Classic TV

Weird old title sequences: Callan

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

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Classic TV

Weird old holiday titles: The Tomorrow People

The Tomorrow People

When it comes to weird old title sequences, they don’t come much weirder than The Tomorrow’s People. For a show that was basically:

  1. At first glance, an attempt by ITV to come up with a competitor to Doctor Who
  2. At second glance, a sci-fi metaphor for teenagers discovering they’re gay and coming to terms with their sexuality
  3. At third glance, a way for dirty old men to see lots of young boys without many clothes getting tied up a lot by blokes in black face masks
  4. Something for which everyone involved should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves

It didn’t half have some great titles.

For those not in the know, the Tomorrow People were the next stage in human evolution – Homo Superior rather than Homo Sapiens, or ‘saps’ as the condescending twonks liked to call everyone else. Capable of telekinesis, mindreading and teleportation, among other tricks, they were normal teenagers until they ‘broke out’ and started exhibiting powers. They’d then end up being nurtured by the other Tomorrow People in an underground spaceship called TIM, while mean, nasty homophobic aliens try to take advantage of them, either here or after they’ve ‘jaunted’ to some other alien planet full of young Tomorrow People who don’t wear many clothes.

With probably only one decent story in its near-decade long run, The Tomorrow People had appalling special effects, some terrible scripts (including one in which Hitler was revealed to have been a slimey green intergalactic conman), some abysmal acting, Peter Davison wearing nothing but an afro wig and gold lamé underpants at one point, and – lest it be forgotten – puppets for aliens. It was pants, basically.

Despite this, it’s fondly remembered, and was revived in the 90s with some bloke off Neighbours, much better special effects and another guy who went on to appear in Battlestar Galactica. It even ended up with a Big Finish range of audio plays featuring the original, ever-changing cast.

I think it’s probably down to this title sequence and the theme tune that it was so popular.

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Classic TV

Weird old titles: Picture Box

Normally – by which I mean "in the three previous and indeed only entries in this series of weird old title sequences" – there’s been something weird and off-putting about the titles themselves. This week, we’re going to be a little different and have a weird and off-putting theme tune instead. 

Picture Box was a schools’ programme that went out mid-morning during the week and showed a ragbag of international, often entirely silent and quite mesmerising short films introduced by Alan Rothwell IIRC (TV Ark says Dorothy Smith presented in the 60s when it was in black and white). Although you’d be hard-pressed to remember a single one of those films, the really quite eery music played on what sounds like a fairground steam organ will have stuck with everyone who ever watched the show.

Press play and you’ll see what I mean if you went to school in the 70s and 80s. Whether you did or you didn’t, by the end of it, you should be expecting the grey ghost of an old carnie to beckon at you whenever you look in a mirror.

No Alan with this clip, although you can see him very briefly in this unembeddable version over here.