The creation of Newcastle born TV writer James Mitchell, “Callan” brought the seedier side of the British Intelligence Services and their covert activities to UK TV screens, in a popular drama series that ran from 1967 to 1972, making a star of its lead actor Edward Woodward. Mitchell’s finely drawn depiction of the world of his anti-hero -- the unwilling spy David Callan, an ex-army marksman turned criminal after his dishonourable discharge but then saved from a life behind bars after being recruited as an Intelligence operative for an unofficial department of British security -- tapped into the same mood of Cold War disillusionment and moral ambiguity as was, by then, being routinely represented in the literary fiction of John Le Carré and Len Deighton; a tough, unvarnished portrayal of ‘the game’ of espionage, which seemed to have more in common with the unglamorous crime thrillers of Ted Lewis than with anything ever dreamed up by Ian Fleming.
Inspired by a series of real life security scandals which rocked MI5 and MI6 throughout the sixties, Callan’s world was one in which the business of ethics was confined to the darker end of the grey scale, and double agents and double crossings become so routine as to make the whole murky business of sorting out right from wrong and good from bad a bitterly thankless task. After the series finished airing, Mitchell’s original Armchair Theatre play was twice more adapted -- first of all as a feature film (directed by Don Sharp in 1974), but with the author also keeping the character alive in a series of published novels, starting with the novelisation of that original series pilot. Not until 1981 did Edward Woodward resume the role that made him a household name in the UK, with this intriguing one-off feature-length attempt by ATV to bring a visibly aging David Callan’s story up to date for a new decade.
“Callan: Wet Job” unfortunately comes nowhere near recapturing the standard of excellence previously set by what has since come to be seen as one of the greatest British TV dramas of the sixties and seventies; despite a tantalising depiction of the character’s somewhat mundane post-Section life (he’s now the owner of a small London shop selling Military memorabilia, using the pseudonym David Tucker) Mitchell’s screenplay is centred around a storyline that ultimately re-treads too much familiar ground and deals with espionage themes that had already been much covered -- with greater depth and subtlety -- during the course of the series’ original run. The outline Mitchell initially sets out, in which Government ex-killer Callan is forced back into service for one last job and discovers that retirement is never really an option in his line of work, is one that is certainly ripe with possibilities: Callan is now an much older man -- rather gone to seed, greyer, and sporting an unflattering pair of heavy frame spectacles. He certainly doesn’t look like the dead shot assassin of old. He lodges in the home of a superficial middle class landlady with whom he has the occasional liaison, but whom also sleeps around with much younger men. It’s a bland, mediocre world of suburban dinner parties and empty conversation in which we find David Tucker drifting – one that the anonymous former spy can easily slip right into and forget about the man he used to be.
The opportunity this set-up provides for the further exploration of identity in the shadowy realm of spies, which Callan had assumed he’d escaped for good, is a compelling one but, for a variety of reasons, the project fails to produce the sparks one expects, and indeed comes close to derailment on occasion, with some clumsy direction and a clutch of very odd incidental musical choices that seem totally out of sympathy with the style of the original series.
Initially, the episode is intriguing despite this drawback: Callan (Edward Woodward) is summoned back to Section headquarters ten years after starting a new life for himself, where he finds a new, rather more effete ‘Hunter’ (Hugh Walter) behind the old desk, who informs him that his anonymity is about to be blown by an ex-MP and ‘do-gooder’ called Haggerty (George Sewell) who has obtained information about Callan’s former activities for the Section while believing him to have been a paid assassin who was hired to murder his dead daughter’s former husband (who was in reality a double agent Callan was forced to terminate). Haggerty is set to expose this ‘fact’ in his soon-to-be-published and extremely high profile, memoire.
Meanwhile, Haggerty is also financing the extraction of a Russian political dissident called Dobrovsky (Milos Kerek) after his escape from Soviet controlled territory was facilitated by a group of idealistic graduate students and a young Oxford philosophy don called Lucy Smith (Helen Bourne) -- who is also the niece of Callan’s landlady Margaret Channing (Angela Browne). The group has managed to get Dobrovsky as far as France, but need more money to pay their French couriers in order to get him flown all the way to England, or else they face having their intellectual mentor sold straight back to the Russians. In the course of these two plots linking themselves together, we inevitably discover that rather more is going on than meets the eye and that several of the players are not who they appear to be.
