Callan - The Series: Part III - The Characters

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Callan - The Series: An Introduction

This section of the web site is devoted to the old 1960's television series, "Callan", starring Edward Woodward.  I've broken it down into different sections for you for easier navigation, however, be warned!  There is a great deal of information in the following pages, some of which may take a while to download because of the size of their content:

The Idea
The Setting
The Characters
The Stories
The Pictures


Callan - The Series: Part I - The Idea, Page 1

Anthony Goodman examines the formative years of


In 1965, Anthony Boucher, the critic of crime fiction for the New York Times wrote:

The hard-bitten, cynical spy story which casts a spell through its deliberate lack of glamour... has been particularly successful in this decade in the works of such authors as John Le Carré and Len Deighton, and probably one should add the name of James Munro, whose 'The Man Who Sold Death' is a model of this kind of restricted thriller, a tightly coiled plot with meshings and interweavings that are never quite predictable: a direct, unsimplified view of character.

‘James Munro’ was the pen name of one James Mitchell. Terence Feely kicks off the story behind the creation of Callan:

"I was story editing Armchair Theatre for what was then ABC Television, and one day this tall geordie with the thickest glasses I’ve ever seen walked into my office with what was obviously a script which had been around for some time - you know, they get that dog-eared look - and he told me that he’d been trying to flog this thing for years; it was called ‘A Magnum for Schneider’."

The ‘tall geordie’ was James Mitchell. He recalls the origins of the script:

"The generally accepted theory is that I wrote ‘A Magnum for Schneider’ for Armchair Theatre on which it was screened. But I didn't. About two years before that, the BBC were doing an anthology series, called something like Detective Stories, in which they dramatised Agatha Christies, Dorothy Sayers, or whoever. It went fairly well, and then they decided they would try their hand at commissioned plays which didn't have novels to start with, on certain kinds of detective/adventure ideas. And one of the things they wanted to do was one about espionage, and I had at that time worked on The Avengers quite a bit, so the spy-high adventure thing was something I was known for, and they asked me if I'd do one. And I wrote one called ‘A Magnum for Schneider’, and they said it was great, and they couldn't wait to get started; but they became reluctant, and it never really got off the ground with the BBC. About eighteen months went by with absolutely nothing happening, and then my then agent dragged the manuscript out and read it again. We said, "Look, we're mad. It's wasting its time, it's never going to get anywhere." And he suggested something which I found repugnant, that I buy it back from the BBC, which I had an option to do, but I always feel with the BBC money should go in the other direction. Anyway, I paid them back, and they gave me back the manuscript."

Terence Feely read the script, and loved it, and told Mitchell:

"There’s more than just an Armchair Theatre in this, there’s a series in it. Would you be prepared to let me write a presentation and inject a couple more characters, and I promise you I’ll sell it to Brian Tesler [Director of Programmes at ABC] and Lloyd Shirley and Leonard White as a series."

The series Redcap (starring John Thaw as a military policeman) had just drawn to a close, and ABC needed another series to replace it. Leonard White, who brought The Avengers to the screen as the original producer, and was at this time producing Armchair Theatre, supported Feely’s view that there was more mileage in Callan than the single play. However, the go ahead for the series would depend on the success of ‘A Magnum for Schneider’. To direct, White selected an experienced ABC staff director, Bill Bain, but the casting was done by White himself. Terence Feely:

"He was the guy who thought Edward Woodward would be perfect for the role of Callan; he’s the guy who said Ronnie Radd was the only man to play Hunter; he’s the guy who originally cast Peter Bowles - which was a pretty good shot at Meres... Leonard was a great contribution, because if we hadn’t had Eddie, I can’t think of anyone else who would have played Callan so well. And that helped to get it made as a series because there was a character there instantly. He also cast Russell - Russell Hunter was his choice."

Someone else whose importance is not to be forgotten was ABC’s casting director Dodo Watts. James Mitchell recalls that it was only through Dodo Watts’ perseverance that Edward Woodward even read the script:

"The casting lady at ABC kept ringing him up and saying "I’ve got this part for you", and he kept on saying "No", and she rang his agent and his agent said, "Maybe you’d better think about it", and he said, "No, I’m exhausted, I need a rest." And he was so tired, he’d had a very early supper and gone to sleep, and the casting lady actually went and delivered the script to [Woodward’s] house, and Venetia [Woodward’s wife at the time] got it and read it. And she went upstairs and shook him awake and said, "Read this. If you don’t play it you’re crazy." And Teddy said he was up the rest of the night thinking about it."

