In the discussions that some people have about which is the best ever spy TV series – and sometimes even best ever TV series – the competition among the cognoscenti and connoisseurs usually takes in two shows: The Sandbaggers and Callan.
The two have much in common and it’s often just a question of taste as to which comes out top. Both deal with the world of British intelligence. Both are very gritty, featuring some of the unpleasant harshness faced by spies on the front line of the cold war. Both feature ruthless bosses and more compassionate agents.
While The Sandbaggers was more interested in the politics and the intrigues surrounding spy work, however, Callan was more interested in its effects on people and the the kind of people who become involved in spy work. It featured future Equalizer Edward Woodward as ‘David Callan’ (not his real name), an ex-soldier and quiet, ordinary working class man who would have been quite happy to have been a clerk and play war games with toy soldiers at the weekend.
However, he – and British intelligence’s dirty tricks department ‘The Section’ – finds himself to be singularly qualified for one thing: being a killer for the state. Although he has to indulge in other unpleasantness, such as blackmail, breaking and entering, torture, theft and more, Callan’s true skills lie in inflicting pain and shooting people, something he’s reluctant to do but knows that if he ever quit his job, he’d find himself in one of The Section’s ‘red files’, just like all his victims.
Although the plots are usually nail-biting, most of the intrigue is in the character relationships and what they tell us about spies and intelligence work in general. We see the difference between Callan and his two colleagues – posh psychopath Meres (Anthony Valentine) and dandy-esque hard man Cross (Patrick Mower), who are both far happier to do as they’re told, no matter what it involves. We also see how he deals with his ever-changing series of bosses, all of whom are given the soubriquet ‘Hunter’. The relationship, however, is always of the upper class boss, remote from the effects of the decisions that the defiant working class Callan has to implement. There’s also Callan’s best friend, Lonely, a petty thief, whom Callan uses and abuses in his work.
The show is also well known for its famous, iconic title sequence (hence today’s blog entry), with its sad, down-at-heel theme tune. Queue the swinging light bulb:
I’ve also included this little gem of a scene from the first episode of the third series, Where Else Could I Go? (the first one in colour), in which Callan, just returning to duty after having been shot by Meres at the end of the second series for shooting the previous ‘Hunter’, finds the new Hunter unsure whether Callan is up to the job any more or whether he’s lost his killer instinct and become a ‘gutless wonder’. The entire episode revolves around Hunter’s manipulation of Callan and the people around him to see if he can be pushed into regaining his aggressive tendencies. Notably, it’s only when best pal Lonely starts pushing Callan around as well that Callan finally snaps and becomes his old self:
You can still get the third and fourth series on DVD (the third has just been released in the US), but the superb first two black and white series are incomplete and unavailable (unless you know where to look). Double O Section has a review of the third series DVD that should give you an even fuller analysis of the wonders of Callan