DVD Review: Callan – The Monochrome Years


Grim and gritty espionage series.

The phenomenal success of the James Bond feature films tapped into Cold War paranoia and inspired a wave of spy films and TV series. Enticed by the allure of glamorous locations, ingenious gadgetry, and diabolical foreign agents being vanquished the public flocked to cinemas and switched on TVs to see an array of thrillers featuring secret agents. As the Bond movies drifted away from Fleming’s template and became increasingly camp its imitators started to pastiche the genre. By the mid to late 1960s, the trend with films and series Our Man Flint, The Avengers and The Man from UNCLE was to throw out any pretence of seriously exploring East-West tensions and parody with a knowing wink.

Bucking the trend a play commissioned for anthology series Armchair Theatre eschewed ersatz glamour and rooted its cynical view of espionage in an all too real world of grimy bedsits and dilapidated office blocks. Inspired by Kim Philby and Guy Burgess defections screenwriter James Mitchell wrote a one-off play A Magnum for Schneider. Uncharacteristically gritty for the era it presented a morally ambiguous view of espionage and surveillance that predates Homeland and Spooks.


Pleased with the public’s response to A Magnum for Schneider ITV swiftly commissioned a full series. Airing five months after the play aired ITV Callan eventually ran for four seasons. A benchmark moment in the history of spy series. Appetite for this groundbreaking programme was so strong a feature film remake of A Magnum for Schneider was released in cinemas two years after the series finished. A one-off TV play broadcast in 1981 was originally intended to bring Callan’s story to a definite end but the character would be brought back for one final outing in the 2002 novel Bonfire Night.

Not broadcast since the original transmission, Network’s release contains all the surviving episodes from the first two seasons and A Magnum for Schneider.

Stark and unflinching in its depiction of how far intelligence services might be prepared to go in order to protect society the series frequently pushed the envelope in terms of levels of violence seen on screen. Despite its age, many of the themes explored remain all too relevant today.

Innovative in its use of story arcs decades before they became commonplace in television drama Callan threw down the gauntlet to future espionage series daring imitators to be as bold in stretching the genre’s parameters.


Acting on stage and screen since the immediate post-war period Edward Woodward had already built a solid reputation before being cast in A Magnum for Schneider. The success of the play and subsequent series transformed him from a noted character actor into a household name. His portrayal of the executioner earnt him a BAFTA award.

Miles away from the comparatively lily-white James Bond and John Steed, David Callan (Edward Woodward) is a retired operative recalled to active duty by a mysterious branch of intelligence services known only as The Section. Previously retired from service for fear that his ability as an executioner has been blunted by a tendency to ask too many questions about the assignment and frequent displays of emotional attachment he soon learns that discharge from duty can only ever be temporary. Full of loathing for himself, his employers, and the jobs he is made to do Callan is all too aware that refusing to accept a job will lead to another operative being assigned to assassinate him.


A high point in the history of British TV Callan is a taut and intense thriller. Intelligent writing and nonpareil performances from Woodward and Russell Hunter as seedy petty burglar Lonely place this series in a league far removed from any other crime series produced in the UK during the 1960s.

Truly exceptional, the surviving episodes of this arresting series demonstrate a willingness to innovate that is lost in modern TV production. The final traumatic episode of this collection demonstrates a boldness that remains unparalleled in spy series. Often copied but never equaled, Callan remains the definitive small screen hitman.

Callan – The Monochrome Years is available to order from Amazon


DVD Review: Land and Sons


1980 film is credited with signalling the Icelandic motion picture industry’s rebirth.

The establishment of the Icelandic Film Fund in 1978 represented an important step in developing a self sustaining film production culture. Previously, despite the presence of a domestic filmmaking community a lack of available funds and limited opportunities for exhibition restricted the number of Icelandic films produced. The early period of Icelandic cinema history included a notable documentary tradition and saw the release of several significant feature films including Between Mountain and Shore (1949), The Last Farm in the Valley (1950), and Girl Gogo (1962).

Prior to the setting up of the Icelandic Film Fund a lack of funding and limited export opportunities resulted in a lost decade during which no domestic films were produced.

Following the first Reykjavik Film Festival in 1978 the Icelandic Film Fund was set up with an initial production budget of 300,000 Kronur. Insufficient to fully subsidise the making of a motion picture, the available funds enabled producers and directors to commence pre-production while seeking additional sources of finance from investors. A significant proclamation of the government’s embracing of film’s importance, news of the fund’s establishment galvanized the domestic film industry. Initially committed to supporting three productions, the first to reach cinema screens was Ágúst Gudmundsson’s Land and Sons.


Released in 1980 Land and Sons exceeded all expectations at the domestic box office. Seen by 110,000 people in a country with a total population of 230.000 it demonstrated that people were eager for home grown content and would pay to see it. To cover production costs ticket prices were roughly 250% higher than competing international films, The inflated cost of admission did not deter cinemagoers enthusiasm for a domestically produced film that addressed national concerns.

Recognised today as the first sign that an Icelandic Film Spring was about to occur, Land and Sons can also lay claim to birthing modern Icelandic film culture.

An early example of the Icelandic heritage film, it documented the loss of rural traditions, and fragmenting of communities. Adapted from Indriði G. Þorsteinsson’s novel, Land and Sons is set in a remote farming community in the north of Iceland during the 1930s. A transitional moment in Icelandic history, still under colonial rule the era of mass migration to Reykjavik was beginning.


In the years leading up to World War Two the majority of Icelanders lived on farms and smallholdings, within a generation Reykjavik’s population would double.

Alienated and restless Einar (Sigurður Sigurjónsson) yearns to escape from a lifetime of agricultural labour. His father Olaf has tended the land since he inherited it from Einar’s grandfather. A prominent member of the local community Olaf is wedded to a specific lifestyle and is immune to the winds of change. Already heavily indebted to the local cooperative his financial situation worsens when a disease ravages the sheep herd. Bound together by blood and tradition father and son struggle to battle against a worsening financial situation and an unforgiving environment. The lure of city living proves too great for Einar in the period immediately after Olaf’s death .Unaware that forces are brewing in Europe that will plunge the world into global conflict within two years Einar contemplates selling his birthright and ending customs that have been handed down through several generations.


Melancholic and fatalistic, Land and Sons‘ treatment of history and the elevation of environment to supporting character recalls the work of Rainer Werner Fassbinder and John Ford. A cross-generational study of conflicting ambitions, that pays homage to the New German Cinema with cine-literate references to classic Westerns (Shane and The Searchers).

An elegy to a way of life now vanished. Ágúst Gudmundsson’s film invites the viewer to consider if the embracing of urbanization has eroded specific characteristics of Icelandic national identity.

Deserving of its place in film history, Land and Sons is the foundation stone upon which the modern Icelandic film industry was built.

A subtitled DVD is available to order from nammi.is: