Picture the scene. The year is 1967. James Bond has conquered the box office and will soon tackle the villainous Blofeld in ‘You Only Live Twice’. Blunt and unforgiving realism broke out two years previous thanks to Michael Caine’s Harry Palmer. And deep within the picturesque Welsh village of Portmeirion, an American-born Irish danger man actor is at work on his magnum opus.
Around the same time screenwriter and author, James Mitchell’s latest script has just been made and broadcast on ITV, introducing a new character onto the small screen. A character that happens to be a mish-mash of all the big spy names of the time, and yet still original, interesting and relatable. On 4 February 1967, the world had their first ‘look’ at David Callan. Over the next few years, he and his sidekick Lonely, proved popular, delivering four TV series, a bunch of novels, a collection of Sunday Express short stories, a film and a reunion TV movie. Now it is due for a resurgence thanks to Big Finish. The question is, does Callan’s old-style realism still resonate today?
Taking on the duties of adapting his father’s short stories for this new medium, Peter Mitchell gives us four intriguing “files” with Jago-esque alliterative titles. File on a Deadly Deadshot introduces us to the world of David Callan, an espionage agent of The Section, reporting to its head, known only as Hunter, who gives him a task to infiltrate a country estate and locate a dangerous assassin. The only thing is Callan and his assistant, a burglar known as Lonely, don’t know which one of the shooters with them is the killer. File on a Classy Club sees Callan investigate London’s top casino and losing an obscene amount of money. But he might lose something else when he discovers a German spy cell operating in its midsts. File on an Awesome Amateur opens on Hunter’s greatest nemesis, ornithologist Cynthia Widgery, as he embarks with Callan and Lonely on a mission to save a defecting Russian poet before the KGB catch up with them. The only thing is Widgery is an amateur, and Callan doesn’t like amateurs. Finishing the set is File on a Harassed Hunter where Callan finds himself embroiled on a mission of personal significance to Hunter. And that significance might just be the death of them all…
Being one of the driving forces behind the recent republishing of his father’s short stories, James Mitchell has confirmed not only his knowledge and understanding of the source material but his talent as a scriptwriter and adapter. Under the guidance of director Ken Bentley and script editor John Dorney, each episode is expertly performed. Engaging, tense when they need to be, hilarious when required, and all giving off a good sense of, for want of a better term, realism. Like the TV series before it, all the glitz and glamour of the spy genre is removed, but what remains is engaging and intriguing, falling into a good three part, three-act structure, even filled with fade-outs for theoretical commercial breaks.
Much like the aforementioned TV series, scripting is one thing. Talent to bring those scripts to life is also needed. Across the four episodes, there are some brilliant performances from the secondary cast, from the likes of David Rintoul, Mark Elstob, Louis Tamone, Tam Williams, Beth Goddard and Nicholas Asbury to name a few. But the highlights of this set are, without a doubt, the four regulars. Future Fourth Doctor companion Jane Slavin gives a brilliant take as Liz, Hunter’s secretary, a character that takes crap from no-one. Nicholas Briggs treats us to a devilishly dignified Hunter. Frank Skinner is near perfect as the snivelling but loyal Lonely, giving one of the best performances from the well-known comedian.
Then there’s Ben Miles as the titular Callan. Simply put, he is brilliant in this role. Miles exudes professionalism and snark but also grounds Callan with hopes, regrets and respect for his fellows. There’s a disdain for his boss and unease at the ramifications of his job. In short, all the other little nuances that make him a truly human and realistic character.
For sound design and music, Steve Foxon and Howard Carter take on the duties. Carter creates for us a new, beautiful rendition of the classic theme tune music that echoes the original. But noteably, the series does not have score but instead it left to Foxon to ground the episodes with the placement of key licensed tracks It’s a testament to the works of Mitchell, Mitchell and Dorney that most of the content of the four episodes is so highly engaging, that a score simply isn’t needed for most of it. Therefore, when required it compliments each moment perfectly.
