Jul 13, 2009

DVD Review: Callan: Set 1

Note: Normally I like to profusely illustrate my DVD reviews with screen captures, but I wasn't able to make any from these DVDs for some reason. Apologies for the dense block of text!

Acorn Video fills in a crucial gap on any spy shelf by finally bringing the esteemed 1967-72 Edward Woodward series Callan to DVD in the United States in the form of Callan: Set 1. Callan has a great reputation as a true classic of the genre–specifically of the downbeat, realistic subgenre. And in the late Sixties, amidst other British spy shows like The Avengers, The Champions and Department S, downbeat and realistic were qualities that stood out. I’m happy to report that Callan fully lives up to its reputation: this is high quality espionage drama. In fact, it’s on par with the more highly regarded and slightly less hard to see Seventies classic, The Sandbaggers–and quite possibly even bleaker in its world view than that series.

David Callan (Woodward), like Harry Palmer, finds himself forced into the dirty business of espionage. And he’s in the dirtiest part of it: an assassin for a highly secret section of the Security Services known simply as, well, "the Section." Only jobs of the most unpleasant nature come the way of the Section: problems that need fixing with no margin for error and no time for moralizing. Callan reports to a boss known as Hunter, but like "M," "Hunter" is a name assigned to whoever occupies that position. Callan reports to at least four different Hunters over the course of the series, but in these episodes (the first color episodes, comprising season three of four), he’s played by William Squire. Also in the section is James Cross (Patrick Mower, ubiquitous in Sixties and Seventies spy TV), a younger, leaner operative, eager to prove himself better than Callan, but also eager to be mentored by him. The Section is based in what appears to be a very drab basement, and all we ever see of it are Hunter’s office, the dismal antechamber where his secretary, Liz, serves as gatekeeper and occasionally the firing range where the armorer makes sure Callan keeps in good form. It’s true that limiting the regular sets like this keeps things cheap, but it also feels right for the Section as presented on the show. It’s a dirty secret, used when necessary by men with windows in their offices, but best forgotten about the rest of the time. Shooting the interiors on video (standard for lower budget British shows of the period) lends the shabby rooms and even seedier feel, which also seems appropriate. These are seedy men doing the seedy jobs that the government occasionally needs done. (The filmed exterior shots aren't in great shape, but are certainly easier to adjust to than the videotaped interiors, as with The Sandbaggers.)

In The Sandbaggers, it’s never in doubt that Neil Burnside believes that the job he’s doing is worthwhile and for the greater good, even if his methods often aren’t. In Callan, though, I’m not so sure. Series creator James Mitchell (who wrote for the more serious early seasons of The Avengers before creating the character of Callan, about whom he wrote several novels) seems almost disdainful of the espionage establishment, and when Hunter and Cross get to plotting on their own in the second episode, "Summoned to Appear," one gets the feeling that they might actually be evil men who have found the ideal profession for their personalities: one which lets them kill with impunity and ruin lives. Squire’s reptilian features and Mower’s general oily smarm lend further credence to this point of view, but despite their darker tendencies, both men have more redemptive moments as the series continues. Cross, in particular, becomes much more likable through the course of a strong character arc. No one’s motives on this show are black or white; every character is a fully-realized and fully flawed human being.

Callan himself is the most moralistic, and questions what the Section does more than the others, yet he still goes along and does those things. One suspects that it’s all he knows how to do. And even as Callan disapproves of the ways in which Hunter manipulates people for his own ends, so does he manipulate the dimwitted Lonely (Russell Hunter). Lonely is a none-to-bright and hygienically-challenged cockney crook, and Callan uses him (and "uses" is certainly the right word) again and again on his assignments. Lonely, of course, has no idea that Callan is any sort of spook; he thinks that he’s a big-time criminal. Ironically, this twenty-five time repeat offender is probably the most well-intentioned character on the show. Callan’s relationship with Lonely is complex. He has an almost fatherly concern for his well-being and resents it whenever Hunter wants to hang Lonely out to dry, yet he will himself put Lonely in all sorts of dangerous, life-threatening predicaments–and isn’t above using force to do it. He’s also short-tempered with Lonely, who certainly suffers the most from Callan’s mood swings. Callan must do as Hunter orders him, no matter how much he disapproves, and he frequently takes out his frustration on poor Lonely, further down in the pecking order.

Callan enjoys the same relationship to The Equalizer that Danger Man/Secret Agent does to The Prisoner. It doesn’t matter if Number 6 is really John Drake and it doesn’t matter if McCall is really Callan; what matters is that in both cases the earlier programs provide intertextual baggage for the audience that helps establish the later characters. Since The Equalizer’s McCall (also Woodward) seems so intent on atoning for the sins he committed in his espionage career, Callan’s sins could easily qualify. The character is never comfortable with the dirty work he’s forced to do.

