THE CALLAN FILE - 1
Born in South Shields in 1926, the year of the General Strike, James Mitchell was the son of a union activist and self-taught intellectual who worked his way from shipyard fitter to city mayor. James was educated at South Shields Grammar School, graduated from St Edmund Hall, Oxford, and gained a Higher Diploma in Education from King's College, Newcastle, before working in repertory theatre, then going through a succession of jobs, from shipyard worker, travel courier and civil servant to 15 years as a teacher. A keen writer, his first play was performed by Cleadon Village Drama Group, outside South Shields. He broke into television in 1960 writing a one-off play for ITV's Armchair Mystery Theatre (Flight From Treason). The following year he wrote an episode of the US anthology series Kraft Mystery Theater and another single play, The Omega Mystery, as part of ITV's Armchair Theatre strand. Between 1961 and 1963 he contributed five scripts for The Avengers and a single episode of Z Cars. In late 1966 he submitted a script for Armchair Theatre called A Magnum for Schneider, about a secret government agent who is little more than a hired assassin. But although this was the exciting and romantic heyday of James Bond, fast cars, loose women and glamorous adventure, Mitchell's character, David Callan, was as far removed from the world of 007 as one could imagine.
In his original treatment for the play, Mitchell set out the philosophy of espionage that defined the character: 'Espionage is about people. Essentially, it is about one man, and the effect he has on others. He is a man alone: the nature of his trade isolates him from his kind. He can never hope for lasting human contacts: abiding love, enduring friendship. His weapons are treachery, corruption, betrayal, and yet he himself must be immune from these. His weapons are theft, blackmail, murder. The tools of the trade are the knife, the gun and an icy courage no other man possesses. He is the Destroyer. His ordinariness is his protection. He is a highly-skilled cracksman, a master of unarmed combat, a dead-shot with a pistol. He is a killer. But he looks so much like everybody else, he is invisible. It is only when you know him well that you realise his strength, his menace - and his charm.'
Callan is a killer-but a reluctant one, prematurely and forcibly retired at the age of 35 to become a clerk, because of his tendency to question orders and to show clemency to the targets assigned to him. At the start of A Magnum for Schneider, Callan is offered his job back-provided he kills Rudolph Schneider, a bluff German working in London. The man Callan has to answer to is Colonel Hunter (codename Charlie), the ruthless head of a government security unit known as The Section. Hunter sits as judge and jury, ordering the deaths of men he has never met from the comfort of his office (secretly housed in a disused school), by transferring their names to a red covered file. By the end of the story, Callan has been placed in just such a file.
After serving with the British Army in Malaya from which he was discharged, with no career prospects in sight Callan decided to turn to crime. But he bungled his first attempt at burglary and ended up with a two-year stretch in Wormwood Scrubs. It was in 'The Scrubs' that Callan met Lonely, a habitual criminal and petty thief who had spent much of his adult life behind bars. Lonely, so-called because, when nervous, he "stunk like a skunk", was often treated with contempt by Callan. Nevertheless, Callan found him useful, and when Hunter gives Callan the Schneider job, "with no help from The Section" it's Lonely that Callan turns to for a gun (the Magnum of the title) to do the job with. Occasionally we're let into his confidence as, through voice-over, we hear Callan's innermost thoughts. We also learn that Callan is an avid collector of model soldiers from historic battles and has a passion for playing strategic war games in which his ‘toys’ re-enact famous conflicts. It’s an interest shared by Schneider, who runs his own business from an office just down the hallway from where Callan currently works. A job arranged for him by, coincidentally, Hunter.
In casting the lead role for the play, the producers turned to an actor whose face was already well known on British television. Edward Woodward was a veteran of some twenty plus television shows. He had guest starred in a number of popular British series such as The Saint, The Troubleshooters and Emergency-Ward 10 and had been a semi-regular in a British drama series called Skyport, which ran for a single season in 1959. Throughout the sixties Woodward was kept gainfully employed in a number of TV productions, especially one-off plays that were shown under various umbrella titles such as Play of the Week and Armchair Theatre. 1965 and 1966 were especially busy years for him and by late 1966 he was planning his first family holiday in years when, just a few days before he was due to leave, the script for A Magnum for Schneider was put through his letterbox.
Woodward read the script and said he knew there and then that he had to do it, even though it meant cancelling the family holiday. The casting director for this episode of Armchair Theatre later told Woodward that she'd discovered he was going on holiday and knew that if she'd phoned him up and told him she had a script, he would turn it down. So working on the premise that an actor can never resist reading a script, she deliberately put it through his letterbox. Of Callan, Woodward told TV Times magazine prior to the Armchair Theatre showing at 1030pm on Saturday 4th February 1967, "He is no cardboard character but a very complicated one. Underneath his quiet toughness he's a loser with a sardonic sense of humour." Even before the Armchair Theatre production was aired, plans had been made for a full series - as the TV Times reported: 'Later this year, Callan will be featured in a series of one-hour thrillers, on which production starts in April.'
Story Editor for the AT production was Terence Feely, who had worked on a number of successful British TV series such as The Avengers and The Saint. It was Feely, working closely with James Mitchell, who would flesh out the character of Callan and develop future storylines for the full series. (For a biography of Terence Feely see TV Greats). The producer was Leonard White who also worked on The Avengers, being responsible for the first forty episodes, which included the introduction of Honor Blackman as Cathy Gale. He produced some 165 teleplays - mostly commissioned new writing - for Armchair Theatre. Overall he produced over 350 drama teleplays (single and series) for UK Television Networks. The Director of Magnum for Schneider was Bill Bain who had directed a number of British dramas that also included The Avengers.
The music used as the show's theme, which was introduced in the original play immediately following the Armchair Theatre intro theme, was a library piece that also featured in other productions at the time. It was composed by Jack Trombey whose real name was Jan Stoeckhart, from Holland. The piece has been listed on compilation albums alternately as 'A Girl in the Dark' and 'A Man Alone'.
Following the transmission of A Magnum for Schneider, the critic Kenneth Eastaugh, in his review, wrote: "William Shakespeare crossed swords with TV writer James Mitchell this weekend and, in terms of impact, Shakespeare lost... For I spy a first-rate spy ... His name is 'Callan' and his portrayal by Edward Woodward in the Armchair Theatre play, was the event of the weekend."
Viewers didn't have to wait too long for the full series of six episodes, which began at 9pm on Saturday 8th July 1967. The series took up from the conclusion of A Magnum for Schneider with Callan still in a red file. But as Hunter finds he has further use for him, he tricks or blackmails Callan into further assignments, always with his expendability in mind.
THE CALLAN FILE - 2
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