The most obvious fault with this ninety minute TV play is that it fails to take account of the developments in TV drama which had occurred since the original four series of “Callan” were first broadcast. In both its black-and-white and its colour incarnations, “Callan” had always managed to make a virtue of its low budget, studio-bound, video recorded nature, dispensing with any unnecessary frills such as excessive underscoring in the music for instance, and focusing the camera tightly on the performances, providing the cast with great scripts and compelling plotlines and creating a sense of taught realism. Tension and suspense were often generated entirely from the claustrophobic studio settings and by the actors having complete mastery and control of the tone and mood of the drama, especially the series regulars such as Russell Hunter -- who was Callan’s smelly cat burglar accomplice Lonely throughout the entire run -- and the various actors who played the role of Hunter over the years, and were invariably at the root of Callan’s antagonistic relationship with the Intelligence services. Here though, the old team has been broken up and the new players at Section seem rather a dull lot, especially the replacement for Callan’s two former nemeses, Myers (Anthony Valentine) and Cross (Patrick Mower), who here becomes a rather ineffectual character called Thorne (Anthony Snee) who gets little chance to shine. Besides Lonely, the only other regular character to appear is Liz (Felicity Harrison), Hunter’s personal secretary, but she’s played here by a different actress and barely even acknowledges her formerly close relationship with Callan aside from a brief hug, and so might just as well be a different disinterested character since she looks nothing like Lisa Langdon, who played the role in the original series, anyway.
Perhaps the main important thing this extended episode does have going for it then, is the chance to depict the long awaited reunion between Callan and Lonely. Much of the poignancy of the original show came from Woodward and Russell Hunter’s bitter-sweet interplay and their depiction of the unequal friendship between these two flawed characters. A running joke of the show revolved around the fact that fear caused the troubled Lonely to break out in such a sweat that he’d develop a chronic BO problem which others found particularly hard to tolerate – and of course he was always terrified whenever Callan came anywhere near him, since it would inevitably involve the spy’s former prison buddy having to get involved in some dangerous bother. The irony always was that neither Lonely nor Callan had anyone else they could rely on, despite their frequent displeasure at being forced to share each other’s company.
Here, Callan being forced back into the spying game means that he has to retrieve his old Magnum firearm and his ammunition, which are both on ice in a deposit box; but he can’t pick them up himself in case he’s been put under surveillance. He calls on Lonely to help him out, and the former thief’s old ‘problem’ immediately reasserts itself -- even though he’s now plying a legitimate trade as a self-employed plumber (rather ironically called Fresh and Fragrant Installations!). Not only that, but Lonely has even found himself a fiancée, and is soon to be married!
Again, Woodward and Hunter’s scenes together are inevitably the highlight of this film for fans of the original series, but even these are partially ruined by the director’s strangely inappropriate use of music – a problem that afflicts the whole episode. The absence of the series’ iconic title sequence and its accompanying lilting theme music (was Elvis Costello deliberately quoiting it in Watching the Detectives, we wonder?) is bad enough, but much of the music that replaces it sounds like it’s being played on a Bontempi home organ, and a crude ‘romantic’ piano motif keeps cutting in and out of scenes, seemingly at random during dialogue, in a completely distracting and clumsy way. The music itself is often quite cheap and cheesy, and shatters the mood which the actors are endeavouring to create; this is nowhere more apparent than in some of the scenes between Woodward and Hunter, where dreamy, romantic piano cues are hardly the kind of thing needed to underscore the caustic but solid friendship between the two men -- it makes them look like old lovers reminiscing rather than an ex-assassin and his informant preparing to reassume their old identities!
The apparent clumsiness of the film extends to its flat, cheap video lighting style, which often makes it look like an episode of Crossroads (although this actually helps to illustrate the sort of world ‘David Tucker’ has been attempting to blend into) -- a cheap stylistic choice that is extended to the look of the exterior scenes, which even in the original show had always previously been shot on 16mm film for gritty flavour. It’s a shame that the Russian dissident storyline doesn’t bring anything very new to the series’ examination of the game of espionage; in many ways this is far less sophisticated an effort than the then recent adaptation of “Tinker, Taylor, Soldier, Spy”, which had not long been screened by the BBC at the time ATV screened this.
Of course it’s nice to be re-acquainted with the much loved characters Callan and Lonely, but this was an inessential follow up to the original series, which, although any fan is likely to want to get hold of it to complete their collection, is unlikely to leave them feeling anything but even more nostalgic for the show when it was in its prime, while also realising that it’s probably always a fool’s errand to think you can recapture former glories unless there is actually something new to be added to the original format.
Network’s disc will be available from all retailers and comes with a short stills gallery of publicity shots.