Tuesday 31 October 2023

Callan Uncovered

Callan Uncovered is a collection of the Callan short stories written by James Mitchell. Mitchell was the creator and main scriptwriter for Callan, probably the most acclaimed TV spy series of all time. The book also includes a complete script for an episode that was never made plus a treatment for another unmade episode.

The first of the stories (a Christmas assassination tale) was written for TV Times in 1967, shortly after David Callan made his screen debut in A Magnum for Schneider and at about the time that the first season of Callan started airing. The other twenty-four short stories appeared in the Sunday Express over the next few years.

Callan was a spy series that was character rather than plot-driven. The focus was on the psychology of British government assassin David Callan, a killer who no longer enjoyed killing. There’s also an emphasis on the fact that Callan’s victims are not just targets. They are real people. They have wives, and daughters. They have the normal human hopes and fears. In order to carry out his assignments Callan has to get close to his victims which makes it impossible not to see them as real people.

The problem with these stories is that they were written for newspaper publication and they therefore are fairly short short stories with not a lot of scope for characterisation. In fact some of the stories are really just vignettes. They’re mood pieces. They do however manage to capture the cynical seedy paranoid atmosphere of the series.

I’m assuming that these stories are reprinted in roughly the order in which they were written. I suspect that this is so because the quality of the stories gradually improves. It seems as if Mitchell took a while to get a handle on the very short story format. The first half dozen stories are pretty then but after that Mitchell really hits his stride and gives us some very punchy, twisted, dark and cynical tales.

In fact the mood is more cynical than the TV series. The whole point of the TV series is that in the Cold War the good guys weren’t much better than the bad guys. In these stories it’s hard not to see the British intelligence services as out-and-out bad guys. This is the British government not just assassinating foreign agents but brutally murdering British citizens who are often quite innocent merely because their existence is potentially inconvenient to the government. It’s pretty chilling stuff. Hunter is sinister and creepy enough in the TV series but in some of these stories he is clearly evil, and it’s the worst sort of evil, the evil that cloaks itself in high principles which in reality are nothing more than expediency.

Mitchell takes the opportunity to do the occasional quirky story which would not have worked on TV. A story like File on a Careful Cowboy would have come across as slightly surreal on TV and that’s not consistent with the overall tone of the series.

The Stories

In File on a Deadly Deadshot six men enjoying a weekend of shooting. One is the intended target of an assassin. One of the others is the assassin, and Callan has to find out which one. There’s a bit of an attempt in this story to flesh out the Callan-Hunter relationship.

In File on an Angry Artist Callan gets a surveillance job. A struggling artist with a major anger problem may be in possession of top-secret documents.

In File on a Reckless Rider it seems like members of a fox hunt are being targeted but maybe there’s more to it.

File on a Weeping Widow is better developed than most of these stories. The widow of a racing car driver is suspected of espionage but the suspicions are very vague. It’s enough to get her a Red File, but Hunter is prepared to be convinced that she’s clean. Callan’s job is to find evidence to clear her. Callan gets personally involved, in fact he falls in love with the woman. Hunter isn’t totally heartless. If she turns out to be a spy he won’t ask Callan to kill her. He’ll get Meres to do it instead.

File on an Angry Actor presents Callan with a rather unusual assignment. It’s not often that the Section’s target for assassination is a famous movie star. Callan gets a job working on the star’s latest movie and Lonely gets work as an extra.

File on a Lucky Lady is the most successful of the stories so far. Callan has to keep a rich girl alive and unharmed. Hunter fears she may be kidnapped in order to put pressure on here fabulously wealthy father. There’s a bit more action and excitement in this story.

File on a Dancing Decoy introduces Callan to the world of ballet. A Russian ballerina defected a while back but why was it so easy for her? Is she being used?

The diary concerned in File on a Deadly Diary was kept by the late husband of Lady Black. Diaries of important people are always likely to prove embarrassing to someone. In this case there are lots of nasty people who want the diary. Some want to publish it. Some want to suppress it. Including some unexpected interested groups.

File on a Classy Club. The club is a gambling club. Very exclusive. Callan finds he is now a member. His assignment is to lose money. Lots of money. He assumes Hunter has some good reason wanting this to happen but in this case there are several important things that Hunter does not know. And if there’s one thing that upsets Hunter it’s things happening that he doesn’t know about.

Callan finds himself at a health farm in File on a Fearsome Farm, which isn’t much fun except for the dishy Natasha Biscayne.