Unlike most other British spy and adventure shows of the period, Callan features ongoing storylines and characters who grow and change. It’s not strictly a serial (the main plot of each episode is wrapped up–though rarely neatly–in an hour), but it does benefit from watching in order–with one glaring exception. I already mentioned that Acorn (like Umbrella before them in Australia) has opted to start with Callan’s third season (despite the moniker Set 1). From a commercial standpoint, this makes some sense. The first two seasons are in black and white, and several episodes from them are lost (that awful British television practice of "wiping" old programs rather than preserving them for posterity). Furthermore, the quality is said to vary more on the existing black and white episodes, which do circulate as bootlegs. But from a story standpoint, the first color episode is actually a terrible place to start. "Where Else Could I Go" is a direct continuation of the last episode of the previous season, which evidently ended on a rather explosive cliffhanger. Apparently Callan was programmed to kill his boss (ala James Bond in Ian Fleming’s The Man With the Golden Gun) and indeed succeeded in murdering the former Hunter. The first episode deals with the fallout of that action, and with Callan’s subsequent rehabilitation and the effects of his protracted absence on Lonely, who manages to get himself nicked (of course) without his guardian angel. Callan pulls strings to get him out on bail, and Lonely’s legal troubles will remain an ongoing plotline throughout the season, eventually dovetailing (in quite a satisfying manner) with Callan’s own spy activities.

The second episode, "Summoned to Appear," is a much better introduction to Callan and his world. It also showcases the kind of utterly bleak plot that typifies this series. At the very beginning, Callan and Cross are keeping tabs on a suspected foreign agent at a suburban train station. In a fatal mix-up, Cross accidentally kills an innocent man in front of witnesses–and the spy gets clean away. In many spy shows that would be the end of the matter, and the focus of the episode would be on tracking down the spy who got away. But Callan, firmly rooted in the real world, goes a different direction, and the episode follows Callan being hauled into the police station to make a statement as a witness. In order to keep his partner, Cross, and the Section out of the spotlight, Callan has to make a statement that contradicts that of the other witness, an understandably hysterical local woman. He also has to surreptitiously cast her reliability into question. Lies on top of lies spin out of control, and Callan eventually finds himself having to commit perjury in court for the good of the department. That doesn’t bother Hunter one bit, but it weighs heavily on Callan, particularly when he discovers this his testimony, alleging that the unfortunate victim killed himself, could result in the man’s widow getting no insurance money. Callan may be a show about an assassin, but the climax of the episode is a moral dilemma rather than an action scene. This is typical of the series.

"The Same Trick Twice" delivers more traditional spy tropes than many Callan episodes; it begins with a prisoner exchange at a border crossing in Germany and ends with violence, and there’s a even beautiful blonde somewhere in the middle. But none of it is remotely glamorous. Again and again, Callan reinforces its central thesis that spying is a very dirty business. Two British prisoners are returned from the East, and Callan immediately informs them that he’s been "authorized to look after you" for the next few weeks. One of them is fine with that, but the other isn’t, realizing that it means interrogation at the hands of the British. The dissatisfied one, Surtees, immediately goes on TV and announces that he was blackmailed into spying for Britain, creating a PR nightmare for the Security Services. Hunter acknowledges that such a claim is not beyond the realm of possibility, but the thing is, neither MI5 nor MI6 have any records of him ever actually working for them! (I assume, at least, that the irritating Bishop is supposed to represent MI6; when Callan himself demands to know who he works with, he’s met with a circuitous torrent of vague euphemisms–which seems accurate!) Callan needs to get to the bottom of the situation, and isn’t above roughing up a private citizen on committing a little breaking and entering with Lonely along the way. He remains, as is often the case on this show, a step or two behind the enemy at all times, and once again innocent people have their lives ruined–or ended, acceptable collateral damage in the games being played between the East and the West.

In "A Village Called ‘G’," Hunter’s secretary, Liz, suddenly goes missing. She’s a "red file" like Callan, which means that she knows too much. (The set-up reminded me of The Moneypenny Diaries, in which an administrative assistant with too many state secrets in her head is frequently put in dangerous positions.) The whole department immediately goes on high alert. "I like Liz," says Hunter. "It would be best if you brought her back unhurt."

When they’re on their own, Cross clarifies his interpretation with Callan, his usually cold veneer clearly ruffled: "He’s saying we can kill her."

"If we have to, yeah," acknowledges Callan. Cross asks if Callan would really do that, and Callan snaps at his young colleague. "How the hell should I know? It hasn’t happened, has it?"

