Acorn Media // 1972 // 663 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge James A. Stewart // January 25th, 2010
"You see, Callan, for people like you and me, safety can only be found among our enemies. It's our friends who would kill us."
Callan might be a British adventure show that debuted in the Sixties, but David Callan is no Saint, as Edward Woodward (The Equalizer) notes about his character in a commentary. While he's got a few wisecracks that Simon Templar might have used, Callan isn't a charming ladies' man. In fact, he's almost shy when he falls in love in one episode in Callan: Set 2. Callan isn't shy about resorting to violence, though -- his colleagues call a nasty war of nerves "a Callan job" and praise his talents as a killer -- and Woodward gives Callan a general air of menace as the body count rises. Callan's also cynical and prone to anger, as you'd expect in a job where a mistake could put you in your own side's "red file," targeted for death. His one friend is ex-con Lonely (Russell Hunter, Taste the Blood of Dracula). The series ran from 1967 to 1972, after starting with the one-shot "A Magnum for Schneider" on Armchair Theatre, an anthology show.
Callan: Set 2 opens with the resolution of a cliffhanger, in which Callan has been captured by Soviets and declared dead by the British. It's the last season of Callan, so shakeups include Callan's promotion to section head and a death among the regular cast.
Callan: Set 2 features thirteen episodes from 1972 on four discs:
* "That'll Be The Day"
As David Callan is interrogated by the Soviets, his colleagues rough up a friend who suspects his funeral might be premature.
* "Call Me Sir!"
Callan takes over as Hunter, the section boss, and there's a danger of possible fallout from both sides. The first "red file" on his desk is that of his friend Lonely.
* "First Refusal"
Callan moves Lonely to a position of relative safety, as a cab driver working for the section. Callan's got to figure out whether his field agents are safe when a list that could reveal their identities is offered for sale.
* "Rules of the Game"
"It can't be very good, can it?...Nobody's complained," Callan says of the job his men have been doing in harassing a Soviet attaché. Eventually, though, stuff like a shattered car window, crank calls, a shooting, and parking tickets will take their toll.
* "If He Can, So Could I"
A psychologist takes an interest in Cross (Patrick Mower, Carry On England), putting him to the test with a martial arts master before Callan sends the agent to protect a Soviet defector who's got a book coming out.
* "None of Your Business"
A traffic fatality closes a "red file," but opens up questions. Meanwhile, Mr. Callan's holiday faces a hurdle, since his passport is being held by the section.
* "Charlie Says It's Goodbye"
Callan quickly falls for Mrs. Morris, the beautiful widow he meets at a trade fair. Mrs. Morris is also in love with Callan, but she has no love for his profession.
* "I Never Wanted The Job"
Since he's not a regular cabbie, Lonely couldn't come forward with what he knows about a gangland hit if he wanted to -- not that he wants to. The gangsters somehow decide Callan would make a more interesting target.
* "The Carrier"
A cop sniffs around Lonely's cab as he and Callan are methodically photographing the contents of a professor's safe, a new radar network which the prof plans to give to the Soviets.
* "The Contract"
When agent Toby Meres (Anthony Valentine, Jefferson in Paris) is spotted while Callan's posing as an assassin, it leaves Callan on his own.
* "The Richmond File: Call Me Enemy"
Richmond (T.P. McKenna, The Siege of Sidney Street), the Soviet spy that the section exchanged for Callan, is captured on British soil. Can Callan uncover the man's mission?
* "The Richmond File: Do You Recognise This Woman?"
Richmond plans to spring a Soviet agent from prison, but finds that Callan has already sprung her. Meanwhile, Meres uses a TV licensing truck to track Richmond's radio signals.
* "The Richmond File: A Man Like Me"
Richmond makes himself an unwelcome houseguest for a sleeper agent. The section tries asking a computer where Richmond is, but Callan takes his cue from Lonely's reading habits and heads for the newsstand.
