When you think British spies, you think James Bond. It’s the franchise that throws a shadow over the entire genre and Bond himself is the spy that all the others aspire to be and the standard by which they measure themselves.
That is, apart from Callan.
Created by James Mitchell and first broadcast in 1967 starring the Equalizer’s Edward Woodward (and PLEASE no one tell Queen Latifah) as the series’ eponymous hero, Callan followed the exploits of an ex-military, ex-con who finds himself coerced into working as an assassin for the secret and murky ‘Section,’ a somewhat shabby espionage agency at the heart of the British government.
Far from the glitz, glamour, and gadgets of his more famous peer, Callan lived and operated in the far more mundane realm world of 1970s lower class London. Given this more grounded setting, Callan always struck me as being far closer to what the reality of being a British Government assassin would actually be like.
The world of Callan was a dark and seedy one to be sure. More at home in cheap bed sits than luxurious five-star accommodations, each week saw Callan receive a file of various color, with each file containing a target and its color indicating his objective (red targets were to be assassinated, yellow targets were to simply be observed, blue targets were members of the ‘wrong party,’ and white targets were to be “put out of action by sending them into divorce courts, bankruptcy, prison or mental homes”)
Often aided and abetted by his former prison cell mate, working class professional burglar Lonely (who garnered the nickname thanks to his aversion to bathing), the two would regularly set about getting inside their target’s life to understand it and, ultimately, end it.
Hunter, Callan’s immediate superior and the Section official responsible for assigning his cases, was the only bit of ‘posh’ that Callan saw in his dour, low-rent world. However, as the series chugged along, it became clear that Hunter was a title, rather than a genuine name, as various ‘Hunters’ proceed to come and go throughout its run.
Callan’s only other brush with the upper-classes was with Tobey Meres, Callan’s aristocratic and sadistic co-worker who believed that his class made him superior to Callan, despite him being an absolutely inferior assassin in every way possible.
Phenomenally popular in the UK at the time, the series ran for a total of four seasons between 1967 and 1972, making a brief return in 1981 for a made-for-TV comeback movie.
Part of the reason for that success was the fact that the scripts were just so tightly and well crafted. After all, if you can get past Callan’s 50-year-old production values, you’ll find that the stories and characters still stand up very well today.
The popularity of the series also led to Mitchell writing dozens of short stories featuring the characters for the Sunday Express newspaper, which have now been adapted by his son, Peter Mitchell, into full-cast audio dramas courtesy of audio supremos Big Finish.
What’s a full cast audio drama? It’s a drama production made solely for audio, much like the old Shadow radio series from the 1930s, or the Star Wars audio adaptations from the 70s/80s.
These modern equivalents have immersive, cinematic audio, and perfectly capture the tone of the original Callan TV series.
Set to capture the tone of the original Callan TV series, the newly produced audio drama stars Ben Miles (The Crown, V for Vendetta) as Callan, comedian Frank Skinner (Fantasy Football League, The Frank Skinner Show) as Lonely, and Jane Slavin (Doctors, Coronation Street) as Liz, with Nicholas Briggs, the voice behind Doctor Who’s Daleks and himself a Big Finish executive producer, rounding out the cast as Hunter.
Two box sets of four stories are currently available, and below is a breakdown of the stories in each;
1.1 File on a Deadly Deadshot by James Mitchell, adapted by Peter Mitchell
With Lonely posing as his gentleman’s gentleman, the section’s top operative David Callan is sent to a country estate in Northumberland to infiltrate a rich men’s shooting party. One of his companions is an assassin but which one? High living and high stakes on the grouse moors as Callan attempts to work out which of the dead-shots is a man-hunter.
1.2 File on a Classy Club by James Mitchell, adapted by Peter Mitchell
Callan finds the odds are stacked against him when he poses as a high roller at London’s top casino. His mission is to lose all his money but he almost loses his life when he stumbles into an East German spy cell. Perhaps a card sharp from Lonely’s past can help Callan turn the tables.
1.3 File on an Awesome Amateur by James Mitchell, adapted by Peter Mitchell
Callan and Meres are despatched to a cultural festival in Venice to snatch a Russian poet from under the noses of the KGB. But the success of the mission depends upon the expertise of amateur sleuth and keen ornithologist Cynthia Widgery. Feathers fly on the Grand Canal…
1.4 File on a Harassed Hunter by James Mitchell, adapted by Peter Mitchell
Callan is drawn into a dark secret when Hunter invites him to fly to Newcastle for a trip to the theatre. The plot thickens when an alcoholic actor and a decoy called Prenderghast lead Callan to one of the KGB’s most proficient killers. The setting for the denouement is far too close for comfort.
2.1 File on a Difficult Don
The cap and gown meet the gun and bullet when Callan visits the Dreaming Spires to protect a code-breaker.
2.2 File on a Mourning Mother
Callan and Meres are investigating the mysterious death of a scientist at a top secret research centre when they discover, Hell hath no fury…
2.3 File on an Elusive Engineer
Callan and Meres are sent to protect a British engineer from an assassination attempt and then find themselves all at sea…
2.4 File on an Angry American
The CIA plans to execute a double agent on British soil and Callan is sent to make sure the target’s wife doesn’t get caught in the cross-fire…
Those interested in the newly produced Callan series can click here to download a full 60-minute episode of the series, courtesy of Big Finish, from now until February 21st.
What do you make of Callan’s return? Let us know your thoughts on social media or in the comments down below!