Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Callan - The Monochrome Years (1967-69)

Network DVD’s Callan - The Monochrome Years boxed set includes all twelve surviving black-and-white episodes from the first two seasons originally broadcast in 1967 and 1969. 

A Magnum for Schneider was later remade in colour as the Callan movie, but I’d never seen the original version which served as the pilot episode of the Callan TV series. 

There are some interesting differences between this pilot and the series proper. The relationship between Callan and his disreputable and evil-smelling burglar pal Lonely hasn’t yet been fleshed out. The strange affection that Callan has for Lonely is not yet in evidence, and we have no hints of the backstory that explains the unlikely friendship between a government assassin and a burglar. 

The other big difference us that Toby Meres is played by Peter Bowles, of all people! Now I’m a big fan of Peter Bowles, but this is unexpected casting indeed. And it doesn’t really work. Partly this is because you can’t help comparing this to Anthony Valentine’s superb and chilling performance in the series proper. The Bowles version of Meres is neither sinister nor frightening, nor does he have the surface charm that hides the viper underneath.

Edward Woodward though has already nailed the character of Callan pretty effectively. And the cynicism and pessimism, and the total lack of glamour, the seediness, all these ingredients are present. The story itself works quite well, although the later movie version is probably superior overall.

The picture and sound quality are pretty dodgy, but it’s a miracle this very first appearance of Callan has survived at all.

Watching the very early episodes of Callan it’s interesting to note the differences compared to the more familiar third and fourth seasons. I’ve seen all the third and fourth season episodes several times, but I’d never seen the black-and-white episodes at all. 

Both the pilot episode and the first episode of the series proper make extensive use of voiceover narration by Edward Woodward. Dropping that practice in later seasons was definitely a good idea - it’s overused and not really necessary. By season two the series has settled down into the format that would become more familiar in seasons three and four.

The relationship between Hunter and Callan in season one is interesting - more personal and much more bitter. I can’t imagine Callan speaking to the William Squires version of Hunter the way he speaks to the original version. 

Even this early on the Callan-Toby Meres relationship is fun. In a single episode so much has already been established. Not just their intense dislike for one another, but the reasons for it. I love the fact that as much as they hate each other’s guts, they still have great respect for each other’s professionalism. They both know that in their line of work you can’t allow personal feelings to influence the way you do your job. You might hate the guy you have to work with, but you might also have to rely on him to save your life.

It’s also interesting finding out more about Callan’s early history with the Section. Most of it could be inferred in later seasons, but it does make some of his bitterness more comprehensible.

The Good Ones Are All Dead was the first true episode after the original Armchair Theatre drama, and it’s very typically Callan - loads of moral ambiguity and cynicism. It has a rather sympathetic Nazi war criminal, and a rather unsympathetic and quite fanatical Israeli agent hunting him. At the same time the horrors of the Nazi’s crimes are not minimised. Callan’s ambivalence about the morality of his job, even when the target is someone who is clearly guilty of terrible crimes, is already becoming nicely complex and tortured.

Quite a few of these early episodes do not have pure Cold War themes. Death of a Friend deals with French OAS terrorists. The Worst Soldier I Ever Saw deals with a British brigadier who has unwisely becomes embroiled in Middle Eastern politics. This episode fills in quite a bit of Callan’s personal backstory, the brigadier in question having been Callan’s CO in Malaya.

There were several different Hunters (as the head of the shadowy Section is named) in the first two seasons and they seem to get themselves mixed up in the action to a degree that the Hunter of seasons three and four would have disapproved of. One of these Hunters, in the extremely good episode Heir Apparent, is a British spy in East Germany. Before he can take over as Hunter Callan and Meres will have to get him out of East Germany alive, an undertaking that turns out to be considerably more difficult than they’d anticipated.

Without taking anything away from the performance of Patrick Mower (a very fine actor) as Cross in season three and the early part of season four there’s no question that Toby Meres as portrayed by Anthony Valentine was the ideal foil for Edward Woodward’s Callan. The menace wrapped in public school charm of Meres is one of the high points of television espionage.

Had Callan been made a few years later it would undoubtedly have been shot on film with a lot more location footage. We can therefore be thankful it was made when it was, with all the brooding claustrophobia that was so much easier to capture in a studio. 

Callan remains the greatest of all television spy series and viewing these black-and-white episodes, unseen for decades, further enhances the reputation of the series. Very highly recommended.

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