When watching Callan, I'm left with the feeling that it must have been the shocker that Edward Woodward says it was in 1972. After all, even John LeCarre's spies occasionally lived to retire. However, I've seen it all before, even though I'm seeing Callan for the first time. Consider all the agendas, plots, and counterplots on 24, for example.
Callan may no longer be a one-of-a-kind must-see TV show, but that only makes room for a new appreciation of Edward Woodward's performance. The set starts off with David Callan in Soviet hands, keeping sane by whittling toy soldiers and erupting when his whittling is knocked away by a guard. He's got a few wisecracks and some defiance left, but he sounds shaky when the Soviets show him his grave marker in a photo at the start of an interrogation session. When he realizes that there's an exchange afoot -- and the Soviets can no longer harm him -- he both shows his contempt and takes control of the situation immediately by spilling wine on one of his captors. When offered the job of Hunter, Callan at first objects. "Lying, cheating, double-dealing, dying. That bloody desk has dominated my life," he says. Still, with "an unmarked grave in a pine forest" as the other option, he takes command. Callan seems awed by the job, but he's also very sharp and very much in control; Woodward delivers his lines forcefully in rapid fire. What humanizes Callan is that, while he's a nasty piece of work, he's still the nicest guy in the section. He comes up with a job for Lonely to protect his friend from a hit, and takes the same interest in Cross, a tough thug, when the psychiatrist questions the agent's capabilities. His friendship with Lonely, something he usually only barely acknowledges, proves stronger than his sense of duty in the series' final episode, contributing to a memorable conclusion.
Like the more lightweight spy shows churned out by Britain's ITC, Callan's production is somewhat on the cheap side; you'll know all the sets are sets. It's also "wordy," as Edward Woodward himself points out in a commentary. I'd go a little further and note that Callan is prone to philosophical ruminations about his craft. "I was trained never to take anyone or anything on trust. You start off with one simple premise: everything smells -- yourself, the job you're doing, and the person who tells you to do it," Callan says at one point. This rumination is a little redundant, since the stories and Woodward's performance set forth its theme excellently, but Woodward gives it life enough that you won't likely object.
The picture isn't pristine. The video exteriors have faded a lot, and you'll find flecks and scratches throughout the picture. Sound quality seems to be adequate, with the ambient sound the production relies on -- silencer gunshots, crashes, and street noise -- sounding authentic.
Edward Woodward does commentaries with two episodes in this set. He's genuinely proud of Callan, and he recalls his time doing the show with detail and good humor, even letting a commentary run past episode runtime in one case. There's also a text bio of Woodward, so you'll see his career was a lot more than The Equalizer.
Callan: Set 2, the series' last season, starts and ends with compelling story arcs that could leave even a jaded TV viewer amazed. The stuff in between isn't bad, but there's a handful of episodes that feel too much like television, full of coincidence and standard plotting. "None of Your Business," for example, finds Callan, on the outs with his section, trying to get a false passport and running smack into the operation the section is running, while Lonely's predictable dumb moves propel "I Never Wanted The Job" and "The Carrier." These episodes are entertaining -- and they'd pass muster on a lot of shows -- but they don't seem to be Callan at its best.
Only the later episodes of Callan have been released, as Judge Gordon Sullivan noted in his review of Callan: Set 1. Edward Woodward notes that some black-and-white episodes are gone, so it's hard to tell whether Acorn Media will rustle up what's left of Callan's first seasons for one more release.
I've been powerwatching Callan: Set 2 in the days counting down to the return of 24. While Callan is a low-key, low-budget show without modern TV pyrotechnics, it's a fitting companion to the louder contemporary series, and Edward Woodward's performance isn't likely to ever seem dated, no matter how many cynical spies turn up across the TV dial.
Even if everything smells in Callan's world, the show comes up roses.
Not guilty, but you might need some air freshener afterward.
Review content copyright © 2010 James A. Stewart; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Acorn Media
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 663 Minutes
Release Year: 1972
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Bonus CD