Callan: The Monochrome Years DVD review

Alex takes a trip down memory lane with Edward Woodward starring as Callan. How does the DVD measure up?

David Callan is a reluctant professional killer and counter espionage expert. Callan is hired to track down and eliminate enemies of the state. In his first case he follows a teutonic gun-runner Schneider (Joseph Furst) whilst being double-crossed by his own side. Agent Meres (Peter Bowles) is on a mission to frame Callan for Schneider’s murder. Disgusted at his treatment by the intelligence service, Callan quits vowing never to work for them again. He has a change of heart…

The first of two major DVD releases, Callan: The Monochrome Years features the original 1967 Armchair Theatre debut of the character in A Magnum For Schneider, along with the extant episodes from the inaugural and second series (known as The Callan Saga) of the espionage thriller made in 1967 and 1969.

The series is introduced by the now iconic swinging lightbulb, which shatters at the sound of a gunshot. This sequence suggests another life ‘snuffed out’,  the lightbulb informs the viewer of the contemporary setting and represents both ideas and danger, which perhaps a (more literal) candle being snuffed out would not. The strong graphic image of the shattered lightbulb is used as a logo in the retained “end of part…” boards.

Callan was the first major television role for the late Edward Woodward. In some ways, it could be seen as a dry run for the series that made his name in America, The Equalizer. Compared to its decidedly flashy American counterpart, Callan has tighter scripts and, indeed, a great deal more charm.

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Edward Woodward went on to play a policeman in the seminal horror film The Wicker Man and in the late 70s featured in BBC2’s futuristic satire 1990. After his success in America, Woodward returned to the UK and headed a bunch of binmen in the BBC comedy drama Common As Muck.

Although Peter Bowles played the roguish Meres in the pilot, he proved unavailable for the series proper and so a young Anthony Valentine played a more compassionate Meres, some eight years before making his name in Yorkshire Television’s acclaimed adaptation of Raffles.

Much like Number Two in The Prisoner, Callan’s boss changed at regular intervals, but retained the same moniker, Hunter. Ronald Radd, Michael Goodliffe and Derek Bond did the honours in the first two series. Radd was seen later in the series in a promoted role of ‘Colonel’ Leslie, a subtle nod to continuity which lifted the show above much of the action drama that surrounded it.

Callan’s infamous sidekick was a career-defining role for Russell Hunter. Sneak thief ‘Lonely’, so-called because he “stunk like a skunk” always addressed Woodward’s character as ‘Mr Callan’, assuming (wrongly) Callan was some sort of policeman. The principal guest star in the Armchair Theatre pilot was Joseph Furst, perhaps best known to Geek viewers as the ubercamp Professor  Zaroff in the early Patrick Troughton Doctor Who serial, The Underwater Menace.

Callan was created by James Mitchell, a scripting veteran of The Avengers and The Troubleshooters and who later created the successful Tyneside interwar saga When The Boat Comes In (recently repeated on Yesterday).

Like Callan, When the Boat Comes In‘s central protagonist, Jack Ford, is very much the reluctant hero, yet possessed of a forthright charm.

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Mitchell honed a hallmark technique of well-paced, tightly plotted scripts. Working alongside respected scriptwriter Robert Banks Stewart, Mitchell developed the character of Callan over four series, a movie outing and in 1981, a TV movie ‘comeback’ called Wet Job.

Although Wet Job was only a one-off, it was good to revisit the characters. Callan has retired and Lonely has gone straight and got married. He even has his own plumbing business called (with some irony) ‘Fresh and Fragrant’!

There is much to recommend Callan. The plots are often non-linear yet manage to hold the attention – some accomplishment given the age of the footage. An action series with a cerebal side is a rare beast (even now) but Callan plays this very much to its advantage.

Viewed from a 2010 perspective, Callan is surprisingly well-paced, especially given the generally slow feel of much TV drama before the mid-80s, when mindless action fare filled the schedules. That said, there are many scenes in which Callan is tied up and held prisoner. Although rather wordy, these scenes rarely drag thanks to some excellent performances.

There is, of course, a magnetic central performance from the much missed Edward Woodward. Russell Hunter is very watchable too, especially when Lonely is recruited as Callan’s driver and is caught in the thick of the action.

The DVDs end with the second season finale from 1969, Death Of A Hunter. This episode was made with two endings, one which killed off Callan and another which was more open-ended. ITV chose to continue the series and transmitted the latter version. However, viewers still jammed the ITV switchboard unclear as to Callan’s fate.

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There are four DVDs in this set with a total running time of approximately 500 minutes. There are no extras. Hopefully, they are saving a documentary for the second release, which will feature the colour series from 1970 and 1972. The series stands up so well that,, frankly, extras would detract from the precious little there is of this superlative thriller.

These monochrome episodes have a wonderful texture but, due to the age of the footage, this is not the greatest transfer. The final episode, in particular, suffers somewhat from technical problems which should have been corrected.

Monochrome always creates a moody sense of tension and suspense which, arguably, is lost when shows such as this move into colour.


4 stars

Callan: The Monochrome Years is out now and available from the Den Of Geek Store.


5 out of 5