much in the dark as he was. These orders come from high up–and it was their strength not to ask questions. It may not be Callan’s job to personally carry out the dirty jobs anymore, but it’s his job to plan them... and he still wants to know why. Why is he supposed to arrange the death of this person? Why is he supposed to wage a campaign of harassment against this embassy official? Etcetera. And the answers are no more forthcoming than they were before. It drives him nuts. And he’s not particularly supported by his staff: Meres (the perfectly condescending Valentine) makes no bones about the fact that he has his eye on Callan’s desk, and loose cannon Cross appears to be cracking up–especially after a rash act on his part leaves an innocent girl with permanent brain damage. (That old Callan theme of the suffering of the innocent.)

The fifth episode, “If He Can, So Could I,” is a turning point, not only in this season but in Callan’s life. Someone close to him dies very suddenly, and it’s a real shock to him. (Us, too; the death has no dramatic build-up; it’s not the pay-off to rising suspense; it just happens. So fast you don’t even realize it.) This isn’t an episode that I can reveal too much about, but it builds to a virtuoso monologue by Edward Woodward as a drunk and very angry Callan spills his guts to his only confidant. The episode is a real acting showcase for all concerned, and if Callan were on American TV today, this is the episode that would be sent to Academy voters touting Woodward for an Emmy. It’s no wonder this was one of the two episodes chosen for Woodward to do a commentary track on. The episode is so good that it’s a real surprise that several others in this set manage to top it

“None of Your Business” may be my favorite of the batch, though the competition is stiff. In this one, Callan finds himself persona non grata in the Security Services thanks to his recent actions. He’s suspended of all duties (er, put on “special leave”) and his passport is confiscated. Desperate to leave the country, he sets about finding a suitable forgery through Lonely’s underworld contacts. This quest coincidentally dovetails with an official Section investigation, and soon Callan and Meres find themselves reluctantly working together. Their investigation takes them from the seediest sections of the London underworld to the upper echelons of society, where they track down a ruthless spymaster in a posh bridge club. It’s very Bondian for this series. Meres even wears a tux (I highly doubt that Callan owns one.) Callan is clearly more at home on the other end of the spectrum, and when one of those underworld goons attempts to give him a scare (unaware with whom he’s really dealing), Woodward gets to demonstrate McCall-like utter badassery in his handling of the situation.

Woodward gets to show off more of those balls of steel later on in “I Never Wanted the Job,” when Lonely’s indiscretions force Callan to encounter gangsters once more. It’s great to see Callan and Meres take on the mob (unofficially, of course, and ideally without their superiors finding out). And it’s not just any old London gangsters they’re after, either; it’s wide-lapelled, mustachioed Seventies London gangsters–the very best kind! It’s a terrific little episode with a rather high body count. (All very unofficial, of course.)

As demonstrated earlier with the wounded girl, the high toll of espionage taken on innocent lives is once again a recurring theme in this season of Callan. It’s at the forefront of another excellent episode, “Charlie Says It’s Goodbye.” Callan is assigned to keep a wealthy British economist named Palliser (guest star Dennis Price) from defecting. Palliser is gay and his young lover has gone to Warsaw, where he’s waiting for Palliser to join him. Whether or not the boyfriend is complicit in the ruse is immaterial to the Section; to them it’s an obvious ploy either way by the opposition. As it happens, though, he is not; the young man is just another victim of ongoing secret struggle between East and West. Palliser himself is also a victim, driven by love to betray his country. But there’s another victim in this story, too: a woman named Susan Morris (Beth Harris) who’s a friend of Palliser’s. Callan meets her at a cocktail party where he’s keeping tabs on Palliser and his opposition minders, and Callan takes an instant shine to her. And when Callan likes a woman, well, it’s inevitably bad news for her, because he’s not allowed to be happy. Not only at the behest of the show’s writers, mind you, who certainly prefer keeping their lead character as dour as possible, but also at the behest of Callan’s masters in the Section. Such a romance would be unacceptable.

Susan has already been a victim of the Security Services once before. Her late husband killed himself after allegations of espionage and an official investigation. (A Call For the Dead scenario.) He was later cleared, but it was too late. Therefore, she has a definite aversion to Callan’s job (driven home when she feels his gun press against her as they kiss), but she likes Callan nonetheless. She wants him to quit. She thinks it’s that easy. Callan, of course, knows from bitter experience that it’s not. Susan even hatches a plot to get Callan fired, thinking that then they can be together, but not quite grasping that “fired” has a very specialized meaning within the Section.

