‘Callan – Volume 1’ reviewed

❉ The Section’s finest killer – together with Lonely, Hunter, Meres and Liz – is resoundingly back. Big Finish have played a blinder.

“From the off, Peter Mitchell nails the TV series’ mixture of class war and Cold War politics… Callan remains as compelling as ever.”

Still highly regarded and fondly remembered today, Callan (1967-1972), the ABC/Thames series starred Edward Woodward as a working class killer good at a dirty, counter espionage job he knew was a necessary evil, but hated doing because he was trapped in it. Following in the wake of other 1960s bedfellows The Avengers, Doctor Who, Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons and The Prisoner, the TV series has now been revived by audio drama specialists Big Finish.

The author of all four of the premier plays, out in July, is Peter Mitchell, son of Callan creator James Mitchell. Ten episodes spread across the first two black and white seasons are missing (i.e. wiped and destroyed), so Peter initially floated the idea of adapting these missing stories, in a similar way to how Big Finish restored The Avengers’ first year. Thinking laterally, the BF execs decided that the Callan short stories Mitchell wrote for the Sunday Express between 1970 and 1976 deserved to reach a wider audience. Subsequently, they became the basis for these new releases.

Ben Miles first played the loner agent in 2012 in a Radio 4 Extra production of Red File for Callan, a spoken word adaptation of the 1969 novel by James Mitchell. Then, Miles’ vocal performance leaned towards Modesty Blaise’s Wille Garvin as played by Terence Stamp, and he’s retained that essential quality in the new productions. In places Miles is smoother than Woodward, although he notably inherits the former’s gift for portraying world-weariness. At one point, approaching a hotel room and hearing the sounds of a struggle from inside, Callan draws his Magnum revolver and sighs, “Bloody hell. Not again.”

As always seems to be the case these days when much loved TV or film franchises are revived and recast, there was a minor internet wobble last year when it was announced that the comedian Frank Skinner would be inheriting Lonely’s cloth cap and raincoat from Russell Hunter. Mitchell, however, thought it was a master stroke, as he’d “have never thought of it in a million years.” Skinner’s performance as the B.O.-suffering burglar draws on what Skinner calls “’60s [TV] Cockney” including, in places, a touch of Parker from Thunderbirds (1965-66). Just as he did in the role of Perkins in the Doctor Who story Mummy on the Orient Express (2015), Skinner invests his character with humanity, humour and an appealing everyman quality. Without Lonely, Callan would be either unwatchable or unlistenable.

There’s always been something of King Lear and his Fool, or Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, about the Callan and Lonely relationship: the flawed, vulnerable hard man paired with an apparently lesser man who is a lot cleverer than everyone thinks. Although the new casting won’t be to everyone’s taste, Miles and Skinner recreate Callan and Lonely’s partnership with sincerity and wit, thanks largely to an obvious chemistry between the two actors.

Elsewhere, Nicholas Briggs’ Hunter, the ruthless controller of Callan’s unit the Section, is vocally somewhere between John Carson (who seemed to play a villain every other week in The Avengers) and James Faulkner (the corrupt solicitor in the first series of the late 1970s private eye series, Hazell). Just the right side of arch, Briggs ably matches the standard set by previous, distinguished Hunters like Ronald Radd and William Squire.

1.1 File on a Deadly Deadshot

From the off, Peter Mitchell nails the TV series’ mixture of class war and Cold War politics.

Astutely, his first story is essentially a reintroduction to the regular characters, with Callan and Lonely front and centre. There are some wonderful character moments between the mismatched pair, from Lonely complaining that Callan’s undercover apparel is “ephemeral” (when he means “effeminate”), to the burglar taking a bath with his cap on. Callan, meanwhile, reveals his cunning side, posing as a fish-out-of water, “new money” millionaire at a shooting party in order to ensnare a KGB assassin.

An in-joke refers to a “a gun-maker called James Woodward,” a nice salute to the original actor who breathed life into Callan.

1.2 File on a Classy Club

The second story is built around a shady gambling club, Renfrews, and Callan’s recruitment of the card sharp Bulky Berkeley, in a sour tale of intelligence agencies double-crossing each other. Created for this story, Berkeley was later central to 1975’s Smear Job, the last Callan novel of the 1970s. The hustler is memorably brought to life by the great Robert Portal in a well-drawn vignette of asthmatic arrogance. By contrast, Annabelle Dowler’s Spanish SSD agent, Amparo Soller, has more in common tonally with the 1967 spy spoof Casino Royale than Callan. Having said that, it’s a very minor criticism.

