Put-upon British counter-intelligence agent Callan is back in a new series of four audio dramas from Big Finish. Part of a new wave of tougher spy and spook dramas, Callan first reached TV screens as the optimism of the 1960s evaporated in the looming shadow of the bleaker 1970s. Created by James Mitchell, and lit up by a career-best performance by Edward Woodward in the title role, Callan ran for four well-regarded series on the small screen, a standalone movie and a one-off reunion.
The four instalments of the first Big Finish Callan box set, released back in 2018, were based on short stories by Mitchell first published in the Sunday Express adapted for audio by his son Peter. That set was extremely well received, and it seems that it’s only been the challenge of assembling the in-demand leading actors that’s led to the delay in recording the follow-up.
Patience has, however, now been rewarded – as this second volume more than maintains the high standard of the first. Ben Miles is back, and on assured form, as Callan; and Frank Skinner returns as bag-man Lonely, a likeable, if still slightly smelly, freelance fixer. With superb performances from both leads, the relationship between Callan and Lonely is closer to one of grudging respect than was ever seen on TV. That makes for a more nuanced dynamic in what’s still an unequal pairing, and it sees Lonely afforded more esteem for his evident cat-burglar skills.
The first two stories get good mileage from putting Callan in environments far removed from his usual down-at-heel and murky milieu. “File on a Difficult Don” sees section head Hunter send Callan to rub shoulders with military historians at a conference at Oxford University. The world of academia has long provided a conducive setting for stories of espionage and betrayal. Callan’s presence in the rarified cloisters of an Oxford college provides the necessary counterpoint that makes the drama work. It’s well-plotted stuff, that sees Callan compelled to make common cause with unlikely allies and unearth some uncomfortable truths.
Discomfort is a feature of the second story “File on a Mourning Mother”, but this time it’s raw emotions that leave Callan ill at ease. Sent to interview a grieving widow to discover if the theft of state secrets might be a motive for her son’s death, Callan is outraged by Hunter’s apparent callousness. But he’s soon under fire, and not just from his boss, as the investigation gets murky. Emily Raymond puts in a terrific performance as the emotionally fragile Diana Browne, bereft at agonising personal loss.
“File on an Elusive Engineer” has posh-boy agent Toby Meres (Tam Williams) join Callan on a Spanish jaunt in pursuit of a valuable inventor being hunted by the Israeli security services. It’s a well-paced story that shifts the drama to the playgrounds of the wealthy: glamorous hotels, luxury yachts, and high adventures out at sea. Callan is again in unfamiliar surroundings; a working class lad navigating a world of privilege, but once again he’s able to hold his own.
Final story “File on an Angry American” puts Callan in the role of bodyguard rather than killer. It’s a cracking yarn to finish on, with Callan dodging the bullets and, for once, finding a little tenderness and intimacy whilst still in the field. This time it’s Hunter (Nicholas Briggs putting in a fine turn as a capable but supercilious supervisor) who’s left at disagreeable disadvantage.
Dialogue, performance and the intricacies of clever sound design all combine to conjour up an authentic sense of time and place. These stories hit just the right tone, and are infused with an impressive sense of credibility. Callan audio box sets will never shift the kind of numbers that Big Finish titles featuring Daleks or Cybermen achieve, but lo-fi spy-capers of this quality more than merit the attention of the discerning genre listener.