Woodward tells his version:

"I’d had a period, like most actors, of bad unemployment, about 18 months to a year before the Callan one-off play started, and then I started doing very well, and I started getting a lot of television which was great, and I was going to go on holiday, which was one of the first holidays we’d had in about four or five years. On the Monday morning of the week before I was due to go, my agent phoned me up and said "There is a television play, ‘A Magnum for Schneider’, which ABC has called about." Then I said "When is it?" and they said "Well, it’ll cut into the end of your holiday." I said "Forget it, the family will kill me, we’ve just got to have this holiday." Well, I was living in Twickenham at the time, which was just round the corner from ABC’s studios, and so the casting director, with great intelligence, put the script through the letter box, working on the premise that if a script arrives on an actor’s doormat, he’ll have to read it. She had already said to Eric [Woodward’s agent] that this was a marvelous part, and that she was sure I wouldn’t say no to it. So she was determined to make sure I read it. Well, I picked it up and I read it and I knew straight away that I had to do this part. So I had to cancel the holiday, and the family was most upset with me for about six months."

Similarly, Russell Hunter recalls that Dodo Watts was responsible for casting him as Lonely:

"When I asked her afterwards why she had ever cast me in it, she said "Because I saw you play Bottom in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ in Regent’s Park, in the Open Air Theatre." And if that makes any sense to anybody, it certainly never has to me! So she saw me play Bottom in an outrageous performance, and thought, "If he can play that, he can play anything!" So they gave me the part of Lonely!"

The script of ‘A Magnum for Schneider’ gave very little indication of what the sets should look like, but through discussions with director Bill Bain, the designer, David Marshall, decided that Hunter’s headquarters should be situated in an old school, disused, but still showing signs of it’s original inhabitants. Both Hunter’s office, and the firing range, were old, wood-based classrooms, with splintered desks and paneled walls. This introduced a certain degree of visual irony through the juxtaposition of the conflicting images of the school-room, and the espionage paraphernalia of the Section.

Bill Bain’s responsibilities as the director involved the choice of theme music, eventually chosen from a stock record of mood themes composed by Jack Trombey, and published by de Wolfe Music. The track that doubled as opening and closing theme, and as incidental music, was ‘Girl in the Dark’, now known only as the Callan theme. Throughout the subsequent first series of Callan, and in a few episodes of the second series, several other tracks were used before and after advert breaks, such as ‘Trumpet Theme’ and ‘Mystery Project’. All these pieces of music are very similar in style, and therefore perfect for the twilight world of Callan and the Section. For the first series only, ‘Girl in the Dark’ and ‘Mystery Project’ were used also as incidental music.

The read-through of ‘A Magnum for Schneider’ began at 10:30 am on Thursday, 25th August, 1966, at Steadfast Sea Cadet Hall, Kingston. The assembled cast were introduced to each other, and proceeded to read the play aloud. Rehearsals had begun. For two weeks the play was rehearsed, then on Wednesday, 7th September, the cast assembled in Studio 1 at Teddington for two days of technical rehearsals. Finally, on the evening of Thursday, 8th September 1966, ‘A Magnum for Schneider’ was recorded.

The play had encountered no major crises, had not been a disaster, and indeed, looked exceedingly promising. The general opinion among the ABC hierarchy appeared to be that the casting of Edward Woodward and Ronald Radd was extremely suitable. There now seemed a good possibility that a series would be commissioned. Woodward remembers that talk of a series started early on:

"Well it was talked of while we were rehearsing [A Magnum for Schneider]. Then of course there’s always a gap between putting it in the can and it going out, and there was more desultory talk about it. Then when it went out, it had quite an impact, and then the people from ABC phoned up and said "Look, why don’t we talk about this, because we’re thinking of doing a trial six."

