A hugely popular ITV drama series of the late 1960s and early 1970s, Callan took viewers into the world of espionage, away from the glamour of James Bond and down the backstreets of London in pursuit of some of the shadiest and deadliest individuals around. The characters were forced to make life-and-death decisions that always had repercussions and wider implications, where the 'removal' of one man or woman might result in the safety of thousands - maybe even millions.
The series' background was the Cold War, but its focus was one man - a government assassin. It was a choice of career that provided fresh challenges and moral ambiguities with every job. His name was possibly David Callan - at least, that's what he was known as - and each week viewers would join him on the trail of another target that his boss had identified as 'too dangerous to live'. One of TV's first real anti-heroes, he was moody, violent and often unpleasant - and he, more than anyone, was aware of that. But the main thing holding him back was a rigid code of ethics.
Who is Callan?
His weapons are theft, blackmail, murder. The tools of the trade are the knife, the gun and an icy courage no other man possesses. He is the Destroyer.
His ordinariness is his protection. He is a highly-skilled cracksman, a master of unarmed combat, a dead-shot with a pistol. He is a killer. But he looks so much like everybody else he is invisible. It is only when you know him well that you realise his strength, his menace - and his charm.
Format Document for Callan TV series by creator James Mitchell1.
In his early-to-mid-thirties, David Callan speaks with a slight working-class London accent as much to differentiate himself from the establishment figures around him as to make him appear subservient or insignificant to his targets. He's world-weary, contemptuous of both his superiors and of the job that he happens to have such a talent for. Occasionally we're let into his confidence as, through voice-over, we hear his innermost thoughts, revealing much about the man behind the killer.
He doesn't look that deadly. He'd possibly be considered handsome if his smile ever met his eyes, but he manages to appear nondescript thanks to his choice of plain clothes: a simple brown suit, sometimes accompanied by a battered grey mackintosh. His hair is neat but mousy and his eyes give nothing away. He could pass you in the street and you'd never notice. And if he comes to your door, you've almost certainly done something to bring him there.
Callan's an excellent shot - one of the very best, and he has a persuasive manner that makes him the perfect man to befriend, seduce or manipulate targets into giving him the information he needs. In short, he's the perfect spy and a talented assassin. If only he didn't allow himself to care so much; if only he could stop himself from worrying about whether his targets deserve to be treated like pawns in a game of chess. He eventually suffered a minor breakdown as a result of his growing worry that not all of his targets deserve to die. While he recovered, he worked as a book-keeper, but the routine monotony and the nitpicking of his boss made him realise he just wasn't suited to the strictly nine-to-five life.
He has one passion: war games. He collects, makes and paints lead replicas of soldiers from great battles and has studied all the great battle strategists, from Napoleon to General Lee. Occasionally this interest has proven useful in gaining the trust of targets who share his interest, but for those who get to know Callan it's a surprising hobby and one he can be particularly defensive of if a person makes the mistake of referring to his models as 'toy soldiers'.
We learn that Callan served in the army, in Malaya. Having completed his National Service, he was discharged into 'Civvy Street' with no plan or career. According to one of the later novels, Russian Roulette, he grew listless after his girlfriend left him and he decided to pull a burglary as much for the money as the thrill of doing something illegal. Unfortunately, his raid on a supermarket after hours was the only burglary he ever attempted; as he fled the scene of the crime he ran right into a squad of policemen. Ironically, the job hadn't been anywhere near as exciting as Callan had hoped it would be and he ended up serving three years in Wormwood Scrubs.
It was in the Scrubs that Callan met the man known only as Lonely, a recidivist serving time for housebreaking and petty theft with a charge sheet as long as your arm. Whenever he was afraid, Lonely would be enveloped by a horrific stench - and Lonely was always afraid. But he showed respect for Callan and they became unlikely allies after Callan became his protector.
Outside of prison, Lonely remains a useful contact for Callan to use as necessary. Callan uses him for tailing suspects, obtaining information from London's criminal underworld or, occasionally, obtaining guns or other items. Callan is himself a trained locksmith and is adept at breaking and entering, but he still prefers to use Lonely when he can; a lifetime of thievery has made Lonely the perfect stooge for breaking into the homes of targets without leaving any signs of entry.
Lonely's a pathetic figure; a timid, pleading, subservient wretch whose fear of Callan is matched by his loyalty to him. For many years, Lonely remains ignorant that he's in fact working for British intelligence; he thinks Callan's a big-shot crimelord, and Callan does nothing to dissuade him from this belief.
