DVD Review: Callan – The Monochrome Years

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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 realistic 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.

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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 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.

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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 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.

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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 equalled, Callan remains the definitive small screen hitman.

Callan – The Monochrome Years is available to order from Amazon

 

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