Perhaps best described as the “anti-Bond”, David Callan was for six years one of the more unique portrayals of the career spy on British television, an embittered man for whom bloodshed was to be avoided where possible and loyalty to Her Majesty was almost a thorn in his side.
Professional killer Callan (Edward Woodward) stalks the shadows of British espionage in these remaining episodes from series one and two, including the atmospheric pilot, Magnum for Schneider.
Sent on each mission-of-the-week by the mysterious Hunter and both helped and hindered by fellow spy Meares (Peter Bowles and Anthony Valentine), Callan is drawn into the sort of situations where a conscience is left at the door.
Sadly, for Callan’s superiors at least, the assassin does think about what he’s doing, usually in a noir-style voiceover, his disgust at killing leading to most plots spinning off into unseen directions as he carries out his own private investigations.
Callan’s only “friend” is professional thief Lonely (Russell Hunter), so-called because his personal hygiene leaves much to be desired. Whereas Bond has Q and his never ending supply of gadgets, Callan has Lonely and the odd stolen gun and ammunition: glamorous this ain’t.
Clad in dark suit and trenchcoat, spouting a series of sardonic put-downs and a tendency to call people “mate”, Callan is a very British spy, more likely to be found lurking in a back alley on the trail of a Russian spy than in the tropical climes so beloved of other series.
The result is a complex series of misadventures the like of which hasn’t been seen before or since on television, Woodward’s layered performance a world away from his contemporaries such as The Avengers suave John Steed or self -assured John Drake in the globetrotting Danger Man.
Episodes such as You Should Have Got Here Sooner, the finale of series one, highlight the elements that made the programme unique, with violence and double-crossing between colleagues showing both Callan’s ruthlessness and his loyalty to Lonely, even if he himself threatens him more than once.
With the Cold War never far from the streets of London, even if we rarely see outside the offices and homes of Callan’s victims, the series is always tense, though there are enough touches of humour present to ensure our “hero” remains vaguely believable.
A crucial part of the spy genre, coming to DVD for the first time anywhere in the world, this set represents a momentous moment in the world of TV on DVD releases and deserves evaluation – and enjoyment – from a new generation of fans.
Callan – The Monochrome Years is out now from Network DVD