Lonely aside, Callan has few friends and no family. Only very rarely does he allow himself the luxury of relationships and even then they tend to be brief and far apart. Women like him; he listens to them and shows genuine interest in them, unlike most single men. But it's the job; he can't risk his loved ones being used against him.
Callan might not even be his real name; he juggles many identities at once when at work. But his close associates know him as 'David' or 'Callan'. To Lonely, he's 'Mister Callan'.
At some point, Callan's services were acquired by The Section, a secret department of British Intelligence that deals with jobs MI5 or the police could never admit to being connected to. If your line of business is in arms trading, narcotics, extortion or espionage you might well find yourself being investigated by the Section, even if you don't know it. They'll definitely have a file on you, colour-coded according to the risk you pose to National Security. If your details are kept in a red file, that's the sign that your time has run out; you're been marked for death by any means.
The Section is housed in a disused school, disguised as a scrap metal merchants, somewhere in the East End of London. The basement of the school now contains a shooting gallery, while the Headmaster's office is used by the Section Head, Hunter.
Hunter - aka 'Charlie' - is the pseudonym assumed by whoever is in charge and there have been many 'Hunters' in Callan's time. His first was a gruff, balding stocky man who used the red file system to bully Callan into resuming work for the Section. He was replaced briefly by a man Callan had little respect for, a pen-pushing civil servant who never seemed to grasp the reality of the job; he paid for his naïvety with his life [in the episode 'Let's Kill Everybody'].
Callan was sent to rescue the next Hunter from East Germany ['Heir Apparent']. He was a former colleague of Callan's and had already earned his respect in the past. However, a KGB plot resulted in Hunter being shot dead by a brainwashed Callan, believing his superior to be a traitor ['Death of a Hunter']. Callan himself was shot and he spent nearly a year convalescing, trying to clear his mind of the KGB's tricks and come to terms with what they'd made him do.
On his return to the Section ['Where Else Could I Go?'], Callan was greeted by yet another Hunter and it soon became obvious that as far as this man was concerned it was 'business as usual'. If Callan was still up to the job, he could remain; if not, his details would be placed inside a red file. Callan himself spent some time as a Hunter too ['Call Me Sir!'], though the promotion didn't last long and his predecessor soon returned to take his place ['If He Can, So Could I'].
Meres and Cross
A job like Hunter's and a career like Callan's attracts some particularly unpleasant people. Take Toby Meres, a public school bully who fancies himself as Hunter's Number Two. He's callous, vicious and ambitious, he envies Callan's privileged position within the Section and he believes himself to be Callan's equal. To him, Callan is past it and should have been disposed of a long time ago. His youthful vanity is a weakness Callan often uses against him.
When the KGB's brainwashing led Callan to kill Hunter, it was Meres who shot Callan. Realising there may be old scores to settle, Meres was sent to work in New York for a while and his place was taken by Cross, a man in his twenties with even more arrogance and vanity. Like Meres, he fancied his chances as Callan's replacement, but instead he remained Callan's junior. His rashness and unwillingness to take orders blotted his copybook on more than one occasion; thanks to Cross pushing a commuter under a train while in pursuit of a suspected assassin, Callan was forced to act as an eyewitness at the dead man's inquest, keeping him from participating in the hunt for their target ['Summoned to Appear']. When Callan was promoted to become the new Hunter, Cross was killed in action - though it's debatable whether Cross's death was as a result of his own incompetence or Callan's, but the incident resulted in Callan's demotion and the return of the previous Hunter to the Section.
Production of the Series
Callan first hit British TV screens in 'A Magnum for Schneider', a one-off episode of the anthology series Armchair Theatre. Broadcast in 1967, it was penned by James Mitchell, a prolific writer from Tyneside (see below).
The story followed Callan, a former assassin for the British Government who was working in a dull accountancy job after a breakdown. He hated his former life, but loathed the boredom of routine - and besides, he had a talent for killing. Contacted by Hunter, the head of 'the Section', to perform one more job and prove his worth, Callan was tasked with befriending a man called Schneider to see if there was any truth in intelligence reports that he was a vital link in an arms-dealing chain. As Callan played on his and Schneider's shared passion for lead soldiers and war games, Hunter despatched his underling, Toby Meres, to make sure Callan killed Schneider - and to ensure the police caught him in the act. But when Callan turned the tables on Hunter and left an unconscious Meres lying next to the dead Schnedier, Hunter decided it was time Callan's details were transferred to a red file - the sign of a man marked for death.
