Feb 24, 2010

DVD Review: Callan: The Monochrome Years: Season 1

DVD Review, Part 1: Callan: The Mono-chrome Years: Season 1

I went directly from watching the fourth season of Callan (just released in the US as Callan: Set 2) to watching the first season in Network’s new Callan: The Monochrome Years set. I’d heard that the early years were the best, so my first reaction was, “hm, this really isn’t so different from Season 4. It’s more Callan. More of the same, but when the same is so incredible, that’s a good thing.” I quickly realized I was in the wrong mindset. Yes, going from Season 4 to Season 1, Season 1 is indeed more of the same. But what I should have done was watched a bunch of Avengers and Saints and Barons from 1967, the year Callan began. Because then it would have hit me harder that when Callan debuted, it was as far from “more of the same” as you could get. It wasn’t like any other regular spy show on television. Even the grittier ITC series, like Man in a Suitcase and Danger Man, were still adventure series first and foremost. Callan is not.  This grim and gritty espionage drama must have knocked British TV audiences on their ears in 1967. David Callan was a wholly different kind of secret agent than people were used to seeing in their living rooms every week.

Edward Woodward made his first appearance as Callan in an episode of the anthology series Armchair Theatre entitled “A Magnum for Schneider,” but it’s clear that the concept was envisioned as a series even at this point. “A Magnum for Schneider” is very much a pilot. All of the regular characters are in place (if not all the regular actors), and even the Callan theme music is already there, following the evocative Armchair Theatre theme. Callan’s boss, Hunter (later established to be a codename assigned to a succession of different people), is played here (quite excellently) by Ronald Radd, who would reprise the role in the first proper season of the show. All of the series dynamics are quickly outlined in a brief (and useful) expositional exchange between him and Callan:

Hunter: What’s my section for?
Callan: Getting rid of people.
Hunter: Exactly. Bribery, frame-ups, deportation...
Callan: Death.
Hunter: If... there’s no other way, yes.

Hunter says that he’s had ten men killed in the last seven years and Callan did two of them. Those numbers would rise dramatically over the next seven years; I think Callan kills a whole lot more people than that by himself over the ensuing seasons! But despite being good at it, Callan is never happy about killing, and that character trait is in place from the show’s inception here. Evidently, he’s been transferred out of the Section for his scruples. Callan worried about the innocent (which even Hunter must admit was commendable), but he also worried about the men he killed, so Hunter had to let him go. Hunter says he went soft. Callan, however, doesn’t enjoy the dead-end job he was transferred to, and Hunter misses his skill. He wants him back, but first he wants him to prove that he’s got what it takes to come back–that he hasn't gone soft. Hunter assigns Callan to kill someone on his own, with “no help from the Department, not even a gun.”

Hunter gives Callan a red file. Red files indicate those considered a danger–those marked by the Section for elimination. The file in question concerns a man named Schneider. “What’s he done?” Callan wants to know, true to form.

“Never mind what he’s done!” snaps Hunter. “You’re always asking for reasons. That’s what makes you weak. Schneider’s in a red file! That’s reason enough. Well?” Well nothing. Callan accepts the assignment. He may have scruples, but he’s also bored to death at his dead-end accounting job for a horrible, uptight boss. As much as he professes to hate Hunter and the Section and everything that it stands for, and as much as he doesn’t like what he’s asked to do, he does like the challenge such work provides. And so he accepts the mission–provisionally, anyway–and sells his soul, an act he’ll be repenting for the rest of the series. (And, thematically for Woodward, even longer, onto The Equalizer.)

Making matters worse, Callan quickly discovers that he likes Schneider. Schneider (Joseph Fürst, Professor Metz from Diamonds Are Forever) is a fellow model soldier enthusiast, and the two men genuinely connect over this shared hobby. Schneider invites Callan to play a campaign against him sometime. And so, in addition to plotting the man’s death, Callan launches his own investigation into Schneider, determined to pass judgement on his crimes himself before killing him.

