‘Callan’: Television’s First Anti-Establishment Spy Series

Joseph Oldham / November 19, 2018

On April 7, 1970, British Prime Minister Harold Wilson held a party at 10 Downing Street in honor of Swedish Prime Minister Olaf Palme. Also present was a celebrity guest, the actor Edward Woodward, whose participation would make the cover of the following day’s Daily Express. Wilson described the visit in a May 14 article for the Evening News, enthusing on Woodward’s role in showing distinguished statesmen from abroad “what really makes life tick in Britain.” Nowadays, Woodward is perhaps best known internationally for his starring roles in the cult British horror film The Wicker Man (1973) and American vigilante crime series The Equalizer (1985-89). As of 1970, however, his claim to revealing some essential feature of British culture rested firmly on his breakout role in the spy drama Callan (1967-72), in which he portrayed the titular character of David Callan—a reluctant assassin for the British secret state.

Over spring of the previous year, Callan had emerged from almost nowhere to become a major drama hit. Its second series had debuted in January 1969 with only modest publicity, but soon the high quality of the episodes had attracted significant praise from critics and through word-of-mouth. Consequently, its ratings surged from six to 13 million viewers over the course of the 15-week run, with the finale watched by over a quarter of the UK’s adult viewing audience. Now Callan stood poised to return with a new, third series due to begin the day after Wilson’s party. By that time, Wilson had pioneered the art of British politicians associating themselves with popular celebrities. This was most evident when he arranged for the Beatles to be honored with MBE awards in June 1965, demonstrating his status as a modernizer “in touch” with the “New Britain” of the 1960s. Perhaps television’s Callan was at the party to perform the same favor, for Wilson was then just over a month away from calling the 1970 General Election.

If so, Callan was in many ways a strange choice of ally. By the mid-1960s, the Beatles had risen from humble roots in the Northern industrial city of Liverpool to become international superstars—they seemed to epitomize a new sense of social mobility and classless modernity integral to Wilson’s vision of contemporary Britain. Callan, by contrast, had achieved no such transcendence. He was a working-class loner, with roots in the social realist British New Wave of the late 1950s and early 1960s—plays, novels, and films associated with the “angry young men” exploring the very class tensions that Wilson’s “New Britain” had ostensibly smoothed over. Callan occupied a violent and grubby world, with one foot in the sinister bureaucracy of a professional intelligence service, and another in the criminal underworld of London.

Callan creator James Mitchell (left) with wife Delia and Edward Woodward on the set of the Callan feature film, 1974

David Callan had first appeared on British television in the television play “A Magnum for Schneider” (1967), written by James Mitchell and broadcast in the renowned anthology series Armchair Theatre. Callan is introduced here as a former assassin for a secret government department known as the Section. Even at this early stage, he appears to be a burnt-out case, previously dismissed by Section chief Colonel Hunter (Ronald Radd) for expressing moral qualms about the distasteful nature of his assignments. In this story, Hunter persuades Callan to carry out one more assignment, the assassination of the mysterious German businessman Rudolph Schneider (Joseph Furst). Callan, however, is no longer prepared to blindly obey orders, and sets out to uncover the nature of Schneider’s crimes for himself before carrying out the deed. Hunter, meanwhile, has his own plans for Callan—and these will prove far from benevolent.

“Magnum,” in effect, served as a pilot episode for the subsequent series named after its central protagonist—indeed, production company ABC Television was sufficiently impressed by the play to commission the series prior to its broadcast. Callan debuted just five months later, on July 8, for a six-episode run, written almost entirely by Mitchell. Here Callan continues to work on cases for the Section, but his relationship with the sinister and Machiavellian Hunter remains fraught with tension. Callan is willing to obey orders when he can find moral meaning in his missions but, as we are constantly reminded, there is a point beyond which this equilibrium may break down. How far can Hunter push Callan? How far will he tolerate Callan’s defiance? Might Callan eventually reach his own breaking point and kill Hunter?

There was little precedent for such a downbeat spy series on television. The popular success of James Bond, first on page and then on screen, had led to an explosion of television spy series on both sides of the Atlantic, including The Avengers (1961-69), The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (1964-68), and Mission: Impossible (1966-73). But these were glamorous, escapist affairs with colorful pop-art stylings far from the dour, hardboiled world occupied by Callan, who more closely resembled an alternative lineage of spy fiction epitomized by novels such as Len Deighton’s The Ipcress File (1962) and John le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963). These had rendered espionage as a world of ambiguous morals and deceit, run by an “officer class” prone to cynically manipulating and betraying its own agents. Although acclaimed film adaptations of both novels appeared in 1965, by 1967 these cynical stories of espionage had made little impression on television. And yet, as Callan would demonstrate, the television series would prove an ideal form for developing such ideas, its expanded canvas and open-ended structure allowing more scope to flesh out and expand the underlying tensions.

