‘The Callan File’ reviewed

❉ Before Spooks and Homeland there was Callan, the secret service operative played by Edward Woodward in the series that made him a household name. We review The Callan File, the definitive guide to the critically acclaimed and hugely popular series, Callan.


It’s not always easy being a fan of archive TV. More than likely, you’ll find that your chosen series of affection has had several episodes wiped, and that those who starred in and made the series have, sadly, left us all for the great BBC club in the sky.

Thank Hartnell, then, for dedicated sorts like Robert Fairclough and Mike Kenwood, whose love of the iconic series Callan has resulted in an exhaustive (and exhausting, no doubt) book detailing just about everything a Callan fan could wish for. After their well-regarded official companion to The Sweeney, this thorough volume starts off equally well with a generous foreword by Peter Mitchell, the son of Callan’s creator James Mitchell, which is an effective introduction to a short biography of the man himself.

The fun continues with the fascinating biographies of the man whose portrayal of Callan made him a household name, Edward Woodward, with the core cast being covered by similar biographies for Russell Hunter (Callan’s hapless friend/servant Lonely), Anthony Valentine (Callan’s colleague Meres), and British TV stalwart Patrick Mower (Mere’s replacement from 1970-72, Cross). Mower in particular seems to have had a life comparable to the dramatic parts he still plays!

But we’ve only just got started. As a useful primer for the genre, Fairclough and Kenwood have treated us to a neat summation of the relationship between fictional spies and real-life epsionage through the course of the 20th century, giving us valuable context for the series. If that were not enough of a clue that there’s dedicated geekery powering this book, there’s a handy chapter on the history of the now defunct ITV company who commissioned and backed the series, ABC.

However, we’re only just now onto the real heft of the volume; a guide to every episode of Callan, including the Armchair Theatre play which introduced him. Throughout, guest stars are profiled, viewing figures given, and just about every detail an archive fan can think of is provided, whether that be story beats, jargon, transmission dates (taking into account that standout quirk of older television: regional differences), uncredited crew, production errors, and music details. This tome clearly aspires to be a real companion to the show, and fans are likely to find this very helpful indeed as a source of reference for all the little questions that crop up whilst viewing these shows, and it’s more than likely that it’ll answer questions that they HADN’T thought of, too.

This information alone, I think, would warrant a rave review, but we’re not done yet. We then come, to an oft-forgotten aspect of the archive TV hit: the novels and short stories which extended the characters for an audience that didn’t have home recording facilities, and therefore would have relied on these stories to remind them of their favourite spy.

All of these receive a detailed review, giving these novels the respect they deserve. This tradition has only really been revived for Doctor Who, as a continuation of the novels that had been written for much earlier series.

Then, almost inevitably given the time that the series came to an end in the early 1970s, is a chapter detailing the Callan film, including the production dramas before a single scene was shot, and the promotional blunders that dogged its release. Although well received once it made it into cinemas in the UK, these problems prevented it from being a big hit. This is a fascinating, although frustrating, detour into the ever-eventful British film industry of the 1970s. However, the cinematic failure of the franchise didn’t stop Callan from having a major role in the collective memory, and chapter 11 tells the story of ‘Wet Job’, its revival in TV play form.

The evolution of Callan’s character over the years is extended in the next chapter, which looks at the changes in espionage drama in UK television over the last 60 years, reflecting the ever-evolving political and social situation that these dramas are made in. This is then complimented by an amusing chapter on fans of TV series and their relationship with the industry, especially when it comes to shows designed to reference the medium’s history. These curious chapters skilfully transfer us to a through treatment of a surprising spin-off as a result of fan activity; the BBC’s Radio 4Extra’s Callan series ‘Red File for Callan’ in 2012. More fan service is provided by the appendices that follow, and which are almost enough for a book by themselves.

Even if you have only a passing interest in Callan, this book is well worth your money, and for the diehard fan, it is essential. I think Fairclough and Kenwood’s efforts deserve the appreciation of every archive fan out there, as their dedication to the subject rivals that of the great Andrew Pixley, and is a demanding yardstick for any writer hoping to give their favoured series the same treatment. Buy it, is what I’m saying. BUY IT.

❉ The Callan File by Robert Fairclough and Mike Kenwood is published by Quoit and available now. You can order it directly from the publishers here 

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