The final episodes of Callan, from the series’ fourth season that originally aired on ITV in 1972, debut on DVD only a few months after star Edward Woodward’s death in November last year. As a result, Callan, Set 2 plays like a respectful farewell/tribute to the prolific actor.
Although Woodward is popularly remembered as Robert McCall from The Equalizer and beloved by cult movie fans as Neil Howie in The Wicker Man and the title character of Breaker Morant, it was his role as David Callan that established his specialty for portraying lawmen. An assassin for a secret British intelligence service, Callan existed in the shadows and operated with steely commitment. Woodward imbued the character with a sense of moral and existential inquiry that created a compelling, thoughtful dramatic tension within the context of the spy thriller.
Acorn Media released the third season of the series (its first color episodes) as Callan, Set 1 last year, and Callan, Set 2 arrives in a comparable package. The transfers are not great, but they are probably as good as the source elements would allow. Callan was not a show that depended on much visual panache anyway, so nothing is lost in this new presentation. Additionally, since the first two black and white seasons are in limbo (and perhaps irrevocably relegated to transfer-ravaged bootleg hell), fans of ‘60s-‘70s era of television will likely appreciate having access to the conclusion of the series on DVD.
There seems to be a conscious effort to begin the final season in a similar manner to the preceding one. Season three opened with Callan rehabilitating from a near-fatal gunshot wound, and the first episode of this collection finds him weakened and out of commission in a Soviet prison. This is a functional way to begin a season of television, because viewers want to see their hero (in this case, antihero) return to full power against established odds.
In season three, Callan’s boss “Hunter” (William Squire) was intent on seeing his top assassin become reacquainted with a killer instinct. As season four begins, Hunter sits in a small church while a parson eulogizes Callan. Hunter’s orchestration of a sham funeral for Callan illustrates the Section’s emotionless, all-business approach to life and death. From the Section’s perspective, Callan is better off dead
Yet even as Callan is dead and buried, we know to not count him out. The first episode, “That’ll Be the Day”, attests to this with ironic humor. As the parson remembers Callan’s “sedentary and solitary” life, the assassin’s colleagues look on with expressions of stone. Hunter and his superior, Bishop (Geoffrey Chater), are the only two who know Callan is alive and being held by Soviet interrogators, but the cover story provided to the parson would be necessary even if they weren’t faking Callan’s death. No one questions the lie because everyone who works for the Section stays alive through deception and false identity.
In his cell, Callan is frail and weary, but he protects both his identity and the Section in the face of Soviet interrogation. His captors inject him with a truth serum and he responds by telling them to “get stuffed”. Having arrived in his predicament after a job gone wrong in East Germany, Callan copes by carving out model soldiers and refusing to believe that the Section has turned on him. Back in Britain, his one friend, Lonely (Russell Hunter), also refuses to accept what he is being told about Callan’s circumstances. His initially comic reaction to the vicar’s eulogy generates suspense because it draws dangerous attention from Hunter and Bishop, who do not want anyone asking questions—especially the perpetually troublesome Lonely.
The artful turning point of the episode is when Bishop suggests capturing and trading a known KGB operative named Richmond (T.P. McKenna). In Bishop’s opinion, Callan is “almost as good as Richmond” and therefore suitable for a trade. Hunter disagrees, but Bishop outranks him so they orchestrate the move. The parallel scenes that follow, in which both Richmond and Callan realize they are being prepared for a return to their respective homes, raise questions about each man’s mission and worth to his organization. Also, the Section and the KGB adhere to similar rules concerning the treatment of prisoners about to be released. This suggestion of equivalency between the “good guys” and the “enemy” is thought provoking today and probably seemed especially radical in the early ‘70s.
Callan and Richmond finally meet in Helsinki. They stand face-to-face in the center of a room before crossing over to the other side and departing for home. Visually, the scene reinforces the shared nature of the two men and sets up a story thread that becomes important later in the season. Historically, this reminds the audience of the famous exchange of American spy plane pilot Francis Gary Powers for KGB Colonel Rudolf Abel ten years earlier (1962).
When Callan returns and recuperates, he is no longer torn and ambivalent about his position within the Section. He tells Bishop he wants out. In “Call Me Sir”, Callan learns that he is a hunted man and cannot safely retire. Bishop and Hunter also refuse his request for a non-operational, nine to five job. The irony of Callan’s request is that he is asking to have the kind of quiet, peaceful life the parson described of the fictional dead man at the funeral charade. Nothing short of death will truly offer him peace.
Hunter surprises him with a very different option: He suggests that Callan should become the new Section boss—the new “Hunter”. By taking on the leadership position, Callan also inherits the responsibility of deciding who lives and dies. His friendship with Lonely becomes a complication yet again, because Lonely has reached “red file” status within the Section, indicating that he is marked for death.
