An almost direct contemporary of the Len Deighton/John Le Carre sub-genre of downbeat morally tortured anti-heroes existing in a grim twilight world of treachery and deceit, the character of unwilling British government employed assassin David Callan, made his television debut in a screenplay by author and creator James Mitchell, entitled A Magnum for Schneider.
Part of the celebrated Armchair Theatre strand which acted as a successful pilot for an on-going series, Callan aired in April 1967 to both critical and audience acclaim, embodied (as in the Armchair Theatre play) to ambiguous star making perfection by the ever excellent Edward Woodward as the troubled yet still deadly agent. The first two series were filmed in atmospheric monochrome which perfectly evoked the seediness and danger of Callan's world, before making the change to colour for the third and final fourth series in 1972.
With consistently hard-hitting, uncompromising scripts and uniformly excellent support playing from a talented core cast which included Anthony Valentine as Callan's sometime unwanted and coldly calculating partner, Toby Meres, (a part originally portrayed by Peter Bowles in the AT production), Scots actor Russell Hunter as the hygienically challenged (and most endearingly human character), petty thief Lonely, psychopathic young agent Cross (memorably delineated by the equally young Patrick Mower), and as the chilling epitome of the cold, manipulative, remorseless hidden face of government, department head Hunter, most notably William Squire. The Hunter title was inherited by a number of different actors in common with that other ever changing authority figure from the classic series The Prisoner, Number Two..-possibly due to the creative input on both series of George Markstein, who himself had fulfilled a very similar, real-life, role with Military Intelligence during WW II). In 1981 Woodward resurrected his most famous character for the 90 minute one-off Wet Job before finding international success in the US action/adventure series The Equalizer, whose central character of Robert McCall could almost be seen as the flip-side of the David Callan character.
The bleakly enduring vision of a bare light bulb swinging, a plaintively haunting theme tune, a man cursed with a conscience trapped in a remorseless, deadly occupation from which the only true escape is death, David Callan was a genuine television original. A brutal antidote to the over-hyped espionage antics of James Bond and The Man From Uncle. Yes, he was a clinically efficient executioner - that he was an executioner with a heart and conscience, (he could have been the man next door or even the man sitting next to you watching the television), he was an everyman doing a dirty job for dirty people in a sordid and corrupt netherworld, -is what ultimately fascinated millions.
The Callan File
Published on December 2nd, 2018. Written by Laurence Marcus for Television Heaven.