Unlike many spy shows from the era, Callan was a modestly-resourced affair, largely shot on videotape in Teddington Studios with only minor location inserts. Yet what might seem a limitation was in fact turned into a considerable advantage. Stories placed less emphasis on action set pieces and exotic locations, and more on intricate plotting, sharp dialogue, and tense psychological drama. The dramatic power of this style of production is immediately apparent in the opening scene of “The Good Ones Are All Dead” (July 8, 1967), the first episode of the series proper, which depicts a tense confrontation between Callan and Hunter that lays out the format and basic underlying tensions of the series.

As with the contemporaneous work of Deighton and le Carré, the British intelligence world depicted in Callan provides something of an allegory for tensions in the British class system, with its working-class protagonist continually subjugated to the schemes of an Establishment bureaucracy. This was a resonant theme—the period of Callan’s original broadcast saw a number of enormously controversial British television films with explicitly radical socialist sympathies, including The Big Flame (1969), The Rank and File (1971), and Leeds – United! (1974). Although far less radical, Callan arguably carries something of this defiant attitude, its tension fueled instead by a continual sense of entrapment and alienation within a sinister and malevolent system, reinforced at the outset by the strikingly simple but evocative title sequence—a single light bulb swings in front of a brick wall, briefly intercut with a close-up of the disoriented Callan’s face illuminated by its glow; a gunshot rings out, the bulb explodes, and we see Callan’s face fractured, as if in a mirror, a bullet hole in his forehead.

Although Hunter is the main representative of the “officer class,” the theme of class conflict is highlighted more sharply through the characterization of Toby Meres (Anthony Valentine), another agent of the Section. One of Hunter’s favored protégés, Meres epitomizes everything Callan despises about the privileged Establishment, exhibiting an ingrained public schoolboy sense of superiority and a decidedly cruel and sadistic edge. While it would become common for critics to contrast the beaten-down Callan with James Bond, it is arguably Meres who bears more resemblance to Ian Fleming’s hero. Meres displays the characteristics of “snobbery and sadism” famously described in Paul Johnson’s New Statesman review of Dr. No (1958), here developed to their unpleasant full potential with no redeeming features. Although Callan and Meres are able to work together with great efficiency when necessary, their relationship is one of cool rivalry underpinned by mutual dislike. This partnership is far richer in dramatic terms than, for instance, the far more amiable interaction between Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin in The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

1970 TVTimes promoting series three of Callan, the first to be produced in color

Another major character is “Lonely” (Russell Hunter), a petty crook who serves as Callan’s underworld informer, supplier of goods, and frequent sidekick. Lonely is no Section agent, but an old associate of Callan’s from a spell they did in prison. The long-suffering Lonely is the total antithesis of Callan: weak and vulnerable; yet he is also highly resourceful and one of life’s great survivors. The unlikely friendship between the two became one of the series’ most popular features, often providing a glimmer of warmth and lightness lacking elsewhere.

This first run of Callan was screened over the summer of 1967, a moment of British cultural history more commonly defined in the public imagination by the exuberant image of “Swinging London.” Callan, which received only middling ratings for these early episodes, was a glimpse into something darker and more cynical. Perhaps, though, the series was just slightly ahead of its time. Indeed, that Autumn saw the first appearance of two other British spy series in the more downbeat style—Man in a Suitcase (1967-68) and The Prisoner (1967-68), the latter especially destined to become a “cult classic” in the long run.

Not only had Callan got there first, however, but among these grimmer late-1960s spy series, it was destined to last the longest and achieve the greatest mainstream success in its own time. By the time it returned for its breakthrough second series in early 1969, Britain was in the grip of economic downturn, ushering the political conflicts and instability that would beset the country through the 1970s. Returning as a noticeably more polished and confident series, Callan proved ideally positioned to meet the new mood of pessimism and uncertainty. This saw the introduction of another iconic feature, as the name “Hunter” was revealed to be simply a codename. This enabled several other actors to play the role over the next few years, although always representing different faces of the same patrician authority.

So, on the eve of Callan’s return for a third series, Harold Wilson had certainly been canny in identifying a genuine popular hit. This was the era in which Mitchell’s creation became, as television historian Jeremy Potter writes, “the favourite thriller series of its time.” Nicholas Briggs, who recently executive produced an audio revival of the series, recalls that “this show was so huge – everyone watched it, everyone knew Callan… There was a period in the 60s and 70s…when it was an icon of our popular culture.” The comedian Frank Skinner, who has revived the part of Lonely, concurs that “Callan was massive… people talked about Callan all the time.”