James Mitchell was paid £150 to supply three possible plotlines for a series based on the play, and, with the aid of Mitchell and Leonard White, Terence Feely prepared a brochure to sell the idea to the ‘front office’ of Lloyd Shirley (Controller of Drama), Brian Tesler (Director of Programmes), and Howard Thomas (Managing Director of ABC tv). This document was to provide the basis for the first series, with page three stating the aims of the series in two paragraphs:

‘In this series we aim to create the acid authenticity of the gritty world of espionage: the feeling of fear for example, its sour smell, its taste of rusty steel. Often enough this is, unavoidably, a world of glamour: it has to be. The spy is concerned with power, and power, when it relaxes, looks for elegance, charm, comfort. Power insists that its wine be chateau-bottled and its women beautiful. But it is no part of the series to pretend that because a woman is beautiful she is less real than a plain one. Danger brings a reality all its own, for this is the world of escapes, assassinations, stolen secrets: a world half-nightmare, half fantasy to the ordinary man: but to the spy it is normal, commonplace. Above all, it is real.’

‘The reality doesn’t come from atomic fountain pens or poisoned wall-paper: it comes from people. And some of them are very ordinary people, caught up in extraordinary situations.’

Brian Tesler was shown ‘A Magnum for Schneider’, and accepted that there was potential in it. On December 1st, 1966, Lloyd Shirley sent Terence Feely a memo:

‘Full steam ahead!’ on Callan. If James Mitchell is able to undertake the three story outlines he has submitted, and the opening show, we shall be delighted. If possible, he should write all six.

Lloyd Shirley wanted production to start in April 1967, with episodes ready for transmission in July. His own role would be as Executive Producer, with Feely taking the position of ‘Associate Producer’, a term used by the department for someone who was training to become a producer. Shirley’s involvement was minimised by the fact that Feely proved capable of carrying the mantle of Story Editor as well as Producer. Feely recalls:

"I ran the show, and Lloyd Shirley was there as executive clout, if I needed it. In fact I never did. Lloyd really did very little in that series except to back me up if I was in trouble, which he did marvelously. But he had very little creative influence, as I think he’d admit himself."

On January 10th, 1967, Terence Feely was given the details of the studio recording dates. The schedule allocated the series the standard two weeks of production preparation per episode, ending with two days in the studio, with the first story to be recorded on April 19th. One of Feely’s first tasks was to re-hire the cast. Woodward’s contract had been drawn up on December 20th 1966, and included an option for a further thirteen episodes to be taken up before the conclusion of the first series of six. Within a month, the contracts for Ronald Radd and Russell Hunter were drawn up, though without an option for a second series.

The character of Meres proved harder to cast. The general opinion at the time was that the casting of Peter Bowles as Meres had not been especially successful. Although an excellent actor, Bowles had appeared slightly uneasy on-screen, and did not really fit in as well as the other actors. As it transpired, Peter Bowles was unavailable for the series, but the character of Meres was considered an essential antagonist in the character grouping; the search began for another actor to play the role.

Terence Feely selected Jeremy Lloyd. Lloyd was an actor-cum-song-writer who had made his name as a comedy performer, but was by this time increasingly performing in straight drama. His tall and gaunt physique gave him an aristocratic air, but by keeping a straight face, his appearance could be quite sinister, hinting at the cruel. (This can be seen in Lloyd’s performance in the 1961 Armchair Theatre production ‘Afternoon of a Nymph’). This seemed to fit in well with the character profile for Toby Meres, and Terence Feely was convinced he had chose the right man for the job.

Lloyd Shirley, however, was not happy. He felt that Jeremy Lloyd did not really fit in with his interpretation of the character. Shirley’s decision overrode Feely’s, and the hunt began again for another Meres. In the mean time, Jeremy Lloyd was offered a part in the first episode to be recorded, ‘Goodness Burns Too Bright’. The episode had originally been written to feature Meres, but the character was altered slightly so that it was another of Hunter’s ‘bright young men’, now named Maitland. It wasn’t until March 7th that a contract was drawn up for the third actor to be asked to play Meres, Anthony Valentine. It was his appearance in The Avengers episode ‘The Bird Who Know Too Much’ that clinched the part of Meres for him. The episode was screened on February 11th 1967, just at the time the search for Toby Meres was proceeding. Having accepted the role, Valentine was surprised by the thought already put into the shape of the character he was to play:

"What may have come to light already is that James Mitchell had written for each character a dossier of their previous history before that moment in time, and that dossier was remarkably helpful. I mean it’s not often as an actor that you’re given something like that about a fictional character. One usually has to invent a background that makes sense in the context of the moment in time in which you start playing it. That was absolutely marvelous because it was like being handed a ready made character that one scarcely had to think about. So that was very helpful."

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