Much like Star Cops before it, this set not only had the task of introducing the newly acquired IP to a brand new audience but to also persuade fans of the original that this is the same series they remember and adored, just refreshed for a new generation. Whilst it is hard to learn if it succeeds at the second point without finding a reviewer already versed in the universe of David Callan, it can be safely said that it succeeds at the first task with absolute ease. Engaging scripts, expert directing, perfect performances complemented by brilliant sound design and music make this first volume of Callan essential listening to anyone interested in the spy thriller genre in any way. January and Volume Two can’t come quick enough.
Callan: Volume One is available to purchase on CD and Download from the Big Finish website. A free 15-minute extract of the first episode is also available.
Full-cast adaptations of Callan stories originally published in the Sunday Express.
Originally broadcast in 1967, Callan took the burgeoning world of spy drama, and brought a much darker tone to the genre. With James Bond’s career beginning in film in 1962, Michael Caine’s Harry Palmer beginning in 1965 (The Ipcress File) and hot on the heels of the surreal series The Prisoner in 1967, Callan took a darker approach to espionage. Having similar responsibilities to MI5, Callan used the most ruthless and lethal techniques to get the job done, each method meticulously filed by ‘The Section’ (the organisation behind operative Callan), colour coding each lethal tactic.
Four series of the original television series were produced between 1967 and 1972, plus a cinema film released in 1974 and a TV comeback in 1981. And now, Callan is set to return on audio at Big Finish.
Adapted from series creator James Mitchell’s Sunday Express Short Stories by his son Peter Mitchell, four new adventures will expand the themes explored in the television show.
David Callan works for The Section, a top-secret counter-espionage organisation. He’s a killer, a trained assassin, and the best at what he does.
But that doesn’t mean he has to like it.
With the aid of the burglar Lonely; fellow operative Meres; and Section secretary Liz, Callan fulfils the orders of departmental head Hunter and finds himself in very murky waters.
Murder, betrayal and model soldiers. It’s all in a day’s work for Callan.
1.1 File on a Deadly Deadshot by James Mitchell, adapted by Peter Mitchell
With Lonely posing as his gentleman’s gentleman, the section’s top operative David Callan is sent to a country estate in Northumberland to infiltrate a rich men’s shooting party. One of his companions is an assassin but which one? High living and high stakes on the grouse moors as Callan attempts to work out which of the dead-shots is a man-hunter.
1.2 File on a Classy Club by James Mitchell, adapted by Peter Mitchell
Callan finds the odds are stacked against him when he poses as a high roller at London’s top casino. His mission is to lose all his money but he almost loses his life when he stumbles into an East German spy cell. Perhaps a cardsharp from Lonely’s past can help Callan turn the tables.
1.3 File on an Awesome Amateur by James Mitchell, adapted by Peter Mitchell
Callan and Meres are dispatched to a cultural festival in Venice to snatch a Russian poet from under the noses of the KGB. But the success of the mission depends upon the expertise of amateur sleuth and keen ornithologist Cynthia Widgery. Feathers fly on the Grand Canal…
1.4 File on a Harassed Hunter by James Mitchell, adapted by Peter Mitchell
Callan is drawn into a dark secret when Hunter invites him to fly to Newcastle for a trip to the theatre. The plot thickens when an alcoholic actor and a decoy called Prenderghast lead Callan to one of the KGB’s most proficient killers. The setting for the denouement is far too close for comfort.
Written By: James Mitchell, adapted by Peter Mitchell
Directed By: Ken Bentley
Ben Miles (Callan), Frank Skinner (Lonely), Nicholas Briggs (Hunter), Jane Slavin (Liz), Nicholas Asbury (Lord Marsden), David Rintoul (Baumer), Justin Avoth (Endicott), Glen McReady (Minns), Louis Tamone (Lorimer / Waiter), Tam Williams (Toby Meres), Mark Elstob (Karl / Judd / Willis), Robert Portal (Bulky Berkeley / Lubov), Annabelle Dowler (Amparo Soller / Barbara Jackson), Gyuri Sarossy (Marty Rivers), Beth Goddard (Cynthia Widgery / Auntie Gertie / Adrienn), Teddy Kempner (Evan Lang / Joe ‘Plastic’ MacNamara), Leighton Pugh (Petrov). Other parts played by members of the cast.
Producers David Richardson & Emma Haigh
Script Editor John Dorney
Executive Producers Peter Mitchell, Jason Haigh-Ellery and Nicholas Briggs