The characters are all fully formed and intact at this stage, as is Woodward’s bravado performance, and Callan is already demonstrating his objectionable rebellious side and his annoying (to Hunter) habit of asking questions. But not everything is yet firmly established in the pilot. Callan’s cockney underworld contact and friend, Lonely (Russell Hunter, as always) is as smelly as he ever is, but he dresses nicer–and frequents nicer establishments–than he will on the ongoing series. Hunter’s office in the pilot is a lot more luxurious than later versions of that set will be; it even has windows! The later basement digs seem more befitting the Section’s seedy nature. And, most glaringly, Callan’s eventual cohort Toby Meres is played by a different actor altogether! The character himself is there (Meres is everything that Callan’s not: upper class, psychopathic and utterly incapable of caring), but the face is that of Peter Bowles, not Anthony Valentine. Unsurprisingly to anyone who’s seen his stellar work on other shows (he turned up in virtually every ITC series of the time, and his guest spots–usually villainous–on The Avengers were always memorable; personally I think of him first as the diabolical mastermind in “Escape in Time”), Bowles makes an entirely suitable Meres. In fact, had Anthony Valentine not come along, I have no doubt he would have made a definitive Meres; he would have made the character his own completely–and a classic. The guy’s a great character actor. But since Valentine did come along and made the part so thoroughly his own, such speculation is entirely academic. It’s tough to accept any substitutes, so Bowles comes as a bit of a shock to those used to Valentine from later seasons.

The other biggest difference in the pilot is that, while the drama is just as excellent as ever, the pilot doesn’t seem as “in the know” as later season manage to about espionage tradecraft and technique. Perhaps this is because George Markstein, who had an actual intelligence background, hadn’t come aboard yet as script editor. Or perhaps creator James Mitchell simply didn’t have enough time to research before getting the play on the air. Callan’s street cred is most seriously undermined (both in the pilot and the early episodes) by Woodward’s tendency to scratch his head with his pistol, like the cop in Plan 9 From Outer Space. It might be some good “stage business” (as they say) for an actor, but it’s certainly not very becoming of a professional assassin! An arms expert of some sort must have said something to Woodward about it later on, because this distracting habit fortunately goes away.

All in all, “A Magnum For Schneider” does everything a good pilot should. It establishes the main character (explaining his insubordination, Callan recalls his army days: “I was a corporal... twice. I didn’t get on with officers.”), establishes all the crucial supporting characters and makes clear their relationships to Callan, and establishes a very distinctive (and bleak) tone for the series. It also serves its purpose of setting up all of these elements for an ongoing series. By the pilot’s end, Callan and Hunter have come to “an arrangement” securing Callan’s future employment in the Section on his own terms. “A balance of terror,” Hunter calls it. Basically, they have each vowed to kill each other should things go badly–and they each know the other to be capable of making good on their threat. “A Magnum for Schneider” is a crucial stepping stone in the show’s evolution, and I’m very grateful that Network managed to clear the separate rights to include this episode of Armchair Theatre in this set. As it's so tied in to what follows, Season 1 wouldn’t be complete without it. While the otherwise impressive audio has that hiss so commonly associated with videotaped Sixties television, the video quality is remarkably good.

Due to the frustrating practice at the time in British television of “wiping” old episodes once they’d aired (and served their entire purpose, as envisioned by the shortsighted programming executives of the time who thought of TV as a disposable medium and could not possibly foresee DVD or home video), most of Callan’s first season no longer exists. Luckily, though, all of these episodes are generally standalone, and we don’t miss out on crucial installments of a serial plot. (Just imagine if half of Lost’s episodes were wiped and unavailable to future generations?) And quite fortunately, the very first episode does still exist, so as armchair television historians, we can watch the series spring out of the pilot!

Stylistically, “The Good Ones Are All Dead” continues as a piece from “A Magnum for Schneider.” Hunter’s office is now gloomier and Meres is now Anthony Valentine, but the same theme music and same bleak videography are firmly in place. Also carrying over from the pilot are Callan’s internal monologue voiceovers. These are later dropped (and later unnecessary, I would say, as Woodward conveys it all with his expressions), but they are helpful in establishing this antihero character early on. The audio on the DVD has improved (the hiss is gone), but the video isn’t quite as sharp as on the pilot. Such variances are to be expected when dealing with old elements, and overall Network has done a thoroughly commendable job with their remastering and preservation. (The company has even restored a previously lost episode in Season 2 by recutting its surviving, unedited footage!)

