Sunday 12 September 2021

Callan: This Man Alone

Callan: This Man Alone is a 2016 feature-length documentary on the classic Callan TV series (arguably the greatest TV spy series ever made). It features interviews with many of the key people involved in the making of the series - writers, directors, actors, producers. There are also brief snippets from audio interviews with Callan creator James Mitchell and stars Edward Woodward and Anthony Valentine. The documentary was clearly a labour of love and it provides plenty of fascinating anecdotes and some good insights into what it was that made Callan great television.

James Mitchell had already written several novels (including spy thrillers under the name James Munro) and had written scripts for several of the best TV series of the 60s (The Avengers, The Troubleshooters) when he wrote the TV play A Magnum for Schneider for the very prestigious Armchair Theatre anthology series produced by Britain’s ABC Television. Even before it went to air ABC felt it had the potential to become a regular series. A Magnum for Schneider introduced reluctant British government assassin David Callan to the world.

One thing that comes through pretty clearly is that if you want to make great television you have to set your sights high. Mitchell certainly set his sights high with Callan right from the start. Once it becomes evident that you’re aiming to make an intelligent provocative television series you’ll have the best writers, directors and actors falling over themselves to work on the show and that makes things a whole lot easier.

An interesting point which comes through in this documentary is the way this series turned setbacks to its advantages. Significant cast changes had to be made at various times. Wth new characters coming into the series (notably Cross but also several new Hunters) the dynamics between Callan and his superior change, and the dynamics between Callan and Cross are quite different from the dynamics between Callan and Toby Meres. This is one of the things that kept the series consistently interesting for the whole of its four-season run.

One of the reasons for Callan’s success was that it was made at the right time, between 1967 and 1972. This was the era in which British TV was shot mostly in the studio and on videotape. This was perfect for Callan - it gave the series a seedy claustrophobic feel. Had it entered production in 1974 (in the wake of the sensation created by The Sweeney) it would have been shot on film and on location and it would have featured a lot more action. Even if nothing else had changed it would have been a different series and it would not have worked half as well. Callan needed a murky enclosed oppressive atmosphere. Everything in Callan looks a bit tawdry. Even Hunter’s office is tawdry. Callan’s flat is tidy (he’s an ex-soldier) but it’s depressingly stifling.

Callan produced numerous spin-offs - a series of original novels and short stories by James Mitchell, a movie in 1974 and a TV movie (Wet Job) in 1981. The universal opinion among those interviewed for the documentary (an opinion which I share) is that the 1974 movie doesn’t quite work. By necessity it had have a bit more action, it had to have a slightly more expansive look and inevitably it lost some of the claustrophobic feel. As a result it’s not quite Callan. It’s by no means a bad movie but it doesn’t have the flavour of the TV series.

To be honest the only original Callan novel I’ve read, Russian Roulette, isn’t quite authentic Callan either. Mitchell was obviously trying to do something slightly different with the novels, which is fair enough, but I really think that the whole Callan concept worked better on TV. Which is logical. James Mitchell created the idea specifically for television, to take advantage of the things that television does particularly well.

If you’re a Callan aficionado then you’ll want to see Callan: This Man Alone. Network have released it in a three-disc pack with new transfers of several of the black-and-white episodes.

You might also want to check out my reviews of Callan: The Monochrome Years, the original version of A Magnum for Schneider, the Richmond File season four story arc and the Callan movie.


  1. Thank you for making me aware of this. BTW - you may want to check out "Wolcott". It's on youtube. It's good entertainment.

    1. Network have Wolcott out on Blu Ray - it's in my 'to buy' list. Looks like a great cast, if nothing else

  2. I'd agree that the studio videotape aesthetics suits the mood and stories of 'Callan' very well. However, once 'The Sweeney' had arrived not all crime or spy series by any means necessarily 'jumped ship' onto 16mm film by default. 'The Sandbaggers' (another superb spy series with much in common with 'Callan') ran 1978-80 using studio video and filmed insert exteriors ... and there were lots of British crime/police series that continued on videotape e.g. 'The Gentle Touch' 1980-84 and the extremely long running 'The Bill' 1984-2010, albeit the latter not with the standard studio production.

  3. A few other titles I've come across that may interest you - all on youtube.
    "Who pays the Ferryman", "The Lotus Eaters" and "Survivors". All British productions done in the 1970s. The last one is kind of relevant as it's about a "conical flask in a far off laboratory that breaks and releases a virus."