Even before it was screened, the play was recognised as being the right kind of material to be developed into a TV series. Producer Terence Feely worked with James Mitchell to flesh out the characters and develop further storylines. Other writers were brought in to help Mitchell fill the show out, including Robert Banks Stewart, who, as Mitchell had done, would later write for The Avengers, and Trevor Preston, who also wrote for Thames's police drama series The Sweeney and created the children's fantasy series Ace of Wands.
Spy stories were enjoying something of a renaissance in the 1960s thanks to the arrival of James Bond in cinemas, the novels of John Le Carré and the real-life events on both sides of the Iron Curtain involving the Cambridge Spies. On television, The Avengers had successfully made the transition from hard-nosed, gritty thriller to fun action-adventure, while Lord Lew Grade's ITC company was churning out such thrills as The Champions, Danger Man and The Prisoner. From the beginning, Callan was designed to be different. There were no supervillains, no madcap schemes or surreal fantasy elements. This was real life - albeit a part of life few of us long to experience close up - and all the stories revolved around believable situations and credible characters.
Like most British low-budget drama of the time, Callan was mainly recorded on videotape, with filmed inserts used for location work. The first two series had been made in black and white by ABC, the ITV franchise holder for London's weekend broadcasts. But as a result of the 1968 franchise reshuffle, the show's third and fourth series were produced by Thames TV and in colour. Callan's return had not initially been guaranteed; the final episode of series two ['Death of a Hunter'] saw Callan lying shot and fighting for his life. Fortunately, the series - and Edward Woodward - were popular with viewers (Woodward won the first of three 'Best Actor' awards for the role from the TV Times listings magazine that year). Even the then-Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, professed to be a fan. With that kind of pressure, Callan was given a reprieve and Thames began to assemble the cast for their own colour series (it's this first colour run that's been given a DVD release in the UK, somewhat misleadingly billed as the first series).
The series finally came to an end when Edward Woodward showed signs of being a much-demanded film actor. The final episode saw Callan disobey Hunter and kill a sought-after target before leaving the Section for good.
Callan was played by Edward Woodward, a familiar face to British TV viewers though not to a degree that would get in the way of the rather anonymous aspect of the character. Woodward later starred in the cult film classic The Wicker Man as the ill-fated Sergeant Howie, the Australian legal drama Breaker Morant and in the American action TV series The Equaliser.
Other Regular Characters
The Opening Titles and Music
The opening titles for the TV series showed a dark room in semi-shadow, lit only by a lightbulb swinging like a pendulum and casting a shifting pool of light that briefly illuminates the face of Callan, lurking in the shadows. He squints as the harsh light from the bulb dazzles his eyes. Eventually, the bulb is shot out. In the first two series, the sequence is concluded by a framed photo of Callan also being shot, the glass shattering and distorting the monochrome image of Callan's face. A stark black-and-white graphic of the shattered light bulb was also used to lead in and out of the advert breaks for the first two series.
The melancholic music used as the show's theme and incidental music was a library piece that also featured in other productions at the time (the piece has been listed on compilation albums alternately as 'A Girl in the Dark' and 'A Man Alone'). Comprising a meandering electric bass, piano, a flute and some cymbals, it was composed by Jack Trombey, a Dutchman whose real name was Jan Stoeckhart. He was also responsible for 'Eye Level', the tune used on the 1970s TV detective series Van der Valk.
Callan - The Movie
In 1974, Callan hit the big screen in a feature film directed by Don Sharp and written by James Mitchell based on his novel Red File For Callan (which was effectively a novelisation of the original pilot episode, 'A Magnum for Schneider'). Some of the main characters from the series were recast for the film: Eric Porter appeared as yet another Hunter, Peter Egan played Toby Meres and Veronica Lang was Hunter's Secretary, Liz. Fortunately, rejoining Edward Woodward were Russell Hunter as Lonely and Clifford Rose as Dr Snell.
The theme tune for the film eschewed the TV show's theme in favour of an inappropriately jaunty harmonica piece by Wilfred Joseph.
'Wet Job' - The Reunion Special
In 1981, Callan and Lonely were reunited for a one-off 90-minute special, entitled 'Wet Job' (a rather grisly term used as a euphemism for an assassination or murder - the blood making it literally a wet job). Callan has been retired and running a gun shop under the name 'Tucker' for the last ten years. But the Section has a habit of not letting go and they decide that Callan must be recalled for one more job. Edward Woodward and Russell Hunter reprised their roles, with Hugh Walters taking on the part of the latest Hunter.
