Judge Gordon Sullivan is a cold, calculating reviewer.
Our review of Callan: Set 2, published January 25th, 2010, is also available.
Secret Agent. Assassin. Antihero
In the wonderful sketch comedy series A Bit of Fry and Laurie, one of the funnier recurring bits involved Stephen Fry as Control, the head of the British Secret Service, and Hugh Laurie as Tony Murchison, the subsection chief for East Germany. The two share awkward small talk and discuss the looming threat of other spy agencies. I thought the sketches were funny because of Fry's and Laurie's goofy delivery, but now that I've seen Callan: Set 1, I finally see the type of show the pair are parodying: Cold War-era British spy television. Like most good parodists, Fry and Laurie obviously have a certain love for the series they're lampooning, and it's not hard to see why. Callan is everything a spy fan could want, with a gritty antihero, deliciously gray morality, and espionage galore.
Facts of the Case
Callan (Edward Woodward, The Wicker Man) is the best the British intelligence community has to offer. He's cool under pressure, quick with a gun, and loyal to Her Majesty. He works for a government organization so secret it's known only as the Section. Throughout the nine episodes of the third series, Callan must protect both the country and his organization from threats including murder, blackmail, or, worst of all, exposure.
These nine episodes are presented on three discs:
While watching Callan, I realized that I knew next to nothing about the experience of the Cold War for any country other than America. I grew up hearing all about the duck-and-cover nuclear drills, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and those Communist Soviets, but I never recall hearing what our standoff with Mother Russia did to allies in NATO (or its effect on Soviet allies for that matter). Watching Callan made me realize the tremendous stake that other countries, especially those attacked and/or occupied by the Nazis during World War II, had an especially large stake in the outcome of the Cold War. Not to diminish the lives lost at Pearl Harbor, but America never had its capital bombed the way England did. Add that to the fact that hostilities had officially ceased between the Soviet Union and the NATO countries, espionage became especially significant. Nowhere is this more evident than in the rise of numerous espionage series during the Cold War era, and Callan might be the cream of the crop. This certainly makes it interesting for historical as well as entertainment purposes.
Anyone who thought the steely eyed British spy started with Daniel Craig (especially the Daniel Craig of Quantum of Solace rather than Casino Royale) will have their eyes opened by Callan. The title character is a perfect antihero: he's asked to do impossible things by his government, things he knows are probably wrong, but he feels compelled to do them out loyalty to Queen and country. It's sometimes tough to watch him because the audience knows that he knows what he's doing is morally questionable, so we are torn between wanting him to save his country and wanting him to avoid killing people. It's a wonderfully ambiguous situation to be put in as a viewer. It's tremendously aided by Edward Woodward's magnificent performance. He's absolutely convincing as the cold, calculating killer, but equally convincing as the killer with a conscience. He's the epitome of the kind of soldier who you wish wasn't necessary, but if he's going to exist he'd better be on your side. Patrick Mowers also deserves some kudos for his performance as the wonderfully oily Agent Cross. His desire to rise through the ranks makes an excellent foil for Callan's cold determination for the job.
Acorn Media has the wherewithal to post a warning before the show that the original source for the series wasn't perfect and that this presentation is as good as it gets. I'm glad they included the warning, but the set doesn't look that bad for a forty-year-old British television series. You'll see video artifacting here and there, some shimmer now and again, but I didn't see anything that made the show difficult to watch. To the DVD producer's credit, they split the show such that each disc gets only three episodes, so compression artifacts aren't a problem. The sound is a listenable stereo track that's not impressive but gets the job done. For extras we get some trivia and a text biography of star Edward Woodward.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
This set is labelled Callan: Set 1 so I assumed it was the start of the series. I jumped in with little problem and felt like I had a handle on most of the relationships. However, this is actually the third series of the show, and actually picks up after the near-death of its main character. Again, I don't mind jumping into the middle of a series, but I am less than impressed with the liberal attitude towards naming this set. I'm also distressed because the box doesn't mention where in the Callan timeline these shows fall either. It was only while researching this review that I discovered what I was watching.
These nine episodes have convinced me that Callan is a series for any fan of espionage, especially of the British variety, even if the source material doesn't make for a perfect DVD edition. However, I'm not sure of the wisdom of jumping into the middle of the series with this set. Fans already familiar with Callan and his exploits won't go wrong owning this set, but new viewers might want to track down the previous two series before jumping into Callan: Set 1.
Much like a good spy, Callan: Set 1 has a misleading name, but it's otherwise not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Acorn Media
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