Tuesday 18 October 2016

Callan - The Richmond File (1972)

Multi-episode story arcs were relatively unusual in television series in the 1960s and 70s but they were certainly not unknown. Callan (1967-72) featured several, including The Richmond File which occupied the final three episodes of the fourth season.

In the first installment of the Richmond File, Call Me Enemy (written by George Markstein), Callan has to debrief a Soviet defector at a safe house out in the countryside. The defector is Richmond, a colonel in the KGB. Rather unusually Callan is assigned to the job on a completely solo basis. He has no other agents to back him up. It’s just the two of them. Considering that Richmond’s KGB career includes a number of killings it seems like a very risky procedure but Callan’s boss Hunter has his reasons for doing it this way.

Partly the idea is that Callan and Richmond are in a way equals. Callan is the top operative for the ultra-secret British counter-intelligence agency known as the Section and he has more than a few killings to his credit. He’s a very experienced and very senior operative. Richmond is equally experienced and equally senior. There are even some uncanny similarities in their backgrounds. With someone as experienced and as tough as Richmond  a conventional interrogation might succeed. If Dr Snell (the Section’s specialist in such things) were put in charge of the interrogation it would certainly succeed but Snell’s methods have an unfortunate tendency to leave the subject permanently damaged. Callan on his own might well have a better chance of finding out what Richmond is really up to.

And Hunter strongly suspects that Richmond is up to something. The possibility that his defection is genuine cannot be ignored but Hunter is inclined to think it’s a setup. 

The stage is set for a battle of wills between two men who are both hardened professionals and both exceptionally strong and devious personalities. Callan’s task is to find a weakness or spot some tiny error that will tell him whether or not Richmond is a genuine defector; Richmond for his part is equally keen to break down Callan’s resistance, either to persuade the Section that he should be given political asylum or to achieve some unknown objective for his KGB masters.

While other series regulars make brief appearances this story is mostly played out by Callan and Richmond. This puts considerable pressure on the two actors involved. Fortunately both Edward Woodward and T.P. McKenna (as Richmond) are equal to the task.

Do You Recognise the Woman? (scripted by Bill Craig) forms the second part of this story arc. Hunter has come up with a typically devious plan to use a Soviet agent currently serving a long sentence in a British prison as a means of trapping Richmond. Since there in no chance that the agent in question, Flo Mayhew (Sarah Lawson), will co-operate voluntarily she will have to be tricked into doing so. Callan always gets the dirtiest jobs so it’s not surprising that he lands this one. He has a bit of a personal interest this time - Flo Mayhew was captured while carrying out an operation for the KGB, the purpose of the operation being to kill Callan.

Despite this he discovers that spies have quite a lot in common. There’s a certain strange camaraderie. He also discovers that even KGB killers have human weaknesses and emotional lives. Even KGB killers as ruthless as Richmond.

In the third installment, A Man Like Me (written by James Mitchell), the net is closing on Richmond but that merely makes him more dangerous. 

The Section is so determined to get him that Hunter is even prepared to resort to using a computer. The computer does provide some leads but Callan’s much more old-fashioned methods provide the vital break.

Of course the climax is going to be a final duel between Callan and Richmond but it manages to provide an ending that is both slightly unexpected and totally satisfying, both dramatically and emotionally.

In The Richmond File Callan finds himself having to confront several Soviet spies as individuals rather than as mere enemies. It’s a somewhat uncomfortable experience. Callan is always uncomfortable when he may have to kill someone after getting to know them (that’s part of the business of counter-espionage) but he’s never had to confront the problem with actual KGB officers before. It’s particularly disturbing when he finds himself not only understanding them but liking them.

T.P. McKenna was a very fine character actor and he does a superb job as Richmond. He makes him believable and sympathetic without sentimentalising him. We never forget that while Richmond is intelligent and charming he is also a killer. Just as Callan is a killer. McKenna and Edward Woodward really do work together magnificently in these three episodes. With two actors so perfectly cast and with such very strong scripts you really can’t go wrong.

The Richmond File provided a top-notch finale for the fourth season, which turned out to be the finale for the series as a whole. Callan certainly went out on a very high note indeed. Essential viewing. 

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