TV on DVD: Callan -- Set 1 (1970; The Third Series)

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both a great advantage and a disadvantage to Acorn Media's choice of introducing the international television's first unapologetic antihero David Callan (played by Edward Woodward in the role that put him on the map) with the debut of-- not the logical first-- but the third season of Britain's cold war espionage series Callan.

Obviously the immediate visual advantage for those hesitant to give a chance to the already weathered prints of the series is that these nine episodes comprised in Set 1-- which already have the auspicious honor of marking Callan's official home video debut here in the states-- premiere the show's transition to color.

For by this point in 1970, the character created by James Mitchell original in a 1967 Armchair Theatre episode entitled A Magnum for Schneider (and originated by Woodward before the series kicked off that same year) has as the press release noted "earned a rabid following," which would later spawn "five novels and a feature film," so Callan justifiably earned the color treatment.

Additionally from a narrative standpoint, the third season (or series as they say) has another advantage in hooking new audience members unfamiliar with the story as we meet the ruthless assassin, agent, and spy who can turn on a dime in a moment of uncharacteristic weakness as he awakens in a hospital bed from being shot in the lung.

Meeting the man when he's completely out-of-character and in a serious transitional period is a great place to get started indeed yet once we realize that this arc is roughly an episode long and Callan is back to his increasingly unscrupulous yet sometimes conscience plagued self, the benefit of the previous seasons would've helped immensely.

Likewise as it stands, it's easy to become riveted by the set-up after the show's purely Hitchockian credit-sequence with a theme song so memorable I'm on a mission to track it down and cool visuals of a swinging lightbulb and a cracked image that transports you to the genre, time and place instantly.

Spending five months convalescing from not just a near-death experience but also one that we gather had found the agent brainwashed into trying to murder his superior-- Callan is a shell of the cold-blooded man he once was as he winces in pain. Similarly, he is at the complete mercy of his unscrupulous employers from The Section--an espionage agency that's so covert that not only will they deny one another's existence but seemingly only a small handful of employees work there, the organization doesn't officially have a name of their own and those involved classify all assignments and individuals in four color coded file types.

Yet despite the fact that David Callan is still able to remove his gun from his holster in three tenths of a second with phenomenal reflexes despite the pain in his lung-- he's lost his edge along with the bullet that's also given him "a gross retardation of the aggressive instinct," and the otherwise normal unwillingness "to be shot at" or "to kill" which would've been fine if Callan had been a shopkeeper but not a secret agent.

Refusing to put him back on assignment and infuriating the man by closing up his old flat and selling all of his belongings save for his prized model soldiers (with the exception of one that was broken; a perfect metaphor)-- Callan is toyed with by Cross (Patrick Mower) an arrogant younger employee who's been promoted in his absence.

Although Cross is the one assigned to his case, we soon gather that overall he's used as the go-between for our wounded antihero and his superior from The Section in the form of the psychologically game-playing, manipulative yet calculatingly brilliant Hunter (William Squire) who wants to provoke his former "best man" back into top form.

When Callan discovers that the closest thing he has to an actual friend-- the notorious petty thief, Lonely (Russell Hunter)-- a frequent snitch he uses for odd jobs, information, and assistance has been thrown in jail during the five months he's been away without Callan there to look after him and Cross is responsible, the volcano inside of Callan erupts once more. Thus, he gives Hunter an ultimatum to intervene and get Lonely back on the streets.

It's about here when we begin realizing that the benefit of the back-story would've come in handy as Lonely is an absolute mess and while spies (I'm assuming), cops, and detectives must deal with all sorts of basket cases on a regular basis and Lonely doesn't know what it is that the man he forever calls "Mr. Callan" does-- I found myself repeatedly questioning why he was continually hired by David Callan throughout.

Whether he's almost blowing his cover or actually blowing his cover, putting his life or others at risk-- the reliance on Lonely never made any sense to me other than the assumption that much like his name and his pathetic demeanor-- both Callan and Lonely are lonely and in their lines of work, there's no one to whom they can turn.

However, even this argument is questioned repeatedly for, despite Callan's endless "antihero" scenes of wrestling with his conscience-- frequently he can be a cold blooded jerk who treats Lonely and others very callously throughout which was quite a gutsy move for British television to make in its 1967-1972 series long run.

For although the highly intelligent scripts filled with double-crosses were interesting-- with maybe only two duds in nine episodes-- Woodward bravely avoids every opportunity to make Callan into a hero or a traditional version of a likable Dudley Do-Right spy. Simply put, this guy is not Burn Notice's Michael Westen. I'm not even sure if he has a mother, he definitely doesn't have a girlfriend (two innocent women get killed in two episodes alone and sex doesn't seem to be on the brain at all really), and Lonely is like the Dickens version of Bruce Campbell's character.

Yet, for as dark as it is and as creepy as Woodward becomes in a BAFTA-winning portrayal that sometimes finds us smiling at something charming he says, getting freaked out by a look, and scared at a cool movement all in the same scene-- his balance between heroism and downright madness can be a thing of beauty. And this is especially evident in the episodes "A Village Called 'G'" and "Suddenly-At Home'" which finds Callan making questionable choices when their loyal secretary mysteriously vanishes and secondly, when he's asked to intervene in a TV deal with the widow of the foreign secretary.

His complete conviction in playing Callan is apparent in every scene and following the success of the series, Woodward-- who became an even bigger star in America with the Golden Globe winning and Emmy nominated '80s hit The Equalizer went on to star in over 100 film and TV works.

And while additionally in terms of Callan, I still kept wondering just what the deal with The Section was and if there wasn't ultimately going to be some bigger twist involved since it seemed like nothing was done by the spy manual (even though obviously it would self-destruct if there was such a thing)-- the moral questions raised in "Summoned To Appear" when Callan is forced with the possibility of perjury to protect Cross and the company and "God Help Your Friends" when they have to make private matters political were extremely memorable.

Moreover, it makes a satisfying and uneven yet at least mostly successful introduction into the world of David Callan with Set 1's release of season three (still, to avoid confusion-- why it wasn't just called season three, I'm still unsure). Yet, I'm hopeful that given the success of Acorn's loyal fans (including this reviewer) and the quality of the series itself-- not to mention its influence on espionage works that would follow-- eventually we'll be able to meet Callan from the beginning with not just the first two seasons but also that episode of Armchair Theatre to relish in the evolution of the character from creator James Mitchell and actor Edward Woodward.

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