This is all the more impressive considering how, by the turn of the 1970s, the spy genre that had reigned throughout the previous decade was on the decline. By now, fatigued critics no longer even differentiated between escapist and “realist” versions of the various productions when expressing their frustration at the oversaturation of spy films and series. But Callan’s reworking of the spy genre was very much in tune with new trends in British genre fiction. Callan’s missions frequently see him moving through London’s criminal underworld, mixing the high politics of international intrigue with gritty urban jungles. In this regard, it foreshadowed the rise of British gangster films such as Get Carter (1971) and tough cop series such as The Sweeney (1975-78). This was particularly evident in its depictions of violence, with shootings and stabbings shown with an explicit frankness rarely found elsewhere in British television drama.

Harold Wilson’s party wouldn’t be the only occasion on which the third series made a curious intersection with the 1970 General Election. One episode, “Amos Green Must Live,” saw Callan assigned to protect a virulently anti-immigration, politician whose threatened assassination has the potential to provoke a violent far-right backlash. The character of Amos Green was evidently based on Conservative politician and professional racist Enoch Powell, who had gained notoriety for his apocalyptic anti-immigration rhetoric and whose ideas had became a major point of discussion around the election. Concerned at the possibility that the storyline might influence these public debates, a nervous ITV cancelled “Amos Green” just three hours before it was due to air. The following day the episode’s writer Ray Jenkins was interviewed in The Sun, complaining of “political censorship.” In another interview 15 years later, Jenkins reaffirmed that “it was my deliberate attempt to say something about racism,” suggesting that his script had in some way crossed a line by making a serious political argument.

Callan (Woodward), a miniature warfare enthusiast, contemplates toy soldiers in series three episode “Act of Kindness,” 1970

Eventually, “Amos Green” was rescheduled as a belated series finale on June 24, 1970, after the election had safely passed. Yet despite the sensitivity of its topic, the episode itself ultimately proved curiously devoid of any particularly insightful comment—an assassination thriller that simply alludes to dangerous politics without having anything much to say about them. As Sylvia Clayton argued in her Daily Telegraph review, “the subject raises too many moral issues to be dealt with cheaply.” “Amos Green,” then, shows the limits of Callan’s ability to comment on British cultural tensions—a one-off engagement with racial politics that lacks the subtlety and intelligence of the series’ ongoing engagement with issues of class.

Callan’s popularity held for a fourth and final series, broadcast in 1972 and notable for employing some unusually complex story arcs for a genre series of the time. Wilson, meanwhile, was not so lucky, unexpectedly losing the 1970 General Election to Edward Heath’s Conservatives. Although the dour and pessimistic Callan had not proven so useful an ally as the Beatles, in some ways the association was fitting. Eventually returned to power for a two-year stretch from 1974, Wilson would spend the remainder of the 1970s convinced that he was the target of a reactionary Establishment plot, channeled through the intelligence services, to undermine his government. Perhaps he could readily identify with Callan, a man trapped within the conspiratorial machinations of a reactionary officer class.

While Callan may now be less well-known than many other spy series from the era, it is unquestionably one of the richest and most complex. Indeed, its depiction of a protagonist working within a murky and conspiratorial secret state, almost unheard of for television drama at the time, later became standard for US spy dramas at the “end of history” like The X-Files (1993-2002) and La Femme Nikita (1997-2001)—the latter even eventually added Woodward to its supporting cast in apparent acknowledgement of its debt to Callan.

In a 1970 issue of Mirror Magazine, an anonymous psychiatrist described the series as typifying the growing appeal of heroes “who rebel against the boss—as Callan does—and who object to the numberdom of computerized society.” Perhaps this is the basis of Callan’s popularity, the series offering a visceral portrait of being trapped in a stifling institutional world, combined with a rebellious attitude that gave the audience a sense of agency. In any event, this is exactly what makes Callan such a striking glimpse into “what really makes life tick in Britain” at the turn of the 1970s and gives it a resonance still powerful today.

A more extended analysis of Callan, examining the series within its original historical context, can be found in my book Paranoid Visions: Spies Conspiracies and the Secret State in British Television Drama. This article is indebted to Andrew Pixley’s hugely comprehensive account of the series’ production in Callan: Under the Red File.


Joseph Oldham is the author of Paranoid Visions: Spies, Conspiracies and the Secret State in British Television Drama, and also writes for Doctor Who Magazine and The Conversation. Patreon Button

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