Like many other popular series from the late-60s which survived into the 1970s (including the new Jon Pertwee fronted “Doctor Who”) Thames TV’s highly regarded spy drama “Callan” came in from the cold for a third series in full colour. The show’s hard-edged depiction of the paranoid world of Cold War-era espionage and clandestine ‘70s politics seemed ideally suited to the black & white medium: grim, downbeat and unerringly tense with a sharp splinter of cold cynical humour at the core, “Callan” was, and remains, one of British television’s finest quality dramas; the change to colour in no way compromised the show’s dour, gritty ambience though, and with its harsh depiction of a claustrophobic world, revolving around careworn rented flats and shady backstreet surveillance operations, it remained as compelling as ever. Show creator James Mitchell and a brace of talented new writers managed to keep up the same high quality throughout the entire four series, unusually taking a two year gap between series Three and Four in order to make sure that the same quality of writing could be maintained, before finally calling it a day - despite the series’ continuing popularity - when it was agreed that they had finally exhausted the format. This new box set from Network Releasing, following on from the previous box set release of the remaining monochrome episodes of series One & Two, contains every single colour episode from series Three and Four - a total of twenty three spread across six discs - but not the 1981 ‘reunion’ TV movie “Wet Job”. Maybe this will see a separate release from Network in the future?
Without giving away too much concerning the dramatic events at the end of series two for those who have yet to see them, it was by no means certain that the show would be returning for another run when that series was transmitted. It ended on not so much a cliff-hanger as an ambiguity concerning David Callan’s ultimate fate. The fact that we’re discussing this show at all gives away the fact that he obviously did survive those catastrophic events, of course - but, as we rejoin the character almost a year later on the eve of leaving hospital, we find a very different man to the one we last saw in the previous series: for one thing, the nature and circumstances which led to his extended hospitalisation have left him feeling contrite and with an acute sense of guilt; the perverse anti-authoritarian urge to question orders and the inveterate moral outrage at his superiors which defined his attitude to his work back then, seems no longer to be there. And that is a problem for the new boss (or ‘Hunter’ - played by William Squire) at Callan's old place of work, The Section (a secret spy department charged with carrying out all the more disreputable jobs in an inherently disreputable trade) who promptly dispatches his new up-and-coming operative, Cross (Patrick Mower) and The Section’s interrogative psychologist (Snell – played by Clifford Rose), to determine if Callan (Edward Woodward) is in any way fit to return to his old life.
This is the set-up at the start of series three: a reversal to the usual format in previous series in which Callan is more often to be found trying to extricate himself from The Section and its clandestine operations. But with nothing else to live for and nowhere else to go, the former-spy is now desperate to return to his old job. Aside from Liz (Lisa Langdon), Hunter’s secretary, all the faces have changed at headquarters (the location still seems to be the same though: the less than salubrious surroundings of a disused Edwardian school) with the dapper, nimble but almost psychotically ruthless Cross taking over from Callan’s former partner, Toby Meres - who’s been sent on a mission in Washington - and the new Hunter now a sharp-shooting and devious authoritarian, just as prone to mind games as his predecessors. The only constant in Callan’s life is his 'friend' Lonely (Russell Hunter), a black market gun supplier and go-to man for any illicit little burglary or safe-cracking job that might need doing on the quite. Lonely becomes the focus of The Section’s attentions when Hunter decides that, to be of any further use to the secret services, Callan has to regain his former fire and his willingness to go against orders. Contempt for his boss and the dirty jobs he was often forced into was exactly what gave him his edge over his rivals and made him the best man in The Section’s operations unit. To get the old Callan back, they have to target the only person for whom he has any affection at all (all be it an affection largely based on contempt and pity!) - the hapless Lonely.
The series develops with its usual strong emphasis on a suite of top notch performances from the series regulars and those of some notable actors culled from British stage & screen, as well as a host of involved and engrossing plot-lines which play out with reference to some typical ’70s espionage themes such as boardroom politics and industrial espionage; Cold War defections and exchanges of captured operatives; and an assassination plot against an anti-immigration politician, amongst many others. As the series progresses, the characters are developed in subtle and interesting ways, most notably the relationship between Callan and Lonely, which goes from highly fraught and fractious in the first episode (The Section fitted Lonely up while Callan was away ‘ill’, resulting in the smelly reprobate finishing up on remand and awaiting a lengthy jail sentence because of his previous form) to an amusingly tender and funny one in some instances during the middle episodes of series three: witness Callan’s bemused but obviously touched reaction to Lonely buying (or nicking) him a present of a gaudy yellow tie!
Now based in a shabby rented flat full of second-hand furniture (The Section have sold all his old possessions while he was in hospital - apart from his model soldiers, that is!), Callan has no family and no home outside that provided by his employers: Lonely is literally the only thing he has left that even resembles a sad simulacrum of a family. Even though he holds him in some contempt, Callan still feels responsible for this twitching skulking fellow with light fingers and a bad BO problem. Meanwhile, Patrick Mower makes for an interesting new secondary character, an over-eager but largely by-the-book spy who is even prepared to push an innocent bystander underneath a British Rail train if it means it will stop a suspect he’s trailing making a getaway! This particular set of episodes also sees Lisa Langdon’s usually minor role as Section secretary Liz brought to the fore in one specific story, when her past as a refugee during the Second World War brings her centre stage.
Series four rearranges the format and ups the anti further when the respect and importance which Callan had been steadily building up in his position at The Section throughout the previous series, is challenged once again, and results in Callan demanding to resign from his job as an operative after he’s almost broken down and killed by KGB drugs torture. Instead, he finds himself made Section’s new Hunter - and embarking on a course that will have even more dramatic consequences for some of the people closest to him.
James Mitchell decided to end the series after a film career seemed to be in the offing; he later devised and wrote the successful TV series, “When the Boat Comes In”. The episodes of series three and four have been re-ordered for Network’s new DVD release: they now represent the running order originally intended by the programme makers rather than the one in which they were first broadcast. All the episodes are here, and they look pretty good for early ’70s video-taped TV, with the mono audio also sounding clear and distortion free. “Callan” is British drama at its finest and most adult, and this exemplary box set is simply a must-have.