This is a very well directed episode, introducing some artsy flair to a season that’s previously offered fairly workmanlike direction. Besides unusual camera angles, it’s also an important turning point for the character of Cross, whose veneer starts to crack on such a personal assignment. It turns out he’s been involved in a highly illicit relationship with Liz, and the only way that Callan can think of to extricate his young colleague from that situation (which, needless to say, goes against Section policy) involves publicly humiliating–even emasculating–him. The audience's conception of who Cross is begins to change. It’s also an episode that takes a lot of left turns from its initial premise, with the story eventually involving Nazi war criminals and the Israeli secret service. There’s also some welcome humor amidst the characteristically bleak proceedings. Hunter’s interim secretary, for instance, doesn’t take well to Callan calling her "Luv," as he always did Liz. "But what else am I meant to call you?" he asks.

"Suddenly–At Home" is probably the most downbeat episode in the whole season. Callan becomes involved with a civilian woman, which in this sort of series you just know can’t end well–and it doesn’t. Once again, the series spotlights innocent lives destroyed by the games that governments play. The plot involves a French TV producer (who dresses like Jason King–and even wears his mustache) who’s previously interviewed Castro, Mao, Che Guevara and Ho Chi Minh offering £10,000 to the widow of a deceased foreign secretary to tell her story on his program. The government, of course, is afraid that state secrets will come out, so the Section gets involved and Callan is sent round to do whatever’s necessary to keep her from doing the show. This episode contains another very important moment in Cross’s arc, and forces the audience to further reconsider their initial opinion of this callous killer. When Callan explains to him that Lonely thinks they’re crooks, Cross seems embarrassed. "Why?" asks Callan. "Think what we do’s any better? Better than thieving?"

Cross is defiant. "I think it is, yeah. I think it’s important. If I didn’t think that, I wouldn’t do it." Cross, who on the surface appears to have far fewer scruples than Callan, actually does operate by some sort of moral compass, and believes in what he’s doing. Callan rarely gives the impression that he does. This episode showcases Callan’s own more violent instincts, and we see him, motivated by revenge, kill for his own satisfaction even when Hunter, for once, has forbidden it. We’re also treated to an action scene that represents the show itself pretty well.
At one point, Callan and Cross make a (very) slow-speed getaway after an assassination, cranking their way up the side of a building in a window-washer’s rig. Callan is by no means without action; it’s just that when it occurs, like everything else in this series, it’s of a far more real-world variety than Bondian chase scenes.

In "Act of Kindness," the Section pulls its weight in the private sector. Two men are up for the job of general director at a company that manufactures tractors: Prescott and Land. Land receives some photographs of the married Prescott in a very compromising position while on a business trip to Moscow. (Callan features a surprising amount of full frontal female nudity for its era–in still photos, at least. Many episodes involve blackmail photographs, and blackmail photographs sure couldn’t look like that on American television, even today!) The photographs should assure Land the position, and he’s clearly the better man for it, as well as being very moral and an all-around good guy. But Callan’s job is to help the reprehensible, chauvinist Prescott secure the position, because he is, in fact, an MI6 asset. (A well positioned one, given his frequent business trips to Moscow.) Callan wants Cross to handle this job, because he’s already put in for a few days’ leave to attend a model soldier convention. Model soldiers are Callan’s passion, and his hobby is a very humanizing character trait. It also happens to be Land’s hobby, hence Hunter’s choice of operative.
Callan befriends Land at the convention by making a particular soldier that Land had been advertising for in a hobby trade. The two men hit it off, and play war games against each other. They position their troops on small-scale terrain, roll dice and move them accordingly. The lead soldiers advance across the battlefield in stop-motion animation, which is a neat touch. Their battle–and friendship–continues after the convention, and the wealthy Land invites Callan to play wargames at his house, where he has a special room set up for it. Callan is highly impressed. But Land’s onto him. As they strategize against each other, he makes some pointed remarks about spies before finally calling Callan out for what he is.

Land wants to use the photographs to expose Prescott for the jerk that he is. And he plans to pursue the general directorship. Callan’s job is to talk him out of it. Otherwise, Cross might get his way. Cross argues that they should kill Land if necessary, and Hunter is willing to go along with it. Callan plays out an elaborate game of strategy both against Land–whom he likes very much–and his own department to try to bring things to a satisfactory conclusion for all involved. There’s very little action beyond the mock battlefield, but this was probably my favorite episode of the bunch. Callan comes off as very human in it, much moreso than most TV spies.

