In the 1970s British cinema was at a particularly low ebb following the departure of the American majors. The number of productions fell precipitously and confidence ebbed away. As a result, for the next few years British cinemas seemed to subsist predominantly on a continuous diet of cheap horror, risqué comedies and most of all … TV spin-offs. Callan was one of the best, albeit via a somewhat circuitous route.
The following review is submitted for Todd Mason’s Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme at Sweet Freedom, and is my last entry for the 2013 Book to Movie Challenge at the Doing Dewey blog – for links, click here.
Lonely: “You hit Arthur?
David Callan: “I hit him … and he died of it.”
David Callan works for a black ops unit of British Intelligence – or rather, worked, having been ‘retired’ after cracking up from the strain. Often having to apply pressure to individuals, and sometimes even kill them, his natural intelligence and distrust of authority have made him unreliable in the field. He now works as an accountant, a job he hates – but he really doesn’t have much else in the way of skills. Then his old boss, codenamed Hunter (played with his usual reptilian detachment by Eric Porter) asks him back to kill Schneider an arms dealer – if he succeeds he will be taken back. It turns out the man just ‘happens’ to works down the hall from Callan – it appears that Hunter knew all along that he might be calling on Callan’s services again. Callan agrees, even though he quite likes the man as they share much in common, most importantly a love of recreating battles with toy soldiers. Callan contracts ‘Lonely’ (the wonderfully meek and baleful Russell Hunter) to get a gun and is put under surveillance by Hunter, who asks his trigger-happy henchman Meres (Peter Egan) to keep tabs on him. Meres is all too pleased as he is jealous of Callan’s skills and is itching for a confrontation.
This might all sound a bit familiar, and it should. The TV series Callan, which ran from 1967 to 1972, was launched with a one-off play entitled A Magnum for Schneider, which its scriptwriter James Mitchell later adapted into the novel of the same name (I previously reviewed it here). This novel serves as the basis for the movie spin-off from the series, which takes the unusual step of going right back to the beginning. Apart from Woodward and the irreplaceable Russell Hunter, none of the original cast was retained, with the exception of Snell, played by TV’s then resident bad guy, Clifford Rose. Liz, Hunter’s secretary, originally played by Lisa Langdon is therefore gone and although Peter Egan isn’t quite as good as Anthony Valentine as the icily suave Meres, he is better in the role than the rather stiff and unconvincing Peter Bowles, who played it in the original play.
Hunter: “What about Meres?”
David Callan: “I believe he is unconscious, though with Meres it is difficult to tell.”
Carl Mohner however is much less charismatic as Schneider when compared with Joseph Furst from the original TV version, which is a real pity. On the other hand, the movie benefits from dynamic direction by action specialist Don Sharp, which includes an extended car chase sequence not found in either the book or the original TV version. The book added a subplot involving the man Lonely gets his gun from and this leads to a highly unusual action scene in which Callan overpowers the henchman played by a pre-Darth Vader Dave Prowse that tries to realise graphically just what the protagonist goes through when violence takes over, mixing slow-mo and colour filters. The effect is a bit odd, and very 70s in its slightly psychedelic look, so not totally convincing but a nice idea as Callan is constantly reminded of his distaste for violence – the film, though the use of quick flashbacks, proves particular good at dramatising his interior struggle, something the TV show was technically less able to do in this respect.
TV spinoffs really were rampant at around this time, doing well on very modest budgets. Most of them were derived from sitcoms and usually failed to sustain themselves at movie length. The most successful were those based on the coarse sitcom On the Buses, the first of which (produced incidentally by Hammer Films) is said to have beat the big budget James Bond extravaganza Diamonds Are Forever at the box office, though this is to ignore the fact that the 007 film was released near the end of the year and made a lot if its money in 1972. Here is a partial list of those spinoffs from the 70s to give you an idea of what the British cinema landscape was like then – the ones in amber are the only titles not derived from TV comedies
- Till Death Us Do Part (1969) + The Alf Garnett Saga (1972)
- On the Buses (1971) + Mutiny on the Buses (1972) Holiday on the Buses (1973)
- Up Pompeii (1971)
- Dad’s Army (1971)
- Please Sir (1971)
- And Now For Something Completely Different (1971) [from Monty Python]
- Bless This House (1972)
- Doomwatch (1972)
- Nearest and Dearest (1972)
- Steptoe and Son (1972) + Steptoe and Son Ride Again (1973)
- That’s Your Funeral (1972)
- For the Love of Ada (1972)
- Father Dear Father (1973)
- Love Thy Neighbour (1973)
- The Lovers (1973)
- Callan (1974)
- Man About the House (1974)
- The Likely Lads (1976)
- Sweeney! (1977) + Sweeney 2 (1979)
- The Muppet Movie (1979)
- Porridge (1979)
- Rising Damp (1980)
The Callan movie, while missing some of the original cast of the TV show (and the famous theme tune, though replaced by a nice new harmonica theme by Wilfred Shingleton instead), makes up for it with plenty of location work and some really dynamic action scenes and certainly stands head and shoulder above most of the TV spinoffs that so dominated the British movie landscape of the day. Anyone interested in the original Callan show can do no better than visiting the Digital Tapestries website: www.digitaltapestries.com/callan/
DVD Availability: A decent full frame edition is available in the UK and Australia with an interview with Woodward. Allegedly the Danish release is in widescreen but I have not been able to check this for myself yet. The original TV play, A Magnum for Schneider (Armchair Theatre) can currently be viewed online in three parts (1, 2, and 3) but you would be much better off getting the DVD set Callan: The Monochrome Years if you can – it’s not expensive and in fact is a real bargain given the excellent drama within.
Director: Don Sharp
Producer: Derek Horne
Screenplay: James Mitchell
Cinematography: Ernest Steward
Art Direction: John Clark
Music: Wilfred Josephs (harmonica: Tommy Reilly)
Cast: Edward Woodward, Russell Hunter, Eric Porter, Catherine Schell, Peter Egan, Carl Mohner, Kenneth Griffith, Clifford Rose, Veronica Lang, Don Henderson, David Prowse