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Callan, Set 1

(ITV; US DVD: 7 Jul 2009; UK DVD: available as import)

Callan ran on ITV for four seasons, from 1967 to 1972, and now debuts on DVD as Callan, Set 1. Although marketed as set one, the nine episodes in this collection are actually from the third season of the show—the first season of the program that was shot in color.


In the spy drama, secrecy is paramount to the fictional British intelligence section that employs title character David Callan. As enigmatically portrayed by Edward Woodward in his first television role, the character is by necessity a cipher, unknown to the world outside of “the Section”. His interactions are mostly with his boss, known as Hunter (William Squire), rival co-worker Cross (Patrick Mower), and outcast friend Lonely (Russell Hunter). The audience occupies a place of privilege, having access to this secret intelligence service, the high-risk information it manages, and the thrilling jobs it must carry out for the government.


Although the black and white episodes from the first two seasons are considered lost and unavailable, the Callan we meet in season three has spent five months recovering from a gunshot wound that almost killed him and is essentially starting over. Thus, episode one, “Where Else Could I Go?” allows the series to begin anew as well, following Callan as he makes the slow transition back to the life of a secret agent. 


The most significant detail from past seasons, which is alluded to in “Where Else Could I Go?”, is that Callan had been brainwashed to kill his previous boss, Hunter #3, and the combination of that experience and his own near-fatal wound have sapped the character of his aggression and drive. Woodward’s performance is by far the most impressive and enduring aspect of the series, and a lot of the pleasure of season three is in watching the journey Woodward takes with the character from such a low starting point.


Callan’s unwillingness to kill is of great concern to his new boss, Hunter #4, even though that willingness was the very quality previously exploited in order to kill Hunter #3, his predecessor. In a sense, this desire to see Callan return to violence provides evidence that Hunter #4 is totally committed to the Section—he’s aware of how an unhinged agent could pose a threat to his own safety, but that awareness is outweighed by the Section’s need for expert killers. Described as having the capacity to be “ruthless when [believing] in the justice of his cause”, Callan must find his old instincts if he wants to stay in the Section.


The stagey camera work and production design of Callan are fixed in time; the show’s overall aesthetic is unmistakably connected to the style of ‘60s television drama. Yet the intensity of the interaction between Woodward and Squire is timeless. The effect is something like watching two great actors in a stage play, totally in command of the sustained energy of the piece and sharing it with the audience. At several points throughout the season, the impeccable acting excuses any number of passé technical elements.


Once the season moves beyond its obligatory delivery of exposition and establishment of the narrative situation, there is much to enjoy. Sly humour pops up every now and again, often in the relationship between Callan and younger rival agent Cross. Their mutual one-upmanship results in scenes such as Cross trying to hide from Callan by a doorway in “Summoned to Appear”. Callan walks in and greets Cross without making eye contact or looking in his direction, having spotted Cross’s smooth move several steps in advance and marking him as a rookie.


In the same episode, a solicitor visits Callan at his apartment to inquire about the death of a bystander during a train station chase. Throughout the interrogation, Callan moves along with his morning routine in the bathroom and at the breakfast table. This preternatural calmness is one of Callan’s key characteristics, and Woodward uses to full advantage his piercing eyes and the straight line of his mouth to stay cool and in control, regardless of the circumstance.


As with other “steel-exterior” characters in literature and film/television, Callan has quirks that reveal his vulnerability. One of these traits—which becomes an important motif during the season—is his fascination with toy soldiers (which he, of course, calls “model soldiers”). The toy soldiers provide a window into the character’s psychology, and they also play an active role in the plot of the sixth episode, “Act of Kindness”, during which Callan is able to position himself next to a possible target over model soldier war games. Even if the episode is a little too heavy on metaphors between the men’s pretend war/play and their actual standoff, the use of the soldiers leads to surprising visual and narrative developments throughout.


The greatest sources of drama in the season are moments when Callan feels torn between his loyalty to the dehumanized and dehumanizing Section and his duty to outside individuals, particularly the innocent. His friendship with Lonely the thief is that of a stern father to a son or an older brother to a younger one. For his own sake, Lonely cannot ever know too much about the adventures in which Callan involves him. And even as Callan takes care of Lonely, it becomes clear that he needs Lonely every bit as much as Lonely needs the discipline he provides.


Similarly, in episode five, “Suddenly—At Home”, Callan begins to fall for Lady Janet Lewis, who is a high-target widow with access to government secrets. Hunter has assigned Callan to monitor and control Lady Lewis, but the possibility of romance and the sense of connection Callan finds with her stir powerful competing emotions. Yet to bond with others on such a personal level is to break the unsentimental, unapologetic code of the Section, and both Callan and the audience realize that the Section’s code always wins.


Episode eight, “Breakout” is a fitting quasi-climax to the season, as it is the only episode that moves Callan, Cross, and others from the Section out into exterior locations for extended scenes of action. The stakes increase as the characters scale a prison wall, stealthily break a KGB operative out of prison, and exchange gunfire with the operative after he escapes their grasp. More of this action would enliven the show, especially in those moments when the staginess of the interior scenes distracts from the otherwise strong plotting and acting.


Finally, the quality of the video is poor in places, most notably on episode four, “A Village Called ‘G’”. One of the pitfalls of rescued shows such as Callan is the lack of pristine master video and/or film sources. It is difficult to determine whether better sources were available for these episodes, but Acorn Media has evidently done its best to transfer the accessible material (along with its attendant flaws) in order to bring the third season of this classic series to DVD.

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18 Feb 2010
Fans of Callan and the '60s-'70s era of television will appreciate having access to the conclusion of this series on DVD.
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