In the early 1970s, Edward Woodward also starred in his own light entertainment show, The Edward Woodward Hour. One edition, shown in August 1971, saw Woodward recreate the part of Callan alongside Patrick Cargill, Ann Holloway and Natasha Pyne, playing their characters from the popular sitcom Father, Dear Father. The sketch was scripted by the sitcom's writers, Johnnie Mortimer and Brian Cooke.
James Mitchell - Creator of Callan
James Mitchell was born in South Shields on 12 March, 1926. He worked for a time in a shipyard, a travel agency and even as a teacher in Jarrow and Sunderland. He was also mayor of South Shields. His first novel, Here's a Villain, was published in 1957. He began to write for television in the early 1960s, contributing scripts for the first few years of the ITV series The Avengers before he came to the attention of Sydney Newman, head of ABC Television, to write for Armchair Theatre, a series that produced a play a week and provided a springboard for the careers of many great scriptwriters and playwrights. His first contribution to the series was 'A Flight from Treason', an adaptation of his novel A Way Back.
By 1965, he'd given up teaching and become a full-time writer. Soon after, he was commissioned to write 'A Magnum for Schneider', which in turn led to the TV series of Callan. In 1970, he won the Screenwriter's Guild Award for Screenwriter of the Year. His other TV work includes the BBC period drama When the Boat Comes In, which he created and wrote for and which was first broadcast on BBC One in 1976. Writing under the name James Munro, his work included the novels The Man Who Sold Death and Die Rich, Die Happy.
He died on 15 September, 2002, in the Freeman Hospital, Newcastle. He was 76 and was survived by two sons from his first of two marriages. He'd been responsible for more than 70 novels and 100 episodes of television, in addition to stage plays and feature films based on his work.
Note: Episodes marked with * are missing from the archives at the time of writing.
- Armchair Theatre: 'A Magnum for Schneider' (4 February, 1967)
- 'The Good Ones Are All Dead' (8 July, 1967)
- 'Goodbye, Nobby Clarke'* (15 July, 1967)
- 'The Death of Robert E Lee'* (22 July, 1967)
- 'Goodness Burns Too Bright'* (29 July, 1967)
- 'But He's a Lord, Mr Callan'* (5 August, 1967)
- 'You Should Have Got Here Sooner' (12 August, 1967)
- 'Red Knight, White Knight' (8 January, 1969)
- 'The Most Promising Girl of Her Year' (15 January, 1969)
- 'You're Under Starter's Orders'* (22 January, 1969)
- 'Little Bits and Pieces of Love' (29 January, 1969)
- 'Let's Kill Everybody' (5 February, 1969)
- 'Heir Apparent' (12 February, 1969)
- 'Land of Light and Peace'* (19 February, 1969)
- 'Blackmailers Should Be Discouraged'* (26 February, 1969)
- 'Death of a Friend'* (5 March, 1969)
- 'Jack-On-Top'* (12 March, 1969)
- 'Once a Big Man, Always a Big Man'* (19 March, 1969)
- 'The Running Dog'* (26 March, 1969)
- 'The Worst Soldier I Ever Saw'2 (2 April, 1969)
- 'Nice People Die at Home' (9 April, 1969)
- 'Death of a Hunter' (16 April, 1969)
- 'Where Else Could I Go?' (8 April, 1970)
- 'Summoned to Appear' (15 April, 1970)
- 'The Same Trick Twice' (22 April, 1970)
- 'A Village Called G' (13 May, 1970)
- 'Suddenly - at Home' (20 May, 1970)
- 'Act of Kindness' (27 May, 1970)
- 'God Help Your Friends' (3 June, 1970)
- 'Breakout' (10 June, 1970)
- 'Amos Green Must Live' (24 June, 1970)
- 'That'll Be the Day' (1 March, 1972)
- 'Call Me Sir!' (8 March, 1972)
- 'First Refusal' (15 March, 1972)
- 'Rules of the Game' (22 March, 1972)
- 'If He Can, So Could I' (29 March, 1972)
- 'None of Your Business' (5 April, 1972)
- 'Charlie Says It's Goodbye' (12 April, 1972)
- 'I Never Wanted the Job' (19 April, 1972)
- 'The Carrier' (26 April, 1972)
- 'The Contract' (3 May, 1972)
- 'The Richmond File: Call Me Enemy' (10 May, 1972)
- 'The Richmond File: Do You Recognise the Woman?' (17 May, 1972)
- 'The Richmond File: A Man Like Me' (24 May, 1972)
- 'Wet Job' (2 September, 1981)
- A Magnum for Schneider - also published as Red File for Callan and Callan - (1969)
- Russian Roulette (1973)
- Death and Bright Water (1974)
- Smear Job (1975)
- Bonfire Night (2002)