Unlike the elegant and suave spies from across the Atlantic, the British secret service in the 1960s and 1970s was a far more uncool and grimy place on screen – more realistic perhaps, but usually second best in popularity.
There was no glamour in these Cold War spooks of the time, such as Michael Caine’s Harry Palmer or Alec Guinness’s George Smiley, their worn down blandness creating a very different, less cinematic image of espionage. One of the stand-out TV shows of the late sixties was Callan, the gritty story of a reluctant government killer. Played with gusto by Edward Woodward, the original series ran for 5 years and became a staple of ITV during their golden age of drama.
Wet Job was broadcast in 1981, nine years after the final regular episode. Reuniting the series creator James Mitchell with Woodward, the one-off story revisited territory familiar to anyone who was a fan. Callan has now settled into retired respectability with a new, secret identity, running a ‘little’ shop specialising in military memorabilia. He has a casual relationship with his landlady, and seems to have left behind his old life. When he is contacted by the government via a new ‘Hunter’, his is unwittingly drawn back into service. Threatened with the prospect of being exposed, he goes on the offensive which ends in an inevitable shoot-out, the fulfillment of his ‘Wet Job’ (meaning assassination).
Perhaps more recognisable as The Equalizer or even the Welsh virgin policeman in The Wicker Man, Woodward’s personable nature is never clearer than when he’s playing David Callan. His sardonic style and effortless delivery are a delight to watch; much pleasure can be had by seeing him make mincemeat of everyone around him.
It’s strikingly obvious that there wasn’t much money to play with, with the almost painful low budget production values leaving it up to the story and dialogue to carry things. Fortunately, with Woodward’s naturalness, alongside some fantastic turns from the ‘rehabilitated’ fixer Lonely (now a plumber, of all things) and the new ‘Hunter’ who manipulates Callan ruthlessly, the scenes between these actors detract from any shortcomings.
Over the years, many have commented that this ‘epitaph’ was no fitting tribute to the original series. However, in many ways it is true to the spirit of Callan and still reminds us that, aside from gadgets and constant gunplay, there’s still plenty of class in our homegrown, slightly crumpled, spies.
Released on DVD on Monday 28th March 2011 by Network.