When the series proper begins, the arrangement between Callan and Hunter seems to be working well–even if it horrifies Meres. Callan’s new mission is to go undercover as a bookkeeper for a man Hunter assures him is a Nazi war criminal living under an assumed identity and wanted by the Israelis. There’s no killing required, Hunter assures Callan; he just needs to turn the man over to the Mossad. Once more, though, Callan feels the need to prove to himself beyond a shadow of a doubt that his new, kindly employer is indeed who Hunter says he is. To do so, he enlists Lonely’s help, cracking the man’s safe and examining its contents. Those contents quickly bear out Hunter’s briefing, but Callan still has trouble reconciling the kindly man (who, when confronted, admits to years of guilt and penance) he knows with the monster he supposedly was. I can’t help but think that Hunter might be right, and that Callan might indeed be a little too soft if he even feels sympathy for a Nazi!

The Mossad agent involved doesn’t like Callan’s methods and doesn’t like Callan, but Meres actually defends him. “I despise him,” he admits, “but he’s very good at his job.”

From the existing opening episode, we jump forward to the next existing episode, which happens to be the season finale! (Luckily, it was a very short season, so there are actually only four episodes missing.) This episode, "You Should Have Got Here Sooner," focuses on Lonely, and his relationship with Callan is already getting Callan into trouble with his colleagues, as it will for years to come. Lonely has coincidentally stumbled onto a Section operation in the midst of one of his rather clumsy burglaries, and the Section sends round a man to beat him up. This doesn’t sit well with Callan, who considers an attack on Lonely akin to a direct attack on himself. He swings by the office (as his casual employment arrangement entitles him to do) and demonstrates his tough guy coolness that would make even Jack Bauer cower in terror by deducing which new recruit bat up lonely and responding in kind, in full view of Hunter. The is the first salvo in a game of oneupmanship between the two men, as Hunter and Meres attempt to extract the location of a deadly nerve gas formula from a Russian spy they’ve allowed to escape, and Callan basically tries to derail their game as revenge for what they did to Lonely. Callan and Hunter always have a tense relationship on their best days, and every meeting between them is a verbal chess match, but it’s great to see them actually working against each other, plotting move and countermove.

Innocents caught up in espionage without their knowledge (and usually being damaged or destroyed by it) is a favorite theme on later seasons of Callan, and it’s already in place in the first season. The innocent in this episode is the escaped Russian spy’s former girlfriend, a Party Member who’s foolish enough to believe that he loved her. He was of course using her, but no more than Meres or Hunter or even her own mother are also trying to do. It’s a real pleasure to watch Callan figure out what’s going on and then figure out what he’s going to do about it. And it’s almost as much of a pleasure to the audience as it is to him that his solution involves Meres ending up in the hospital.

Only three episodes of Callan may survive from Season 1 (counting the Armchair Theatre pilot), but they are three stellar episodes, proving that the show had all the elements that made it great from the very beginning. And they’re three more than we had before, excepting expensive and hard to find bootlegs. Spy fans the world over are indebted to Network for releasing these episodes legitimately for the first time ever. Callan is as good at its beginning as it is at its end, and its great that fans can now actually see that beginning. Of course, this isn’t a DVD set containing only three episodes. Network has also included every surviving episode from Season 2 (which features a new Hunter and even more doomed innocents), and those will be covered in Part 2 of this review later this week.

Callan: The Monochrome Years is currently available to buy through Network’s website at a remarkable discount. If you have the means to pay PAL Region 2 discs, be sure to get it! You won’t regret it.

NOTE: For some reason I am unable to take screen captures from Network DVDs, and therefore could not provide my usual illustrative accompaniment for this review.  But, fortunately, you can see what the discs look like for yourself; Network has uploaded the whole beginning of "The Good Ones Are All Dead:"

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