File on a Careful Cowboy takes Callan to the Wild West. Well actually it’s a dude ranch in the south of France. A senior Mafiosi likes to live out gunslinger fantasies. Callan and Meres find themselves having to enact a classic western showdown scene.

Sometimes Callan’s job involves killing people but sometimes it requires him to keep someone alive, and sometimes that’s even more unpleasant. That’s the case in File on a Doomed Defector, the defector being someone who richly deserves killing.

In File on a Pining Poet Callan discovers that even economists can fall in love, but sometimes important economists fall in love with KGB agents.

File on a Powerful Picador gets Callan mixed up with matadors and picadors and dangerous women.

File on a Difficult Don takes Callan to Oxford. A brilliant young don who breaks codes for the Section is causing Hunter a good deal of concern. The East Germans might be about to snatch him. Callan has to pose as a military historian, which he does quite successfully. But he may have misread the situation pertaining to that troublesome don.

File on a Darling Daughter involves a general and his junkie daughter and a drug-pusher who is mixed up in espionage. Meres gets the opportunity to indulge his tastes for sadism and torture.

Callan hates working with amateurs and in File on an Awesome Amateur that’s just what he has to do. He’s also not sure why a poet should be so important. Nice to see the CIA as the bad guys in this one.

File on a Joyous Juliet deals with a pretty young actress who is having an affair with an older married man. That older man just happens to have developed a horrifying new nerve gas. And he has a possessive wife. All of which makes Hunter very nervous.

File on a Mourning Mother involves a young man, now deceased, who had a secret. In fat several secrets. What matters to Hunter is how many other people shared these little secrets. A very dark cynical story.

Dealing with the KGB is hard enough but in File on an Angry American Hunter has the CIA to deal with and that’s much trickier. And Hunter doesn’t like the idea of the CIA killing people in Britain. There’s another reason that Hunter is very unhappy about this case, as Callan will find out.

In File on a Deadly Don Callan has to kill a mafiosi on his home turf. It’s a job he’d rather not take on but Hunter has private reasons for wanting this kill.

In File on a Tired Traitor Hunter wants Callan to bring in Alfred Dawes, accused of treason twenty-seven years earlier. It seems that for a lot of people the past cannot stay buried.

File on a Harassed Hunter takes Hunter out of the office, in fact for this case he plays the part of Callan’s sidekick. And he hasn’t forgotten how to use a gun. This is one of several stories which give us tantalising glimpses into Hunter’s personal life.

File on a Beautiful Boxer concerns rich playboy Rod Mercer who designs marine engines. The Israelis bought some and decided they were faulty, so they’re going to kill him. The Admiralty likes the engines and wants Mercer kept alive, so it’s Callan’s job to make sure he stays alive. A nice little story.

Goodbye Mary Lee is the unmade script. It would be interesting to know when it was written. Hunter is several times referred to as Colonel Hunter, which only happens in the early episodes which suggests it’s an early script. Callan appears to have left the Section. Meres is mentioned, but doesn’t appear in the story. It’s hard to guess just where this episode was intended to be slotted in.

Callan has fallen in love with an American senator’s daughter who just happens to be mixed up in every fashionable radical cause going. And she may have involved herself in espionage.

The CIA wants Hunter to get the girl, Mary Lee, out of the way (not killed, you can’t go around killing senators’ daughters). Hunter has no idea that Mary Lee has a boyfriend, and his name is David Callan.

There are lots of double-crosses in this episode as Callan tries desperately to keep his new lady love out of trouble. He’s hoping he won’t have to kill anybody. It’s a typically cynical Callan episode content-wise.

Final Thoughts

There was a Callan movie, a somewhat later TV-movie, several novels and these short stories but Callan always worked best as a TV series. TV in the late 60s/early 70s was the perfect medium for creating the enclosed paranoid seedy atmosphere that the series required.

But having said that the short stories are enjoyable and interesting in being even more cynical than the series. Highly recommended.

I've also reviewed the Callan novel Russian Roulette.


  1. Funnily enough, File on a Careful Cowboy was one of my favourites! The one with the general's daughter was pretty impressive, too.

    Overall, I agree that Callan works best as a TV series, but I really liked these - however, I wouldn't recommend reading them all in one go, any more than I would recommend binge-watching the TV series. Not unless you can afford a psychiatrist lol

    1. File on a Careful Cowboy does have an interesting feel. I like the fact that Mitchell used the short stories to tell stories that might not have worked on TV.

      I agree about the binge-watching. I always avoid doing that with TV series, and with short story collections. I read Callan Uncovered over a period of a couple of weeks - it was fun to dip into.

    2. I try to do that but with short stories, I keep wanting to read the next one!