You don’t need to be psychic to guess that this episode isn’t going to end well for anybody, but there are thrills in store as well as gloom. There’s a fight that ends with Callan killing someone with a speargun... indoors! It’s kind of awesome... but not to Susan. She witnesses this, and she’s horrified. Callan thinks she’s scared of the guy who was shooting at them and tells her it’s all right now, but she was terrified of him. For those who debate the relative realism of The Sandbaggers and Callan, it would be a valid point to make that no one (to my recollection) ever gets killed with a speargun in Sandbaggers. Then again, this speargun death is certainly not a glamorous, Deadlier Than the Male type of speargun death. It’s gruesome and realistic, the only way a speargun death could be in a series like Callan... or in real life, probably. No one “got the point.” The entire scene–right down to its dreary shot-on-video studio set–plays out as a commentary on that scene in Thunderballwhere James Bond casually shoots Vargas with a speargun in front of Domino. How would Domino react in real life if she saw her new lover murder someone with a spear? Probably like Susan reacts. While all of its practical real world uses are for fishing, the speargun has become an unlikely weapon readily associated with the spy genre, thanks mainly to Ian Fleming (but in no small part to Elke Sommer and Sylva Koscina). It turns up in pop culture homages like Yuki 7 and parodies like Archer, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen the speargun-as-espionage-trope actually deconstructed before! It’s an incredible sequence, and it typifies Callan’s distinctly un-glamorous approach to violence.

Innocent victims also factor heavily in “The Carrier,” which is another excellent episode–par for the course with this series. This episode focuses on the tenuous relationship between the Security Services and Special Branch. To Callan’s horror, his superior (with Meres’ full complicity) allows two unarmed Special Branch officers to pursue a man they think to be a simple courier, but whom the Section knows to be a deadly KGB assassin. It’s certain death for the police officers (one of whom is a totally green if very eager young woman), but the Section allows it to happen. Callan’s fury when he learns this is palpable, but his masters are playing a longer game than the police, with a loftier objective. To that end, they couldn’t compromise their goal with a simple warning to Special Branch. Once again, completely innocent people are sacrificed to the espionage machine.

The deaths in “The Carrier” are especially bloody, even by Callan’s standards of rather gruesome violence for Seventies television. Yet the reason behind all of this brutal death is a supposedly peaceful one. A British scientist doing defense research is an idealist striving for world peace. To achieve that, he thinks the East and the West should be on equal footing, and arranges to smuggle secrets to a Dutch publisher (really a KGB agent, of course). He’s an idealistic fool, and Callan hates him for that. “You’re not even a real traitor,” he hisses disdainfully, following another round of brutal violence sparked by this idealism.

The Richmond File

Season 4 (and Callan as a series, for that matter) concludes with an intense three-part episode called “The Richmond File.” This is a season of symmetry, and given that symmetry, we see the return of Richmond (T.P. McKenna), the Russian agent Callan was swapped for in the first episode, to wrap things up. Once again underscoring that symmetry, Richmond’s plight is compared to Callan’s own. The men are bitter enemies, but they are also the same.

The first part of “The Richmond File” (subtitled "Call Me Enemy") is written by George Markstein, who served as script editor on The Prisoner before decamping to fill that same role on Callan. The episode, with its rapid-fire, Pinteresque dialogue, plays very much like the second to last episode of The Prisoner, “Once Upon A Time," in that it's just two men in a confined space trying to break each other. (Somewhat ironic, since that was the script, by Patrick McGoohan, that precipitated Markstein's exit from the series!  In fact, he dismissed it as "absolute gibberish."*  Perhaps "Enemy" is how he would have done it...) Callan and Richmond are alone in a safe house in the country, where Callan is trying to figure out if Richmond’s supposed defection is genuine or not. At the same time, Richmond wheedles away at Callan, playing on all of his weaknesses and rivalries. It’s a stage drama for television, with all of the excitement generated by two dazzling performances (particularly Woodward’s slow burn) rather than any actual action. It also reminded me of the safe house scenes in The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, but I suppose such comparisons are inevitable given the similar subject matter here. (Though with the roles reversed.)

Other characters from earlier in the season return as well, as the setting moves beyond the house in the second and third episodes of “The Richmond File,” but it remains primarily Woodward’s show–and secondarily McKenna’s, whose role is almost as large. All of James Mitchell’s favorite themes recur, and once more the innocent and the not-so-innocent alike are grinded up on the millstone of the Cold War. “The Richmond File” is also the apex of Callan’s relationship with Lonely. This has been building from the series’ very beginning. Callan is frequently unkind and abusive to the smelly cockney thief, and some of Lonely’s Jar Jar Binks-like acts of stupidity leave the audience wanting to treat him the same way. But Callan is also very protective of Lonely, as he realizes deep down that he’s the only real friend in the world he’s got–the person who keeps Callan sane, who keeps him from losing all humanity like Meres. And that friendship is pretty much the only thing that can save Callan’s soul, a soul he surrendered in the very first episode.