The young agent Cross (Patrick Mower), who proved to be a bristling rival for Callan in the third season, also stands in a different relationship to Callan now that Callan is the boss. One of the ways Callan rewards regular viewing is that the series cycles certain key themes throughout the run of the show. In the episode “If He Can, So Could I”, Cross’s commitment to the Section appear to be slipping, just as Callan’s devotion had dimmed in earlier episodes.
Specifically, Cross’s readiness to kill is being questioned. When Callan assigns Cross the high-risk job of protecting a rebellious Russian poet, the poet observes, “The world is full of very small, identical surprises, isn’t it?” These words seem to comment on the weariness that eventually catches up to all men who work for the Section. “If He Can, So Could I” is an especially grave episode, in which Cross dies a violent death and Callan confronts the hopelessness of his work from a position of even greater moral torment.
Callan’s desperation to find some sort of exit comes to the forefront in “None of Your Business”. Bishop suspends Callan from his leadership role, and Callan tries to leave for a holiday. Yet the Section withholds Callan’s passport, so he cannot escape. Although the series effectively varies the ways in which Callan finds himself trapped by the Section, the predictable subplots with Lonely grow increasingly weak and create a major flaw within season four.
“The Carrier”, an otherwise great episode about satellite technology falling into Soviet hands, is nearly ruined by Lonely’s bungling of a mission. Even if Callan has an ability to irrationally forgive his friend over and over, it breaks all credibility to believe that the Section would allow Lonely to habitually draw such negative, compromising attention. That the “red-filed” Lonely stays alive despite so many mistakes goes against everything else the series establishes about the ruthlessness of the Section.
Frustrating Lonely plot lines aside, “The Carrier” is a successful stylistic departure for the series, featuring a long, wordless sequence in which Callan and his friend break into a scientist’s house and photograph secret documents. There is an additional pleasure in seeing all of the retro gadgets (cameras and recorders) that were cutting-edge at the time the series were filmed but seem so bulky and inefficient when viewed through modern eyes. Humorously, the series foresees future technological developments, as Hunter says of an audio recorder in a later episode, “Why can’t we have it small, miniaturized like those Japanese things?” Additionally, a later plot point in which a Section doctor wants to use a computer to find a hideout causes Callan to ask, “Do you ever get the feeling that human beings are becoming redundant?”
Callan concludes with a multi-episode arc (“The Richmond File”) that provides the strongest material of the season, and features some of the best storytelling and acting in the series as a whole. Richmond, the KGB operative from the first episode of the season, reappears as a possible defector. Already having matched Richmond with Callan for a short but dramatic face-off early in the season, the series uses these three episodes to give Callan the chance to reflect on his life as an assassin/spy by spending an extended period time with his Soviet counterparts. In the end, these are the people who understand him the best, and the irony of his interactions with them the close bonds they share, which have no place in the emotionless Section.
In “The Richmond File: Call Me Enemy”, Callan questions Richmond at a vast safe house, and the setting, combined with a war/game of words between the two men, creates a sense of watching a gripping stage play. McKenna is particularly good as Richmond, playing him with an intellectual unctuousness and resembling (in contemporary terms) a smug combination of John Hodgman and Ira Glass. Richmond says he is now on “nobody’s side”, and this is a sort of freedom Callan also desires.
When the Section allows Richmond to escape so they can track him, Callan visits an imprisoned Flo Mayhew (the smart, alluring Sarah Lawson), another KGB operative who tried to have Callan killed earlier in the season. “The Richmond File: Do You Recognise the Woman?” benefits from extended dialogue scenes between Callan and Mayhew, which are similar to Callan’s discussions with Richmond but with an added level of drama because of a possible romantic attraction between the two. There is a wonderful image of the two spies taking a stroll through a park, turned on its head by the fact that Callan must keep Mayhew attached to him with handcuffs to keep her close.
Series finale “The Richmond File: A Man Like Me” brings Callan and Richmond together for a fatal showdown. In the end, however much Callan respects and understands his opponent, he cannot allow him to escape. The concluding minutes of the episode call forth Callan’s remaining humanity, and an iconic final image, owing to western and noir heroes in equal measure, represents his last slim chance at redemption.
The only noteworthy special features on Callan, Set 2 are audio commentaries by Edward Woodward on two episodes: “If He Can, So Could I” and “The Richmond File: Call Me Enemy”. While it is interesting to hear Woodward’s analysis of what is happening on screen, his comments about his career and life in general make the most substantial impact. Members of his generation of actors are now reaching advanced age and dying.
To say “they don’t make them like they used to” is reductive. However, to hear the late Woodward’s remembrances, like those of Christopher Plummer or Lauren Bacall or other actors of a certain age, is to have access to valuable history of a bygone era of film and television.