"God Help Your Friends" returns again to the series’ favorite theme of innocent people crushed in the cogs of international intrigue. When the daughter of a British general who also happens to be a high-level interpreter with access to government secrets (played by Stephanie Beacham) gets herself engaged to a communist sympathizer suspected of leaking secrets to Moscow, it’s up to the Section to break off the engagement. Callan is assigned to the guy, and Cross to the girl. The episode plays out like a macabre farce: spies sending flowers purporting to be from suitors and making phone calls from restaurants to lure jealous lovers. It could be a romantic comedy premise, but it’s deadly serious. The effects of these seemingly humorous actions, of course, take a very deep toll indeed on the innocent people caught up in their game. This episode actually uses score music at one point, which is highly unusual for the normally music-free series and stands out.

The eighth episode, "Breakout," really wraps up the themes and ongoing storylines of the season. As Lonely’s case finally goes to trial, Callan testifies as a character witness on his behalf with the upshot of Lonely getting off with twenty-five six-month sentences... served concurrently. The fact that that means he only needs to spend six months in jail confuses Lonely greatly, but he’s happy nonetheless. Of course, even now Callan is pulling the poor guy’s strings. He arranges to have him transferred to a high-security prison outside London where a KGB agent has recently been interned. The enemy spy turned himself in to escape Hunter’s dragnet. The man carries in his head a "death list" of British agents marked for termination by the Russians. Callan’s name is on the list. Obviously, from the Section’s point of view, he has to die before he can ever make contact with his controllers. Ironically, the one place he’s absolutely safe is in prison–and he knows it. Callan and his team, therefore, must pose as a KGB squad and break the spy out of British prison... with the ultimate goal of killing him. Naturally, there’s lots of action in a plot like this. When Hunter emphasizes that Russia thinks that Callan is a top man for his name to be on that list, it’s as close as he’ll ever come to saying as much himself, and would be a good ending for the season. But there’s still one more episode to go.

"Amos Green Must Live," which concludes the season, is unfortunately the only sub-par episode besides the first one, so things end on a bit of a low note. Still, the episode deals with interesting themes (race politics) and offers up the most action-packed finale of any Callan episode this season. The Section must protect a racist British politician from assassins. No one agrees with his politics, but that’s the job at hand. Callan has to become "the Man" and spy on the Black Power movement, going so far as to break into their headquarters at night. A good performance by guest star Stefan Kalipha as the primary radical elevates the episode, as does the bang-up conclusion in which assassins in gas masks shoot gas bombs into a country house before having their car blown up! Even Callan is involved in this action, bursting in, guns blazing, with his own gas mask. It’s a cool action sequence, but not really typical of the series. The heart of this season lies in the unimpeachable episodes two through eight; one and nine are merely dessert.

The only special features on Acorn’s release are a short text bio of Edward Woodword and some genuinely interesting–but also brief, and also text–"Callan Trivia." Even Umbrella didn’t go much further; the only thing you’re missing out on from the Australian release is a short interview with Woodward. But a show this good doesn’t need extras to spice it up. This is spy television of the absolute highest quality, and an absolutely essential purchase for genre enthusiasts. Here’s hoping that the first set sells well and Acorn ends up releasing every surviving episode, because Callan is riveting entertainment.


Rob Buckley said...

Callan is fantastic and is one of my favourite shows ever, even if the discrepancies in characterisation between episodes written by series creator James Mitchell and other writers did become silly by the end of the fourth series (Mitchell reversed any character development the other writers had done for his episodes, the characters reverting back in the next episode). The black and white episodes with Anthony Valentine as Meres are the best, the colour ones with him second best and the Cross series is a very acceptable third.

It's worth noting that the reason that Callan hates the job so much is that he's been blackmailed into joining the Section and knows that if he ever leaves, he'll be killed - the original Armchair Theatre production that launched the show, 'A Magnum for Schneider' (featuring Peter Bowles as Meres) ends with Callan's file being given a red jacket, and the first black and white episode relates how Callan joins the Section again to avoid his fate.

I would say, however, that I think The Sandbaggers is slightly bleaker and has more of an edge, since Callan is a little more escapist than The Sandbaggers and Neil Burnside is as ruthless as Callan's Hunters and then some. But they're about as excellent as each other.

Toby O'B said...

I've only just begun with the 'Callan' series, just finished "An Act of Kindness" today, so I stopped reading there. (But will come back to read the rest of your piece.)

I'm really enjoying it so far, and even posted a couple of essays at my Inner Toob blog about its place in the larger scheme of a TV Universe:



(With that second one, it's my theory that Callan and The Equalizer are brothers, not the same man.)

I'm sure those theories may change as I get farther into the series, and hopefully those b&w episodes, just released in the UK will soon come to America.

An interesting blog, I'll be back.....

Oh! And it's great to see my bloggin' buddy MediumRob checks in here as well!

pthurlow said...

Where do you buy Callan series 1 some people say it was destroyed and not available.

pthurlow said...

Where can you buy set 1 other people say series 1 was destroyed?

Can you email me at paul.thurlow@openaccess.edu.au