The cult spy drama Callan (ITV, 1967-72) emerged almost fully formed from
this Armchair Theatre (ITV, 1956-74) pilot. Most of the series' key elements are present: the
moody opening music, with its sparse piano and heavily-reverbed bass guitar
(actually library music composed by Dutchman Jack Trombey); Edward Woodward's
bitter, browbeaten, conscience-stricken assassin; the cynical, manipulative
boss, Hunter; the well-bred rival, Meres (although Peter Bowles lacks the
malevolent charm brought to the role by Anthony Valentine); Russell Hunter's
memorable performance as Callan's malodorous informer and dogsbody, Lonely. All
that was missing was the iconic swinging lightbulb title sequence that began
each episode of the series.
The sombre tone and gloomy black-and-white style are a world away from the
colourful fantasy of The Avengers (ITV, 1961-69) or the psychedelic enigma of
The Prisoner (ITV, 1967-68) - though they perhaps owe a debt to the similarly
downbeat Public Eye (ITV, 1965-75) - and reflect the fading of sunny '60s
optimism and renewed cold war anxieties and an impatience with spy glamour. In
his original treatment for the series, writer James Mitchell set out the
philosophy of espionage that defined the character:
Espionage is about people. Essentially, it is about one man, and the effect
he has on others. He is a man alone: the nature of his trade isolates him from
his kind. He can never hope for lasting human contacts: abiding love, enduring
friendship. His weapons are treachery, corruption, betrayal, and yet he himself
must be immune from these.
To this grim, brutal vision, Mitchell added 'the Department', a sinister, shadowy organisation that takes on the jobs the police and official security services can't: bribery, coercion, assassination...
A Magnum for Schneider sees Hunter, with the help of Meres, attempting to
entrap the unruly Callan into taking the blame for the illicit execution of an
arms dealer, only to be outwitted by his wary prey. Callan's victory was shortlived, however, for by the time the series began two months later, he was
back under Hunter's thumb. Ronald Radd, who played Hunter for the first series
and made a brief return in the second, was the first of a series of actors to
fill a role that was redolent of The Prisoner's Number 2.
The same plot, filtered through Mitchell's own novelisation, was reused for
the feature film Callan (d. Don Sharp, 1974).