File on a Classy Club marks the first appearance in the audio plays of Callan’s rival agent, ex-Grenadier Guardsman Toby Meres. Tam Williams’ take on the character is absolutely spot on, wonderfully reflecting the rhythms of his predecessor Anthony Valentine’s speech, but rendering a subtly different, younger and more naïve version of Callan’s would-be nemesis. I can’t wait to see how Williams develops the character over the plays’ run.

1.3 File on an Awesome Amateur

The stand out performance here is Beth Goddard (wife of Life on Mars’ Philip Glenister), who enjoys herself as the strident academic feminist and part-time spy Cynthia Widgery, an old acquaintance of Hunter’s. She makes such an impression that, like Meres, I hope she features in more of the upcoming stories.

On the page, 1976’s File on an Awesome Amateur is a bit of a muddle: the Margaret Rutherford-esque Widgery, Callan beaten up in the West End, a fancy-dress ball in Venice, a defection and a speedboat chase through Venice’s canals (three years before the film version of Moonraker.) Peter Mitchell has turned the story’s defects into strengths, with the well-drawn characters coming into focus to carry the story on accomplished performances. The enthralling interplay between Miles and Williams continues while, gratifyingly, the now Roedean-sounding Section secretary Liz (Jane Slavin) gets more to do than she was ever allowed to do on television, helping Callan after he’s been assaulted.

Big Finish’s sound design notably stresses Callan’s distinctive naturalism, evoking a crowded, smoky pub and hand to hand combat that sounds convincingly damaging and nasty. Another nice touch is the mention of the book Birds of the Caribbean by a certain James Bond, the volume from which Ian Fleming took the name of his most special agent.

1.4 File on a Harassed Hunter

The set ends with a bleakly involving thriller that probes Hunter’s personal life in the setting of Newcastle, James Mitchell’s home town. There are also glimpses into Callan and Lonely’s private side, with the revelation that Callan grew up in children’s homes and the introduction of Lonely’s extended family, here in the person of Auntie Gertie. Actress Beth Goddard does a remarkably good job of imitating Queenie Watts, who played Lonely’s auntie on television.

Significantly, the actor Evan Lang is one of Callan’s depressingly long line of innocents caught in the crossfire of spying, becoming an alcoholic because of the murder of “his Ophelia” by a Soviet agent. It’s a gift for any actor to play a pissed-up Shakespearean thespian, and Teddy Kempner enjoys himself in an appropriately florid manner.

Callan and Hunter’s lads-on-the-town double act is a highlight, while the added material gives the story the tense conclusion it lacked in its original form. There’s also a telling insight into Callan’s character: “Keeping going – that’s how human beings cope with things. That’s what I do… What else is there?”

In the cast interviews, one of the actors compares this version of Callan to the ITC adventure series Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased), which featured the chummy central trio of Mike Pratt (Jeff Randall), Kenneth Cope (Marty Hopkirk) and Annette Andre (Jeannie Hopkirk). To long term Callan fans that will seem like an odd comparison, but I can see why it’s been made. The nastiness and ambivalence in Callan’s character that so distinguished the TV series from other contemporary fare is largely absent here. Peter Mitchell has gone with his father’s view in the 1960s and 1970s novels that, deep down, Callan and Lonely were genuine friends. Here, that attitude extends to an adversarial but respectful relationship with Hunter, as well as a big brotherly – if spiky – rapport with Meres. In Liz, the agent now has both a confidante and emotional support.

Whatever the vintage, however, Callan remains as compelling as ever. As Lonely would probably say, Big Finish have played a blinder. Again.

❉ You can pre-order Callan Volume 1 ahead of its release in July at £28 on CD or £25 on download. Or save money in a bundle: Get Volumes 1 and 2 of Callan together at £50 on CD or £45 on download.

 Robert Fairclough is co-author, with Mike Kenwood, of ‘The Callan File’, the definitive guide to Callan, published by Quoit. Tanya Jones reviews it for We Are Cult HERE. You can order it directly from the publishers here .

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