While the character completes his journey in a satisfying manner at the conclusion of “The Richmond File,” physically he’s in as bad a spot as he’s ever been. In fact, he’s pretty much right where he started. Callan ends up in an appropriate situation, but perhaps one offering less definitive closure than some audiences would care for. It’s right for the character, though, and right for the series. It’s been predestined from the very beginning that an upbeat conclusion is not in the cards for David Callan. That it’s not upbeat, however, certainly doesn’t mean the finale isn’t satisfying And, of course, it’s not truly the end of the line for the character, either. Woodward reprised the role two years later in a big-screen feature film, but it was a remake of the pilot episode rather than a continuation of the series. The series did get a continuation many years later in the form of a TV reunion special called “Wet Job” (1981). Sadly, that isn’t included on this set due to rights issues, and I haven’t seen it. According to Edward Woodward himself on one of the commentary tracks here, that might be for the better.


Overall, Season 4 is more serialized than previous seasons, although other than “The Richmond File,” every episode does stand on its own as well. But television drama was starting to become more sophisticated, and several ongoing arcs span the season. While Callan: Set 2 could stand perfectly well on its own seen start-to-finish, I recommend watching Callan: Set 1 first; it will afford the viewer a better appreciation of the characters. Callan is truly amazing television, anchored by a mesmerizing lead performance. I said it when I reviewed Set 1 and I’ll say it again: this is absolutely essential viewing for spy fans. And as I mentioned at the beginning of this review, it should appeal in equal measure to fans of both the serious and the more action-packed sides of the genre.

Acorn Media’s release of Callan: Set 2 ports over some most welcome extras from Umbrella’s Australian release: two commentary tracks by Edward Woodward. The moderated commentaries (conducted just after the actor had done Hot Fuzz) unfortunately aren’t amazing, but it’s still really great to hear Woodward talk about the series. While there are long dull patches, there are also some great moments that will reward full listening. The tracks are at their best when the moderator leads Woodward off topic from what’s going on on the screen; the actor’s tangents on other episodes and other actors and even other series are all enthralling. Fans of The Equalizer, for example, will also find much of interest in these commentaries. Woodward discusses that series a fair bit, and reveals that the creator told him he was a huge Callan fan and that his series was “based on Callan” and written specifically for Woodward. The actor is quick to point out the differences in the two characters, insisting that McCall is much more educated and clearly of a higher class than Callan, but he acknowledges that the later character wouldn’t exist without the earlier one. Woodward also gives his opinions of “Wet Job” and the Callan film, talks about how Callan began and came to end, and reveals that “Wet Job” was in fact a failed attempt to launch a whole new Callan series. While it would have been interesting to see Callan in the early Eighties, I think it’s just as well that the revival was aborted. The series as it stands is a masterpiece.

I wouldn’t have thought it possible, but overall Callan: Set 2 is an even better set than Callan: Set 1. Of course, Set 1 is great in its own right, and I wouldn’t recommend skipping it. You’ll want to see everything. After I’d watched the final episode of Callan: Set 2, I immediately suffered remorse that it was all over. Luckily, Network’s release of the never-before-available Callan: The Monochrome Years was just around the corner... and hopefully those episodes will eventually make their way to Region 1 DVD via Acorn as well.

Read my obituary of the great Edward Woodward here.
For a very touching, funny and personal rememberance of the actor,
read Hot Fuzz director Edgar Wright's obituary of Woodward here.

Read my review of Acorn's Callan: Set 1 here.
Read Part 1 of my review of Network's Callan: The Monochrome Years here.
...and stay tuned for Part 2 of that review!

*Fairclough, Robert (ed.), The Prisoner: The Original Scripts: Volume 2. London: Reynolds and Hearn, 2006.  p. 371.

1 comment:

Rob Buckley said...

Excellent work as always. Wouldn't class myself as an expert, but thanks!

I do feel the fourth series benefits from a combination of the scripts, Anthony Valentine and William Squire - I'd pitch it at about equal with the second series of the show which if you haven't yet seen, you're in for a treat. The third series has Patrick Mower and Cross is no Meres, unfortunately.

Where I find the fourth series suffers is in the variable characterisation. With James Mitchell's reduced input, it's a lot easier to notice that the other writers move Callan and Meres towards more of a friendship during the fourth series (and indeed towards the end of the second series). However, Mitchell seems to want to reset characterisation back to 'A Magnum for Schneider' so every fourth series script that Mitchell writes has them at each other's throat again.

Love them, though.

'Wet Job' is, as Woodward suggests, not a great bit of work, so it's best to leave it alone - it is to Callan what those Six Million Dollar man reunion movies were to the original series.