The swinging sixties provided the backdrop for any number of stylish fictional spy thrillers. These were tales of high-stakes espionage, populated by agents who moved through worlds of wealth and privilege, armed with gadgets and gizmos, and who were backed by a professional support team at their HQ. They completed their missions, satisfied their libidos, and roared off into the sunset in their sporty two-seater to enjoy a weekend at Monte Carlo.
The circles that ex-con and British state operative Callan moved in were altogether less glamorous. Depicted in four TV series (1967 - 1972), a spin-off film (1974) and a reunion special (1981), Callan was the invention of writer James Mitchell, who depicted the life of the jobbing spy as one of graft and grit, and of break-ins and fisticuffs, with none of the luxuries or hi-tech that other spies took for granted. Even in a long and varied career, full of standout performances on stage and screen, his portrayal of David Callan was a career highlight for Edward Woodward.
Wanting to bring Callan into the audio realm, Big Finish asked Mitchell’s son Peter to adapt a series of short stories that were originally written by his father for the Sunday Express. The result is a fantastic set of cases that bring to life the seedy, often mundane, down-at-heel world of cafes, alleyways and boozers that are Callan’s field of operations. The plots of Callan’s missions are relatively straightforward, but what makes them riveting listening is the immersive atmosphere and the realisation of the stark and unforgiving twilight world that the Section’s most accomplished agent inhabits.
Ben Miles first took on the character of Callan back in 2012, in an audiobook adaptation of A Magnum for Schneider for the BBC. He returns to the role to deliver a first-rate performance that is not afraid to reveal Callan’s more vulnerable sides that complement his public-facing persona as a solitary enforcer. Selecting Frank Skinner to take on the role of the shabby, malodorous fixer Lonely is an inspired choice, with Skinner able to bring warmth and likeability to the character amidst the pathos and sadness of Lonely’s lot.
The relationship between Callan and Lonely is presented in somewhat more respectful terms here than depicted in the original TV series. Woodward’s Callan sometimes dismissed Lonely in the cruellest of terms, and while Miles’ Callan does not treat him as any kind of equal, there are signs of a grudging respect for Lonely’s small-time talents.
There’s a strong ensemble cast at work on Callan; with Briggs’ officious Hunter, and Slavin’s perfectly pitched Liz, both very effectively backed by Tam Williams as ‘posh boy’ agent Meres. There are some great guest spots too, notably Beth Goddard’s tour-de-force as ornithologist and amateur sleuth Cynthia Widgery, and Teddy Kempner’s no-holds-barred portrayal of the outrageously drunken thesp Evan Lang.
File on a Deadly Deadshot is a great opener which puts both Callan and Lonely far outside their comfort zones on a mission on a country estate. File on a Classy Club is as upmarket as things get, as Callan chases down possible double agents in a London nightspot; while File on an Awesome Amateur is a fast-moving case of defection, duplicity and double-dealing. Callan is bemused to find himself paired on a mission with his boss in the closing story File on a Harassed Hunter, in which some previously hidden personal motives (and emotional frailties) are revealed.
For those who have seen the original TV show, Callan’s opening title sequence is unforgettable. The image of a light bulb, swinging on its flex before being smashed, will appear in the head of every one of those listeners as the first notes of the theme are heard here. Director Bentley masters the material across all four stories, and it’s one of his neat touches to have that musical signature return as the bridge between the different Acts in each episode; a little homage to the “ad bumps” that punctuated the show’s transmission on ITV back in the day.
Peter Mitchell has done terrific work on extending his father’s relatively brief stories to deliver an hour’s audio drama for each episode. Any doubts that the end result might include some padding are immediately assuaged: this is a collection of pithy, well-observed dramas full of fantastic character interactions. An excellent debut for Callan in the full-cast audio format, this is a more than welcome addition to the growing roster of darker, bleaker, tougher dramas on Big Finish’s books.
CALLAN (VOLUME ONE) / ADAPTATION: PETER MITCHELL / DIRECTOR: KEN BENTLEY / CAST: BEN MILES, FRANK SKINNER, NICHOLAS BRIGGS, JANE SLAVIN / PUBLISHER: BIG FINISH / RELEASE DATE: AUGUST 31ST