Callan (1974) – Tuesday’s Overlooked Film

Callan-posterIn 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:


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

***** (3 fedora tips out of 5)

This entry was posted in 2013 Book to Movie Challenge, Cold War, David Callan, Espionage, James Mitchell, Tuesday's Overlooked Film, TV Spinoff. Bookmark the permalink.

24 Responses to Callan (1974) – Tuesday’s Overlooked Film

  1. TracyK says:

    This sounds very interesting, Sergio, but I don’t think we can purchase more DVDs until we watch a few of our backlogged DVDs… TV shows and movies. However, the TV show looks like it is available through Netflix.

  2. Colin says:

    I’ll be picking this up some time after Xmas. After a week or two of excess I’ve sworn myself off any new purchases till the New Year.

    That list of 70s movies makes for pretty bleak reading, doesn’t it?

    • This is definitely the diamond in the rough along with Sweeney! and Porridge – and in fact I didn’t include all the ones I could think of just because i thought it would go on forever (there was a Dick Emery movie after all …)

      • Colin says:

        The odd thing, for me anyway, is I don’t remember seeing any of those spin-off movies in the cinema at the time. My parents used to take me to a lot of movies back in the 70s. So it’s either a case of their having better taste or the films listed not actually being all that widely distributed.

  3. I have never seen Edward Woodward so young. I think the only of these I have seen is RISING DAMP, which seemed to be playing as a serieds the year we lived in Manchester (a994-95). Or at least reruns on occasion.

  4. Yvette says:

    Edward Woodward young is something new to me too. 🙂 Never saw this but enjoyed your detailed review as I usually do. You make me think I very likely slept through the 70’s – though in truth I was a young mother then so that’s my excuse – I was BUSY child rearing. 🙂 Of the list you proffered I’ve only seen THE MUPPET MOVIE. That says it all, I believe.

  5. James says:

    A very underrated actor and programme. There is a scene in the colour series of Callan (where Callan is re-recruited after his breakdown) where he visits Lonely in prison. Very well acted and some real drama. I grew up with Woodward in the Equaliser and even at the time I knew it was tosh, he made it watchable.

  6. Sergio, thanks for a fine ensemble (if I may) of the series, play, book, and film about Callan. The film and book have already interested me as does Edward Woodward, a not-so distinct John Saxon lookalike. Of the TV sitcoms I think I have seen some bits of PLEASE SIR and FATHER DEAR FATHER way back. And DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER was the first JB film I saw.

    • Thanks Prashant – I used to really like Diamonds but have my opinion downward a bit since then though I still like some the dialogue (“That’s a nice little nothing you’re almost wearing”).

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  9. FictionFan says:

    One of my favourite shows from the ’70s, mainly for the wonderful Russell Hunter. Don’t think I ever saw the film though – sounds like it would be worth a watch, though I’d miss Anthony Valentine.

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  12. trev says:

    What was it that Callan hit Arthur with? The scene when it happens goes into some bizarre almost psychedelic ‘red mist’ as the action takes place, with Callan surreptitiously sliding some object from his side pocket that he then uses to strike Arthur, but was it? A knuckleduster?

    • Got me there – can’t remember. I thought it was just a bit of martial arts …

      • trev says:

        I watched it last night as they were showing it again on one of the Freeview channels but I couldn’t tell what it was that he slips out of his pocket, even though it briefly goes into slow motion it still seems to happen that quick that you don’t get a good look, he hits Arthur in the chest & again on the side of neck with ? before finishing him off with a few karate chops on the back of the neck. You’ll have to watch it again sometime and pay close attention to that scene.

    • Martin Holloway says:

      It’s just his fist, but he does it with that straight armed bruce lee kind of trajectory

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