Callan Volume One review

Running on ITV for four series between 1967 and 1972, as well as spawning both a movie and an 80’s TV special, Callan was a hard-hitting spy drama which followed its hero, played by Edward Woodward, in his missions for The Section – a covert government department handling enemies of the state by the most ruthless of methods.

A natural shot, Callan had a chequered past – both military and criminal – and often chafed against his orders with a nice line in sarcasm and a tendency to feel guilt for his victims. An association with Lonely, the petty thief frequently drawn into his adventures, provided some light relief to a show which could otherwise have been unrelentingly dark.

Series creator James Mitchell, a novelist and screenwriter with credits which included The Avengers, also penned a lengthy run of short stories for the Sunday Express, and this audio reinvention holds four of these tales, adapted and expanded by Mitchell’s son Peter.

The new version casts Ben Miles (Coupling, The Crown, BF’s The Time Machine) in the lead role, with Frank Skinner as the nervous and noxious Lonely. Nicholas Briggs and Jane Slavin round out the cast as Section boss Hunter and his secretary Liz.

File On A Deadly Deadshot

Callan is sent undercover to a upper class weekend shooting party, tasked with saving the life of a wealthy businessman who has been targeted for his political affiliations.

Drafting Lonely to act as his valet, we enjoyed his story behind the scenes of the party, cleaning out the other gentlemen’s gentlemen while betting on Callan’s abilities. We also chuckled at the description of Callan’s sartorial choices, which put us in mind of Jon Pertwee.

File On A Classy Club

Despatched to Renfrews, a top London casino, Callan is on a mission to lose big and catch the attentions of foreign agents. At the same time, he is saddled with Meres (Tam Williams), an upstart fellow member of the Section who believes that Callan is past it.

Roping in one of Lonely’s unsavoury connections, there is great performance from Robert Portal as card sharp Bulky Berkeley and we enjoyed hearing Liz out of the office environment for once.

File On An Awesome Amateur

With information from the forthright Cynthia Widgery (Beth Goddard), a brash feminist who clearly intimidates Hunter, Callan and Meres are tasked with expediting the defection of a Russian poet as the Section is keen to get one over on the KGB.

Not keen to trust an amateur, Callan makes his own enquiries and runs into trouble in the shape of a glamourous American, Barbara Jackson (Annabelle Dowler). As tensions escalate and the story moves from London to Venice, we enjoyed the masked ball and chase sequence on the Venetian canals.

File On A Harassed Hunter

The final story sees Callan escorting Hunter on a flying trip to Newcastle for a meeting with a contact, an alcoholic actor who shares a personal connection to the Section boss.

The story offers an opportunity for Nicholas Briggs to take Hunter in a different direction and he gives a restrained, yet emotionally loaded performance, as well as getting to be amusingly snobbish about the quality of the food and accommodation. Meanwhile, Teddy Kempner goes all out as the garrulous, inebriated actor Lang.

Summary

Big Finish have drawn together an excellent cast; Ben Miles impresses as the assertive Callan, who is uncompromising but not without flashes of compassion, while Frank Skinner both surprises and amuses as the vulnerable Lonely. Together, they have an enjoyable chemistry and we found ourselves missing Lonely when he was not part of the tale. Jane Slavin’s Liz brings some much-needed warmth, plus a glimmer of affection for Callan, though she is rather sparsely used, and Nicholas Briggs excels as the implacable Hunter.

With a wide-ranging guest cast that includes some familiar names, such as Mark Elstob (The Prisoner), David Rintoul and Leighton Pugh, who all take on multiple roles, there are plenty of memorable characters. From wealthy businessmen to members of the criminal fraternity, the theme of class is writ large throughout Callan, as he operates in both the worlds of Lonely’s petty criminality and society’s upper echelons – seeming like an unnatural fit in both. However, there is precious little glamour here, as Callan’s work is a dirty, murderous business and the show’s melancholic theme and incidental music – which retains the television episode act structure with commercial bumpers – evokes this, as does Steve Foxon’s sound design.

With assured direction from Ken Bentley, Callan is another sure-fire recreation of period television for Big Finish and seems to have bags of potential for more. There are also number of missing episodes from the first two series which might be ripe for re-creation too.

We look forward to Volume Two in January and in the meantime, we might just have to hunt down a few Callan DVDs!